When Your Employer Can Monitor Your Communications

Understand the privacy laws that cover your telephone, voicemail, email, and Internet use at work.

Technology now makes it possible for employers to keep track of virtually all workplace communications by any employee -- on the phone and in cyberspace. And many employers take advantage of these tracking devices: A survey of more than 700 companies by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that almost three-quarters of those companies monitor their workers' use of the Internet and check employee email, and more than half review employee phone calls. According to a study by the American Management Association, businesses offering financial services -- such as banks, brokerage houses, insurance firms, and real estate companies -- are most likely to monitor their workers' communications.

Whether all this monitoring is legal depends on what type of communication the employer is trying to eavesdrop on, how reasonable it is for the employee to expect the communication to be private, and the employer's reason for listening in.

Phone Calls

Your employer may monitor business phone calls -- that is, your conversations with clients or customers -- for quality control. Some states have laws that require employers to inform the parties to the call, either by announcement or by signal (such as a beeping noise during the call), that someone is listening in. Federal law, however, allows employers to monitor these business calls unannounced.

An exception is made for personal calls. Under federal law, once your employer knows that a call is personal, the employer must immediately stop monitoring the call.

Voice Mail Messages

Although the law is unsettled when it comes to whether your employer may listen to your work voice mail, your employer most likely has the right to do so -- especially if the employer has a sound, work-related reason for wanting to listen.

If, however, your employer has ever led you to believe that your voice mails are private -- for example, by stating so in an employee handbook or by allowing you to set a private voice mail box access code -- then you might have a legitimate complaint if your employer listens to your voice mail.

Email Messages

Your employer is generally free to rummage through your email messages -- as long as the employer has a valid business purpose for doing so. If the company takes steps to protect the privacy of email (by providing a system that allows messages to be designated "confidential" or creating a private password known only to the employee, for example) -- or if the company assures employees that email is private -- you might have a stronger expectation of privacy in the messages covered by these rules and therefore stronger legal protection if the employer reads private emails. But most courts to consider the issue have decided in favor of employers, particularly if the company has a compelling reason to read email (for example, to investigate a harassment claim).

Legality aside, the truth is that many employers now routinely monitor email their employees send and receive. Some email systems copy all messages that pass through them; others create backup copies of new messages as they arrive. Workers who logically assume their messages are gone for good when they delete them are very often wrong. Treat your email system at work as you should your business phone. Strictly limit your communications with family and friends. And do not send any message that you would be uncomfortable having a coworker or your employer read.

Internet Use

Your employer is within its legal rights to keep track of the Internet sites you visit while at work. Some employers install devices that block access to certain sites (for example, those with pornographic images) or limit the time workers may spend on sites that are not specified as work related.