How Private are Work Email Accounts?

Harvard University has recently come under fire for hacking into the email accounts of 16 resident deans last fall in an attempt to determine who was responsible for leaking details of a widespread cheating scandal. The deans were not informed of the university’s intention to access their email accounts, and many have only learned of the breach in recent days – almost six months after it occurred  There is currently ongoing controversy over the email access, as there is a policy in place regarding email privacy at the university, in this case specifically in the faculty of Arts and Sciences. What makes this situation different is those impacted by the email search are resident deans, meaning they are not technically classified as professors – leaving them in an administrative grey area.

Industries have different policies on the privacy of employee email accounts. For example, organizations may have clauses in their privacy policy on what may occur if there is a suspicion that emails are being transmitted that represent a threat to the community or other employees. Or employees must receive a written statement if their email is being accessed. No matter where you work, it’s important to be cognizant of the fact that emails sent on your work computer may not be as private as you believe.

Are work email accounts private?
In many cases anything you send from your work email account can be accessed by your employer. Your organization is the administrator of the email system, and the owner of the computer hardware. There is legal precedence in the United States on employers accessing email accounts of employees, and terminating said employee based on emails found within. Laws vary by country and/or region, so be sure you know what’s applicable in your area.

Do you have an online privacy policy?
Does your workplace have a formalized online policy? That should give you some clarity on the expectations surrounding corporate email activity. If you’re an employer you should consider working with legal counsel to form your online policy to ensure that your best interests are being protected by the law. As outlined in this Venture Beat article, your policy should inform employees that their email may be monitored by the company, while including sections on cloud based email providers and internal social media. Clarity leads to better working relationships, so ensure that employees are aware of the policy – post it in public places, and refer to it frequently.

Keep personal correspondance out of your inbox 
When it comes to your work email account, it’s best to err on the side of caution. Take all non-corporate discussions offline, and only send personal email messages from your personally owned mobile device or home computer. Emails sent via personal accounts on your work devices can also be subject to viewing. You should work under the assumption that everything you send could potentially be accessed by the company.

Do you reserve your work email account for strictly business correspondance? Let us know in the comments section.

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