It might seem Big Brother-like for you to monitor employee e-mail, but there may be good reasons for doing so. You might suspect an employee is disclosing trade secrets, violating company policy, downloading pornography or harassing another employee via e-mail. Or you may want to make sure that communication with clients is always professional.
The Electronic Communication Privacy Act, also known as the Stored Communications Act, prohibits interception of electronic communications under most circumstances. However, it allows companies to monitor employees' e-mail stored on company-owned servers and in cases when employees consent to employer access to e-mail.
On top of federal law, some state courts have held that employees have a basic expectation of privacy that employers can't violate. "The most obvious legal concern is making sure you're not setting yourself up for an invasion-of-privacy claim," says attorney Maureen O'Neill, partner at Paul, Hastings, Jenofsky & Walker in Atlanta. To avoid that, make it clear that company e-mail is not private communication. "Set it up so the employees have no expectation of privacy."
O'Neill notes that a simple, practical way to do that is to put a notice on the login screen that the system is the property of the employer, and that by logging on to the employer's system, employees agree that any e-mail communications and web use may be monitored by the employer. Likewise, include a similar notice in the employee handbook.
Use common sense, though, in monitoring employee e-mail and web use. Before monitoring em-ployees, make sure there is a good business reason to do so. Good employees can feel mistrusted by learning that the company may be checking up on them.