Is Your Boss Reading Your Email?

reading your emailMost people assume their emails at work are private. Those people are wrong. There are very few laws that protect you from email snooping at work, and most are pretty worthless and weak. That means you should assume your employer is monitoring your email and act accordingly.

If you get funny emails that are in bad taste, don't forward them. You might be accused of sexual (or racial) harassment. Don't write your lawyer on your work email. And for heaven's sake, don't send love notes to co-workers.

My rule of thumb is this: If you don't want it on the front page of the company newsletter, don't email it at work.

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There Ought to Be a Law

Yep, there ought to be. And there is, sort of. The Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 specifically says your company can't intercept your emails. The problem is, it has exceptions for consent. That means if your company has a policy on email interception or had you sign an agreement, a handbook, or anything else they managed to slip in front of you agreeing that email at work belongs to them, they skate.

The law also says it's legal to monitor your email if the company is the email provider or if they monitor your email in the ordinary course of business, such as for customer service.

In other words, there are so many loopholes that your company probably fits into one. Until the courts say otherwise or Congress tightens this law, it likely doesn't help you.

Those states that have laws requiring two-party consent for interception of electronic communications might offer some help, but right now it looks like the courts aren't seeing it that way. Especially if your company had you sign away your rights.

Other Protections You Might Have (but Probably Don't)

Some states have a tort called "intrusion on seclusion" or "invasion of privacy." There are some protections against highly offensive conduct that's intrusive. The problem is, you probably won't be able to prove you had any expectation of privacy in your emails at work.

If you communicate with your lawyer from work, some states are saying that those emails are protected by attorney-client privilege. Some are not. Even if it's inadmissible in court, once your boss reads the emails that you sent to your lawyer, they know what you're up to.

Use Your Brain Before You Hit 'Send'

Think about every email you send or open. Don't hit "reply all" as a habit. Hit "reply." Before you send something, think about how your boss will react when she reads it. Think about how HR and the company lawyer will view it. Try to only do business on your work email and keep that personal stuff to yourself.

Once you report sexual harassment, discrimination or illegal activity, be extra careful. I've seen employees fired after the employer searched through old emails to look for inappropriate ones that weren't deleted or had been forwarded to the employee. If you get something actually pornographic at work, you probably need to report it, especially if it arrives after you rock the boat.

If you open something from a friend without knowing its contents and it contains pornography or something inappropriate, you can be fired for having it, so think before you click. Tell friends and family to save it for home. You're better off having a private email address for your personal stuff and not accessing it at work. That includes checking it on a company-owned cell phone.

If you use a little common sense, your work email is an excellent tool. But if you don't think before you send, it may be just the tool your boss needs to fire you.

Next: 10 Workplace Rights You Think You Have -- but Don't

Donna Ballman

Donna Ballman


Donna Ballman’s book, Stand Up For Yourself Without Getting Fired: Resolve Workplace Crises Before You Quit, Get Axed or Sue the Bastards, was the Winner of the Law Category of the 2012 USA Best Books Awards and is currently available for purchase. Donna is the award-winning author of The Writer’s Guide to the Courtroom: Let’s Quill All the Lawyers, a book geared toward informing novelists and screenwriters about the ins and outs of the civil justice system. She’s been representing executives, physicians and employees in Florida, including negotiating severance agreements and litigating discrimination, sexual harassment, noncompete agreements, and other employment law issues since 1986. Her blog on employee-side employment law issues, Screw You Guys, I’m Going Home, was named one of the 2011, 2012 and 2013 ABA Blawg 100 best legal blogs, Paralegal 411’s Top 25 Labor and Employment law Blogs of 2013 and the 2011 Lexis/Nexis Top 25 Labor and Employment Law Blogs.

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No, my boss isn't reading my email, he's too busy writing more inane messages.

May 17 2011 at 8:02 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Hello Leo Toller

Once again, an attempting to reduce a complex and controversial subject to a set of maxims. Better: Act professionally, expect those around you to do likewise. You will frequently be disappointed, but in doing so you will gain the respect of others. Those who do not are not worthy of consideration, and a position held in the face of disrespect must only be held in the face of desperation.

May 12 2011 at 1:47 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Was this written recently or a decade ago? If you don't know this already, you've been way out of touch.

May 11 2011 at 11:42 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to ErinBliss's comment

You'd be surprised how many people have no idea, Erin. Too many people don't understand their rights in the workplace at all. Mostly they think they have more privacy and more rights than they really do.

May 12 2011 at 12:34 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Use company email ONLY for company business. I get tons of ridiculous fluff emails from co-workers and former co-workers. Religious crap, jokes, etc. I hit "Delete" automatically. Our firewall has been successfully over-ridden by some firms who flood my inbox with tripe about their retirement IRA options and other junk. I hit "Delete." I even get argumentative junk from the Mexican department of our district--and that I respond to with a "reply all." If he can send it without repercussions. I can respond to it without repercussions.

Of course, it helps to have a really good lawyer (SHE is) on retainer (I do).

May 11 2011 at 10:04 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

O, & I 4 got 1 thing, Have a nice day all, and you`re all welcome, I am happy to have been able to set you all strait on this matter.

May 11 2011 at 4:18 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I just loves these types of articles. Do all these writers think every 1 sits on the a hole all day and does nothing but push a pencil around or stare @ some tv screen??? LOL LOL LOL LOL, here`s a news flash writers, some people actually work @ work, they don't sit on the behinds like hr all day & do nothing. Do any of you writers think you would get served you`re mccrap burger if all the employees there sat on they`re a hole all day & watched tv? You would be up to you`re eye balls in feces if the ditch digger sat on his a hole all day or pushed a pencil around all day instead of digging that ditch 4 the sewer line. & them people that actually work, well them people also do not have this syndrome called wide a hole syndrome.

May 11 2011 at 4:16 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

I sure hope my boss is reading my e-mail, especially the one where I called her "a worthless pile of human scum".

May 11 2011 at 2:29 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to ilm9p's comment

Lol! You're funny.

May 11 2011 at 2:50 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

I're fired. I might be "a worthless pile of human scum" but you're unemployed as of today.

May 11 2011 at 10:05 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to JoanneVLavender's comment

Ha! Joanne, that's exactly what would happen.

May 11 2011 at 11:10 PM Report abuse rate up rate down

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