Getting Personal

A Losing Battle

The problem for employers is that an increasing number of employees, believing that even in-house e-mail should be for their eyes only, are suing employers for violating their privacy. For instance, a regional operations manager for a major food company sometimes communicated with his supervisor from home through the company's e-mail system. Some of his messages were, in the company's view, inappropriate and unprofessional--to the extent that they led to his termination. The employee sued, noting that he had relied on assurances from the company that e-mail would be confidential and would not be intercepted and used against him.

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania dismissed the lawsuit. The judges explained that an employee cannot reasonably expect messages on the company e-mail system to be private, even if the company says they will be. Moreover, the court ruled, "the company's interest in preventing inappropriate and unprofessional comments or even illegal activity over its e-mail system outweighs any privacy interest the employee may have in those comments."

Other courts have reached similar conclusions. Even in California, which recognizes especially strong privacy rights, employees have not succeeded in proving such claims. "The courts appear to be heading toward allowing companies to monitor e-mail," Shear says. That's only common sense, he adds, because "how can you do business if you don't have access to your own system?" (Although the Electronic Communications Privacy Act forbids the intentional interception of electronic communications, reading what's on your own company's system normally doesn't count as an interception--although reading correspondence to an employee from outside the company might.)

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This article was originally published in the October 1997 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Getting Personal.

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