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Is Reviewing Employee Emails Being Vigilant – or Spying?

Is it ever okay to read an employee’s work emails?

Consider the following scenarios:

  • You suspect an employee of sexually harassing a co-worker.
  • You suspect an employee is using company time to run their own business.
  • You receive information leading you to believe an employee is sharing sensitive company information with a competitor.

There’s a fine line between legally monitoring an employee’s work emails and invading their privacy. While federal laws generally prohibit one party from intercepting another’s electronic communications (including reading emails), certain exceptions exist. As an employer, it’s up to you to know when, where and how those exceptions apply.

Today’s post shares practical advice* and policy guidelines regarding employee email monitoring, to help you protect your organization without violating employee rights.

When is it permissible monitor employee emails?

Generally speaking, an employer may monitor its employees’ work emails when those emails are stored on company-owned servers – even if it’s marked “private.” However, some states require employers to notify employees that their work emails may be monitored. In Tennessee, it is unlawful to intentionally intercept any wire, oral or electronic communication, procure another to do so or use or disclose such communications without the consent of at least one of the parties to the communication.

It’s important to note, too, that:

  • Employees have a presumptive right to use employer email systems for the purpose of union organizing, and federal labor laws restrict employers’ rights to surveillance over organizing communications or activities.
  • Employers may not monitor an employee’s personal email messages when the email is not stored on a company server (e.g., personal email accounts through Gmail or Yahoo).
  • Employers do have control over policies that dictate how company time, computing equipment and internet bandwidth are used.
  • Under the federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act, employers may monitor employee emails stored on a company server for any “valid business purpose,” including:
    • protecting the company from theft, damage to reputation, or damage to its brand;
    • combating workplace harassment;
    • monitoring an employee who is reasonably believed to be stealing company secrets or colluding improperly with competitors;
    • securing evidence in case of an actual or pending lawsuit.

Craft a sound work email use policy.

A clear company email use policy is an important tool in encouraging proper employee use of company email, as well as clarifying situations in which your organization may read employees’ email messages. After familiarizing yourself with applicable laws, draft a policy that:

  • details behavioral expectations for using work email;
  • reminds employees not to use work email for personal reasons (e.g., online shopping, making appointments or travel accommodations);
  • specifies that employees have no expectation of privacy in emails sent through the company system;
  • clarifies the consequences for misusing work email stored on company servers.

Minimize employment risks by using a staffing service.

When you work with a Cool Springs staffing agency like Wood Personnel, we assume many of the risks associated with hiring and employing workers, by serving as the employer of record for our temporary employees. What can Wood do for you? Contact one of our staffing experts today.

* Please note that the information contained in this post is general and not a substitute for professional legal advice. If you need legal advice regarding monitoring employee emails, speak to an attorney who is licensed to practice law in your area.