All About Email At The Office

04/23/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Dear Christine,

I work very long hours at my job, and because of this schedule, I use my personal email at work and I know many of my co-workers do as well. The other day I overhead people talking about their company cracking down on email use in the workplace. I'm a little concerned. Just how private are my emails? Am I going to get in trouble?

~Email Confusion, 23, Austin

Dear Email Confusion,

First things first - find out your company's email policy. Since we have all become more dependent on email as a means of communication, some companies assume that employees may be using email for personal correspondence during working hours. However, each company is different so inquire. The company policy will be able to tell you how lenient your company is with personal email use as well as use of work email accounts for personal communication. In fact, it's probably in the thick employee handbook or employee agreement filled with legal jargon that you skimmed before cramming it into your desk drawer.

Even if you are "allowed" to send and receive personal email, is your email private at work? In most cases, it is not. If an internal email system is used at your company, your employer owns it and is allowed to review its contents. All messages sent to and from your account can be subject to monitoring by your employer. This includes web-based email accounts such as Yahoo! and Hotmail as well as instant messages as long as your computer is dialed into the internet server your company owns and/or provides.

Recent studies by Proofpoint, Inc. report that 38% of companies surveyed employ staff to read their employees' outgoing emails. Why? Well, in companies surveyed, more than 1 in 5 outbound emails sent by employees were said to contain information posing a "legal, financial or regulatory risk." Your employer is not monitoring your email to find out what you are gossiping about or doing on a Friday night. Rather, employers know that employee's access to email can become dangerous to a company if any proprietary information is divulged.

So, yes, "big brother" may be reading. Knowing that, don't type anything you would not want your boss to read. And make sure you are spending only a handful of minutes a day on personal email or your facebook page (companies can also monitor where and when you are on line) so that, if monitored, you can assert that your extracurricular web activity is infrequent and does not interfere with job responsibilities.

The chances of you getting into serious trouble are slim if you are just using your emails for general correspondence. Some legal cases of harassment have surfaced over forwarded email comments or joke chains at work. In cases like these, a joke backfires in a big way, so be very cognizant of the forwards you are sending and receiving.

To protect yourself, keep your work and personal emails separate as much as possible. Don't use your work account to send and receive personal email; use an internet based service like Yahoo! or Google instead. Even though they can still be monitored, chances are companies will check your work account first.

Also, if you feel the need to whine and moan about your job, don't vent via email. In the world of carbon copies (cc) and blind carbon copies (bcc), email can be pure office warfare. When the person in the next cubicle responds to your jibe at the boss, you won't know whether he/she has blind copied someone else in the reply, and from there who else might be seeing your email conversation. You will be the one flying blind if you are taken to task for the emails, so better safe than sorry.

Finally, in today's world of iphones and blackberries, why not just stick to texting or receiving emails via your cell phone and avoid the issue all together? And better yet, how about using the old fashioned means of communication: picking up the phone or actual face-to-face conversation. We should all find more room in our schedule for that.

- Christine

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