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March 10, 2009

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While that entertaining limerick about your boss’ sexual prowess may have seemed amusing when you e-mailed it to the rest of your department, getting fired is nobody’s idea of a good time. Maybe office e-mail has been a great aide to office gossips and on-the-job affairs, it also has led to a rash of otherwise inexplicable firings. Like it or not, your boss can easily access your e-mail and read every anecdote about his or her weight problem.

Sure, it’s an abuse of power and probably encroaches on your privacy, but what are you going to do about it? That seems to be the question for thousands of employees nationwide who look over their shoulders as they send that message of love to the attractive new employee in accounting.

Currently, e-mail is not confidential in any legal terms. Since the government has been slow to step into the churning, dangerous waters of Internet regulations, employees have little to no legal recourse if employers read their e-mail—let alone fire them for content.

Before you hide under your desk and swear off the Internet for life, you should be aware that there are steps you can take to protect your electronic communication. The obvious place to start, since the government isn’t going to help you, is with upper management. First, find out if your company has an e-mail policy. If it doesn’t, there aren’t many options, but if it does, you may rest a little easier. Of course, there have been instance of employers violating such honor codes, so it’s a toss up.

The best choice, though, is to simply not send anything offensive over company e-mail. Sure, that might inconvenience you a bit, but before you actually have the right, its hard to stand up for it. Remember, after all, that this e-mail account has been provided by the company.

And remember, inter-office e-mail isn’t a completely secure form of communication. Other employees may have easy, though unethical, access to your account. Early in 1997 a dean at a major New York City university sent out a mass e-mail to his employees warning them to not talk about an animal testing lab under construction at the school. Of course the e-mail was leaked to the student body and the resulting protest (replete with students chained to the main campus building) disrupted the day’s classes.

The lesson? E-mail and confidentiality rarely go hand in hand. It may be convenient and trendy, but e-mail is not the place to air those deep, dark personal secrets. Moreover, those with World Wide Web browsers on their office computers may want to be even more cautious. New software enables bosses to secretly view whatever words and images are appearing on their employees’ computer screens.

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Filed Under: Workplace Issues
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