As I am sitting at my work station in a crowded office building, I hear the wonderful sound of “You’ve got mail.” In turn I open my E-mail mailbox and find a letter from a nearby employee. This letter contains the usual funny joke of the day and a short joke ridiculing the boss, as usual. Who was to know that my supervisor would eventually find this letter, which would lead to both the termination of my job and my fellow employee?
Does this sound common? It may, because the issue of E-mail and privacy is very common and controversial in our advanced technological world. The determination of what is ethical or unethical is not simple or straightforward. Employers and employees may have seen the ethical and legal issues associated with E-mail privacy differently. E-mail has become indispensable in the modern-day workplave, with more and more employers realizing that E-mail communication systems can increase the efficiency of communications internally. Along with this increase in the use of E-mail come legal issues involving employee privacy and monitoring. The laws addressing an employer’s rights to monitor E-mail traffic and employees’ rights to E-mail privacy are still evolving (Lyford 28).
After much research, I believe employers should have the right to check employee E-mail, because E-mail is a company resource and a property right.Organizations have an obligation to themselves, their employees, their business partners, customers and society at large to act in an ethically responsible manner regarding their E-mail policies. Companies have many justified reasons for searching employee files such as preventing personal use or abuse of company resources and the prevention or investigation of corporate espionage or theft. Being that companies pay for the service of E-mail it can also be considered as a company property right.
Employees may not realize how easily their bosses and coworkers can access their E-mail. Many high-tech firms are even able to retrieve messages that the employee thinks they have permanently deleted. An article in the magazine, Business First, makes a good point, “Don’t put anything in E-mail that you would not want read over the loud speaker throughout the company” (Miller 2).
Although many computers and company E-mail accounts have passwords, it does not mean that they are protected. System administrators can access almost anyone’s E-mail. According to a web page on the Internet, “The only way to protect your E-mail would be to regard your E-mail as you would a postcard.” People must realize that unlike other forms of communication, E-mail has little protection, such as telephone companies do (Learn the Net 1). This provides the employer with the ability to monitor someone’s E-mail without them even knowing.
The topic of E-mail is so current that it even hit the meeting of the Long Island Direct Marketing Association (LIDMA) on October 22, 1998. At the meeting privacy issues concerning E-mail in the workplace were discussed. A local attorney, Martin Gringer, Esg., explained the need for employees to understand that their e-mail may not be private and they should look into company policy before sending something which may “later come back to haunt them” (Hoke III 43).
The general view from business corporations is that they have a right to check their employee’s E-mails. Many businesses, such as American Airlines, Federal Express, Eastman Kodak and UPS, regard employee E-mail as corporate property. They retain the right to investigate employee E-mail as often as they feel necessary (Rainone and Spinior 35).
Many of these organizations feel that E-mail monitoring is a necessity: They pay for the service and believe they own the property rights. Such rights would consist of the right to search employee computer files, voice mail, E-mail and other networking communications. An employer is also free to intercept E-mail messages if necessary to protect the company’s right, property or ability to conduct business (Eberly 22).
On the other hand, employees feel that searches and invasions of E-mails are an invasion of their own privacy. Because of the potential for negative consequences resulting from the organization’s action, the practice of E-mail monitoring may be viewed as unethical (CNET 1).
Employees often contend that E-mail is analogous to the U.S. mail and users are entitled to the same privacy expectations as persons transmitting written communications via the U.S. Postal Service (Meyerhoff 31).
Whether it is legal or not, the truth is that many employers now routinely monitor E-mail their employees send and receive. Some E-mail systems copy all messages that pass through them and others create backup copies of new messages as they arrive. Workers who logically assumes their messages are gone for good when they delete them are very often wrong. Cases now working through the courts challenging employer’s rights to monitor E-mail messages contain some novel arguments (Repa 2).
Recently there is an increasing number of court battles proceeding that involve instances where employers have checked their employee’s mail and found incriminating evidence against the employee. In 1993, there was a very high-profile case involving Eugene Wang, a Borland International vice-president, who was accused of disclosing confidential corporate information in E-mail messages. He was sending this information to Borland’s company rival, Symantec, whom he later went on to work for. The case has still not been resolved (CNET 2). This is an example of why employers should be allowed to check employee E-mail. They are only protecting themselves from employees who may trade company secrets, abuse company resources and even participate in corporate espionage or theft.
There are a handful of cases now that deal with employees who have been fired after their company read their E-mails such as Shoars vs. Epson and Bourke vs. Nissan Motor Corp. Both cases involve very successful businesses who disagreed with the way their employees took advantage of the E-mail system.
In the Bourke vs. Nissan Motor Corp. an employee sued Nissan for invasion of privacy for reading her personal and sexually sugggestive E-mail at work. The Los Angeles County Superior Court determined that Ms. Bourke knew her workplace E-mail was not private, she had signed Nissan’s policy prohibiting personal use of the computer system, and she had no reasonable expectation of privacy for the E-mail messages that she sent or received at work (Coelho 30).
Alana Shoars was the E-mail administrator for the computer company, Epson, in Torrance, California. At her job it was her responsibility to install an e-mail system and train 700 employees to create messages on their personal computers and send them over the network to their fellow workers. Shoars assured employuees that their E-mail communications would be totally private as she herself had been so assured.
