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Employees' e-mail is fair game for bosses

Published Sep. 16, 2005

Privacy. "The condition of being secluded or isolated from contact with others," says the American Heritage dictionary. "Concealment, secrecy."

We zealously guard our right to privacy in our homes, but we also innocently believe we have the same degree of privacy when we use the office phone or e-mail at work.

We're wrong.

In 1986, at the dawning of the cyber age, the federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act was passed, allowing employers to "intercept" employee communications if one of the parties involved agrees to the "interception." The party "involved" is the employer.

Since then, 44 states have adopted similar laws, which allow, in some form, employers' accessing the phone calls and e-mail of their workers.

Though monitored conversations ostensibly are to learn how well workers are doing their jobs, employees worry about employers being privy to other pieces of personal information.

And though employers say they need to read e-mail to make sure it's being used for business and not personal messages, to many employees the reason seems to be to snoop.

Though information obtained in this manner cannot be used in court, employees feel violated. And though employees can sue, in cases of discrimination resulting from monitoring their verbal and written communications, workers are uneasy.

Monitoring _ even when employees are told upfront to expect it _ is a confusing blend of secrecy and mystery to employees.

To survive the impact of this aspect of the high-tech revolution on the workplace, it's important for employees and managers alike to understand what's happening.

"In certain industries, electronic monitoring is crucial," said lawyer Gerald Skoning, a partner at Seyfarth, Shaw, Fairweather and Geraldson. The firm represents management in cases of employment law. "Telemarketers and retailers who lobbied for it said it was very important in order to monitor quality control."

Spending time on personal calls and messages translates into time lost, many employers believe _ at a time when management is looking for ways to cut costs, says Vincent D. Rougeau, assistant professor of law at Loyola University of Chicago School of Law.

But Rougeau cautions, "it's not healthy to have people under constant scrutiny. Yet, in the workplace, you can't have the same expectation of privacy. My advice to employees is to be very circumspect about how you use the phone and e-mail in the office."

And he has this advice for employers: "The more people feel they are cogs in a machine, the less likely you are to have a smoothly functioning workplace, no matter what you do to prop up the bottom line."