We've stressed the importance of e-mail use policies for years here at IT Business Edge, but I renewed my efforts when I read about the case of Vicki Walker, who was fired from her job with New Zealand's ProCare Health for her lack of e-mail etiquette, but then won a wrongful termination case against the company. I pointed out then that one way to avoid landing in the middle of a wrongful termination suit like that is to be sure that your company has a well-defined and well-communicated e-mail policy.
And according to a Wall Street Journal piece published Thursday, courts are requiring those policies to be increasingly specific for employer review of employee e-mail to be upheld. Or put another way, as the line between personal and professional continues to blur in our "always-on" culture, courts are more apt to rule that the privacy rights of employees need to be protected when it comes to personal, password-protected e-mail accounts -- even if they're accessed on company equipment.
Writer Dionne Searcey explains:
[C]ourts are increasingly taking into account whether employers have explicitly described how e-mail is monitored to their employees. That was what happened in a case earlier this year in New Jersey, when an appeals court ruled that an employee of a home health care company had a reasonable expectation that email sent on a personal account wouldn't be read.
A federal appellate court also upheld employee privacy rights in a case involving employee text messages. That court decided "employers that contract with an outside business to transmit text messages can't read them unless the worker agrees."
The moral here is simple: If you're going to review everything that comes and goes on company equipment, whether it's personal or business e-mail and text messages, make sure company policies make that clear and that your employees understand those policies.