Email Privacy: Your Work Communications

by Vault Careers | March 30, 2011

  • My Vault

Before you send your next email, stop and think who you'd be comfortable seeing it—and in what context. The tool is now so ubiquitous that most business professionals think nothing of syncing their phones with their corporate accounts, enabling them to handle a variety of tasks even while they're away from the office. Inevitably, under such circumstances, the lines blur—and most of us will end up sending a non work-related email or two from our work accounts. Big deal, right?

As it turns out, it just might be—as a scuffle in Wisconsin over email records proves. The case, for those who missed it, centers around University of Wisconsin professor William Cronon, who has been voluble in his criticism of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's highly-publicized attempts to strip collective bargaining rights from selected state employees.

After a recent New York Times editorial criticizing Walker and state Republicans, Cronon found his University email was the subject of a Freedom of Information Act request—from a state Republican party official. All of which is perfectly legitimate under Wisconsin's transparency laws--but frightening nonetheless for employees who may not always have been as scrupulous as they should in choosing their channel of communication.

The tactic—which Cronon thinks represents "an academic freedom issue"—is catching on elsewhere too. Talking Points Memo points out that a Michigan-based think-tank has submitted FOIA requests to a host of Michigan state schools, based on a host of keywords related to the Wisconsin dispute.

Again—the requests appear to be completely legitimate under existing law, and it's pleasing to know that such transparency is possible—even if only in the public sector.

But the issue should also give anyone who uses email—everyone, in other words—pause for thought. It may well be the case that all of these employees are just a single email away from damaging their professional reputations, or losing their jobs.

Think again about your own email use. Can you honestly say that you've never sent anything that could get you in trouble if someone was motivated enough to go digging through your archives? Or—worse—something that could be taken out of context (deliberately or otherwise) to make you look bad?

Whatever you might think of the politics behind the FOIA requests, there's one outcome from these cases that is likely to stretch across party lines: a greater awareness by employees in all sectors that they need to be exceptionally careful about separating their personal and private communications. Whether that's really the best outcome for anyone concerned is open to question.

NY Times:
Wisconsin Professor’s E-Mails Are Target of G.O.P. Records Request
Wisconsin's Radical Break

Talking Points Memo: Conservative Think Tank Seeks Michigan Profs' Emails About Wisconsin Union Battle ... And Maddow

--Phil Stott, Vault.com

Filed Under: Workplace Issues

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