Later, however, Shoars discovered that her supervisor, the manager of the mainframe that received, stored and routed the messages was in fact copying and reading the employee’s e-mail. When Shoars complained she was fired which resulted in her taking her employer to court. A class action suit was also filed on behalf of all the employees whose e-mail had been opened. The judge dismissed the case, but the prosecuting attorney has appealed the case and is prepared to take it to the United States Supreme Court (Bjerklie 14).
In the cases of Owns vs. Morgan Stanley & Co. and Jones vs. RR Donnelly & Sons employees again used E-mail for the improper use of sending and receiving E-mail messages containing racist jokes about African Americans. And in Strauss vs. Microsoft a supervisor sent a sexually explicit E-mail message that formed a basis for a sex discrimination lawsuit and could have been grounds for a sexual harassment action as well (Coelho 30).
The company Chevron was a victim of E-mail abuse by employees and suffered greatly. They were charged with a sexual harrassment case in February 1995 after employees sent around an E-mail message entitled, “25 reasons beer is better than women.” Attorneys used the routine E-mail message as evidence of wrongdoing and won the case costing the company a $2.2 million settlement (Barsook and Roemer 10).
In 1994 Michael Smyth, a regional manager at Pillsbury in Pennsylvania, sent an E-mail to his supervisor blasting company managers and threatening to “kill the backstabbing bastards.” Though Pillsbury had assured employees that E-mail was private, it intercepted the message and fired Smyth. In turn, Smyth filed for wrongful discharge, but the court threw out the case. He learned the hard way: Never expect privacy for E-mail send through a company system (Brown 66).
In order to protect themselves from lawsuits, companies should look toward making company E-mail standards to let their employees know the extent of their privacy. A Massachusetts court has even suggested that if a company does not advise its employees, in advance, that their E-mail is accessible to and subject to review by management, it may be violating the law when it reads the messages (Evans and Musker 35).
When it comes to the Internet and E-mail, no state law protects the privacy of an individual while at work. The only area open to dispute is the case in which an employer stipulates it won’t monitor and then does (Richard 75). All of these court cases show how concerned that employees should be today. Privacy is a major concern in the business industry and should remain that way, so employees must take the time now to protect themselves from future litigations by producing an E-mail policy. Estimates indicate that only about one-third of U.S. businesses with E-mail systems have policies.
When drafting an E-mail policy a company should consider various factors. They should take into effect the management concerns the policy will address such as improper use of business resources or leakage of proprietary information. It should also address the nature of the work force involved and how that could factor into their acceptance (Van Doren 5).
In the official draft of an E-mail policy, the boss should explicitly state that E-mail is a company right and should be used for business purposes only. It should also state that the company reserves the right to monitor and disclose employee E-mails, and that the E-mail system may in no way be used to send offensive or improperty messages, such as racial or sexual slurs. Such a policy would set help everyone in the workplace by setting guidelines for both the employer and the employee (Van Doren 5).
On the whole, employers own the company resource E-mail and should be allowed to monitor it. Too many employees abuse the privilege of having company E-mail and action, such as monitoring, must be taken in order to prevent such abuse from happening.
List of Works Cited
Barsook, Bruce and Terry Roemer. “Workplace E-mail Raises Privacy
Issues.” American City & County Sep. 1998: 10.
Bjerklie, David. “E-mail: The Boss is Watching.” Technology Review Apr.
Brown, Eryn. “The Myth of E-mail Privacy.” Fortune 3 Feb. 1997: 66.
Coelho, Robert. “Employer vs. Employee Rights on Workplace E-mail.”
Business Journal Serving San Jose & Silicon Valley 16.26 (1998):
CNET Special Reports. “What do the courts say?” Accessed on March 5,
Eberly, Steven. “To Reap the Benefits of Electronic Mailing, You Must
Know the Law.” Cincinnati Business Courier 2 Dec. 1996: 22.
Evans, David and Jean Musker. “E-mail and the Workplace: Sending the
Message Legally.” Boston Business Journal 7 Nov. 1997: 35.
Hoke III, Henry Reed. “LIDMA Meeting Review.” Direct Marketing Dec.
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Lyford, Daniel E. “Your Business and E-mail Privacy Accountability.”
Business NH Magazine Apr. 1997: 28.
Meyerhoff, Lisa H. “Litigation Could Lurk In a Murky E-mail Policy.”
Austin Business Journal 12 June 1998: 31.
Miller, Steven. “E-mail’s popularity poses workplace privacy problems.”
Business First October 6, 1997: 1-3.
Rainone, Sebastian M.; Spinior, Janice C.; et al. “Ethical Management of
Employee E-mail Privacy.” Information Strategy Spring 98, Vol. 14
Issue 3, p34, 7p.
Repa, Barbara Kate. “Computers and E-mail on the Job: They’re
Watching You.” Accessed on March 5, 1999.
Richard, Diane. “E-mail Ethics: Bosses Can Pry if They Want To.”
Corporate Report-Minenesota Jan. 1999: 74-76.
Van Doren, Jeffrey A. “E-mail Monitoring Policies- A Must For
Employers.” Supervisory Management Feb. 1996: 5.