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Is your work email private?

A lot of Pennsylvania readers are unclear about the rules that apply to their work computers or work issued cellphones. Many people use their work computers for personal purposes as well, and those with employer-issued smartphones often comingle information about work with their personal correspondence, but few are aware of the legal status of that data, which could end up making a big difference in the event of a conflict with an employer.

This issue made the news recently when the news media revealed that Harvard University had searched employee email accounts for information about the leak of some sensitive university information. Employees at the school were upset at the perceived violation of privacy, but on closer inspection it seems that the university, like many private employers, reserved the right to access employee email as a part of the employment contract.

These types of agreements are binding, and courts have looked to the explicit policies of employers when assessing whether an employee's rights were violate through the email search. A part of the assessment as to whether privacy was breached was whether or not the employee had a reasonable expectation of privacy, which can be determined through the circumstances of the case.

This issue can be very impactful in an employment dispute where discrimination, wrongful termination, retaliation, or other misconduct are alleged. Employers may choose to search email correspondence or other data on the computer to determine a particular individual's role in an incident, and in those cases it may be difficult to argue for privacy.

The bottom line is to know what the official policy is and to keep it in mind when using work-owned equipment or corresponding over work-owned email.

Source: Slate, "Can Your Boss Read Your Email?" L.V. Anderson, March 11, 2013

Information about employee rights in Pennsylvania can be found on our wrongful termination page.

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