Can My Employer Look At My Private Email?

We are swimming in digital conversations.

Whether they be over text messages, instant messages, email messages, Facebook messages. They are part of our daily habits and routines.

And we expect those means of communication to be accessible to us everywhere we go.

Even at work.

And that is where the problems may start to surface.

You have unthinkingly sent a potentially embarrassing email, or posted an outrageous message to Facebook, forgetting that you were using your employer’s resources to do so.

Somehow your employer has caught wind of the communication and is not impressed. (You thought it was LOL. But your employer thought, WTF?)

But is it fair for your employer to be able to look into your private communications? Do they have a right to do that?

Look At The Policy

The first step is to check whether your employer has a policy in place that governs what uses are to be made of their computer resources.

Often, an employer will put you on notice, via such a policy, that they are entitled to monitor any communications sent or received on their computers or devices.

If an employer has communicated that expectation to you, whether you took notice of it or not, then you will have little right to object when they go digging through your personal correspondence found on your work computer.

For example, see this Employment Relations Authority determination where that was the very conclusion reached.

What If There Is No Policy?

Even without such a policy in place, you should probably not expect that your employer will refrain from reviewing your private communications.

After all, the computer system, email addresses, and software you use at work are their property. And because they own it, they are entitled to do with it what they like.

So even in the absence of a clear policy, do not assume that you would be free of having the personal correspondence you send on your employer’s systems reviewed.

Would You Post It On The Wall?

Some employers have a “reasonable use” policy, which allows their staff to check their webmail or Facebook accounts, and use the internet for other reasonable private use.

That’s all well and good, but it should not be taken as a carte blanche approval to send communications that your employer would disapprove of.

A good piece of advice I once received was: if you aren’t happy with having your [insert type of communication here, e.g. email, text message] posted up on the wall at work, then don’t send it.

So your best option if you want to send a private message?

Don’t do it on your employer’s computer or using your employer’s resources.

Rather, use your own resources – including doing it on your own time rather than during work time. Otherwise you may find yourself being disciplined for misuse of your employer’s property or for breaching policy.

Conclusion

To be fair, most employers are too busy to be interested in the private lives of their employees.

But digital communications leave electronic trails, and if you have used your employer’s systems for private communications, they may well be entitled to trace your steps.

If your employer does not approve of your communication, it may lead to an allegation that you have misbehaved.

So if you use your employer’s computers or devices, expect that they could be monitored and act accordingly.