Office e-mail is not stamped 'private'

Working Life

April 28, 1996|By Deborah L. Jacobs | Deborah L. Jacobs,CHRONICLE FEATURES

Never say anything in the office e-mail that you wouldn't want to read in your company newsletter. Michael Smyth learned that lesson the hard way.

Mr. Smyth, a former manager at Pillsbury Co., logged on to his home computer one day, and in the course of exchanging e-mail messages with his supervisor, wrote that he'd like to "kill" the people in the sales department. He also described Pillsbury's holiday party as the "Jim Jones Kool-Aid affair," referring to the religious cult members who followed their leader's order to commit mass suicide by drinking poison.

Several months later, Pillsbury fired Mr. Smyth for using the company's e-mail system to make tasteless, unbusinesslike remarks. When he sued Pillsbury for wrongful discharge, a federal court said Mr. Smyth had no "reasonable expectation" of privacy.

While the decision involves a relatively new technology, it's just the latest reminder that we don't have much privacy at work -- especially when we're using company equipment. For many years, courts have said that bosses can search desks, file cabinets and offices if they have a "valid business reason" to do it. They've been able to go through lockers to maintain a drug-free workplace, listen in on telephone calls to conduct performance reviews and read faxes to prevent unauthorized use of company property.

Modern technology gives companies more and more ways to watch what we're doing. They can measure productivity by counting our keystrokes, monitor how often we call home during the work day, and create reports about everything we do on the Internet.

Where do courts draw the line? Whether company property is high-tech or low-tech, the answer usually depends on rules and customs. Most courts have said that what workers do in lavatories (and to some extent, lunchrooms and lounges) is private, since the company provides these areas for employees' own use. With e-mail, some businesses make their policies clear, through memos, manuals, or log-on reminders that messages aren't confidential. Even when companies offer password systems or bulletin boards for sending personal notes, they usually reserve the right to intercept e-mail.

Pub Date: 4/28/96

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