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Putting all your e-mail in one basket

Published Sep. 1, 2005

Penelope Finnie had to give up something precious recently: her work e-mail address.

For more than five years Finnie, a co-founder of Ask Jeeves, the Web search engine, was, and she had come to rely on the address for a lot more than work correspondence.

"All my family e-mailed me there, and friends and the teachers at the kids' school," said Finnie, who lives in Berkeley, Calif. "You just can't separate those things."

But a few weeks ago Finnie, who was the company's chief creative officer, retired. To ease the logistical pain, she prevailed on administrators to send a temporary automatic reply to anyone who e-mailed her, saying she no longer worked there and providing her new address. But that lasted only six weeks. Now, mail to bounces back to the sender.

She feels adrift. Her new address, assigned automatically when she registered with an e-mail service, is long and difficult for people to remember. "It's this anonymous, weird thing," she said.

For much of the working population, e-mail is not only available but indispensable, a tool not just for work but for maintaining personal bonds. Like Finnie, many workers are accustomed to using a work computer and e-mail address to stay in touch with friends and family in the course of the day.

Yet with the convenience comes risk. Although many people are aware that they may be sacrificing privacy by using workplace e-mail, they are sometimes indiscreet in what they write. And for those like Finnie who spend years in a single job, the e-mail address becomes part of their identity. Leaving a job and its e-mail address can cause practical and emotional upheaval.

The use of workplace e-mail to send personal messages is so widespread that although many employers do not encourage it, they tolerate it, viewing it as an inevitable trade-off for the long hours employees put in. Juliet Schor, a professor of sociology at Boston College and author of The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, likened employers' tolerance of personal e-mail to their providing concierge services, massages and child care services. "Firms know they are demanding more of employees, and it's putting a big stress on their personal lives," Schor said. "Permission to send e-mail to family members and friends is a nonwage benefit that eases the very significant conflict that now exists between work and family."

Barbara Hall often arrives an hour-and-a-half early for her job in Exton, Pa., as an administrative assistant at Brandywine Senior Care, a company that owns nursing homes and assisted-living centers for the elderly.

Often, Hall said, it's just so she will have time to go through the personal e-mail that awaits her each morning.

The messages might include one from her older daughter, Stephanie, 25, writing with details of a recent trip, or from her younger daughter, Melinda, 23, seeking her opinion about a clothing purchase.

In the grand tradition of Chekhov, or perhaps Days of Our Lives, Barbara Hall carries on a dialogue throughout the workday with her two daughters, both of whom work at an event-planning company in Cleveland and use its e-mail system for such exchanges. Their conversations range from the mundane business of trading recipes to the more textured landscape of family illness and romantic relationships.

In a nod to the need to keep her personal life separate from the professional, Hall maintains an e-mail account for home use. But convenience usually wins out over good intentions, and the home address sometimes goes unchecked for weeks at a time, only to become clogged with spam.

"I don't even bother with my home account any more," she said. "When I'm home, I log onto the work e-mail because everyone has my work e-mail address. It's just easier."

There are pitfalls to this practice, however, particularly when it comes to privacy. When Renata Ewing, who ran Ask Jeeves for Kids, worked at the company, personal e-mail messages, hers included, constantly circulated through the office to third parties, she said. "I'll never do that again," Ewing said.

Conversations she has since had with a former technical staff member at Ask Jeeves made it clear to her how little privacy an employee has.

"He'd read anything he wanted to," she said. "Your e-mail belongs to the company. You have no rights to privacy."

When Ewing quit the company in 2001, she left her e-mail behind with no forwarding address. It took some time to adjust, but now that she has her own account, she said, she is much more relaxed about what she writes.

Many of those who receive a steady stream of personal messages at work simply accept the risks. Hall carries on her running correspondence with her daughters with the knowledge of her boss, Kenneth Segarnick, general counsel for Brandywine, who is also an expert in the legal ins and outs of workplace e-mail. She even shows him the pictures that her children e-mail to her.

"Many companies recognize the value of allowing limited personal use of e-mail," Segarnick said. "It's quicker than the telephone, and you might argue that productivity is actually increased when people send personal e-mail, because you do away with a lot of the 15-minute phone conversations."

Yet there are some areas that are clearly off-limits. Jokes that circulate by e-mail, especially off-color ones, are not only frowned upon but have been established as a source of legal liability. In 1995, Chevron paid more than $2.2-million to four female employees to settle sexual harassment charges. The workers said that they had been the targets of offensive jokes, including e-mail lists of reasons why beer was better than women, and that the image of a female employee, altered to be obscene and offensive, had been circulated by e-mail throughout the company.

"Human nature is what it is, and there have to be reminders periodically," said Ruth Hill Bro, a partner at Baker & McKenzie, a law firm in Chicago where she specializes in privacy, e-commerce, information technology and intellectual property.

Bro told of a company at which jokes circulated electronically were beginning to get out of hand. The company sent a reminder to workers about proper use of e-mail. "It said, "Jokes aren't permitted, please use our resources appropriately,' " she said, "and total e-mail traffic fell by two-thirds."

Any notion that e-mail messages written at a workplace are private should be discarded, Segarnick said.

"The safest course of action is to assume your e-mail is being monitored," he said. "The only way to communicate with true privacy is to put a Post-It note on a book of matches and have the whole thing burn up after it's read."

Segarnick, who helped to draft his company's e-mail policy, said he occasionally uses the company's e-mail system to send a personal message. "I don't care if someone sees an e-mail to my wife about picking up a quart of milk from the store," he said. "But I would care if someone saw e-mail that had to do with sensitive family information."

Segarnick said he would use the telephone instead of e-mail for anything sensitive or personal. "I know for an absolute fact that e-mail is being scrutinized by human administrators and by technological automated means," he said.