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by HR Guy | April 01, 2009


Hi HR Guy:

I need your guidance on the matter about privacy and a company's right to "audit" phone calls and e-mails.

As I sign payment checks to vendors like cell phone providers, telephone companies, FedEx, etc., I do spot checks by looking over these vendors' bills. By 'spot check,' I mean I sometimes actually call the number.

I do this with certain calls if for example, they are over 20 minutes, the number or state being called is unfamiliar (meaning no business activities with my company that I know of), etc. I also sometimes check to find out if a FedEx bill is actually for personal or business use.

I own the company, and the company pays for all charges, i.e., cell phone charges, telephone charges, our e-mails, computers, everything. Am I doing anything illegal?

Concerned Business Owner

Dear CBO:

It is NOT illegal to go through the bills, monitor Internet and -email use, or call unidentified phone numbers. There is no FEDERAL law protecting an employee's individual privacy while using company-owned/operated communications. There are, however, STATE laws that protect employees in such situations. But no state claims that an employee may use company communications for personal use. Each state has different levels of protection. For example, New York only protects the privacy of an employee's image (no pictures on the Internet without permission, etc.).

Regardless of the fact that it is not illegal for employers to carry on such monitoring activities, it is always better to have a written policy on the use and monitoring of company e-mail, phone calls, etc.

At a company I used to work for, the employee handbook stated that all telephone calls, e-mails, and so forth are property of the company. Furthermore, according to the policy, employees were instructed that they "should not write anything from the company's e-mail address that you would not want seen on the cover of The New York Times," as that is how much privacy they would be entitled to regarding any communication produced using company resources. For example, many companies have a policy that brief, occasional personal calls are fine, but that if the allowance is abused employees are subject to probation or other disciplinary action. If you put your rules in a written policy that is given to each employee (and even better, signed by employees!) that protects you.

To find out what your state deems legally protected, go to your state's dept. of labor web site or call your government's legislative offices.


Filed Under: Workplace Issues