Ethical Management of E-mail Privacy


As I am sitting at my work station in a crowded office building, I hear the wonderful sound of "You\'ve got mail." In turn I open my E-mail mailbox and find a letter from a nearby employee. This letter contains the usual funny joke of the day and a short joke ridiculing the boss, as usual. Who was to know that my supervisor would eventually find this letter, which would lead to both the termination of my job and my fellow employee?
Does this sound common? It may, because the issue of E-mail and privacy is very common and controversial in our advanced technological world. The determination of what is ethical or unethical is not simple or straightforward. Employers and employees may have seen the ethical and legal issues associated with E-mail privacy differently. E-mail has become indispensable in the modern-day workplave, with more and more employers realizing that E-mail communication systems can increase the efficiency of communications internally. Along with this increase in the use of E-mail come legal issues involving employee privacy and monitoring. The laws addressing an employer\'s rights to monitor E-mail traffic and employees\' rights to E-mail privacy are still evolving (Lyford 28).
After much research, I believe employers should have the right to check employee E-mail, because E-mail is a company resource and a property right.Organizations have an obligation to themselves, their employees, their business partners, customers and society at large to act in an ethically responsible manner regarding their E-mail policies. Companies have many justified reasons for searching employee files such as preventing personal use or abuse of company resources and the prevention or investigation of corporate espionage or theft. Being that companies pay for the service of E-mail it can also be considered as a company property right.
Employees may not realize how easily their bosses and coworkers can access their E-mail. Many high-tech firms are even able to retrieve messages that the employee thinks they have permanently deleted. An article in the magazine, Business First, makes a good point, "Don\'t put anything in E-mail that you would not want read over the loud speaker throughout the company" (Miller 2).
Although many computers and company E-mail accounts have passwords, it does not mean that they are protected. System administrators can access almost anyone\'s E-mail. According to a web page on the Internet, "The only way to protect your E-mail would be to regard your E-mail as you would a postcard." People must realize that unlike other forms of communication, E-mail has little protection, such as telephone companies do (Learn the Net 1). This provides the employer with the ability to monitor someone\'s E-mail without them even knowing.
The topic of E-mail is so current that it even hit the meeting of the Long Island Direct Marketing Association (LIDMA) on October 22, 1998. At the meeting privacy issues concerning E-mail in the workplace were discussed. A local attorney, Martin Gringer, Esg., explained the need for employees to understand that their e-mail may not be private and they should look into company policy before sending something which may "later come back to haunt them" (Hoke III 43).
The general view from business corporations is that they have a right to check their employee\'s E-mails. Many businesses, such as American Airlines, Federal Express, Eastman Kodak and UPS, regard employee E-mail as corporate property. They retain the right to investigate employee E-mail as often as they feel necessary (Rainone and Spinior 35).
Many of these organizations feel that E-mail monitoring is a necessity: They pay for the service and believe they own the property rights. Such rights would consist of the right to search employee computer files, voice mail, E-mail and other networking communications. An employer is also free to intercept E-mail messages if necessary to protect the company\'s right, property or ability to conduct business (Eberly 22).
On the other hand, employees feel that searches and invasions of E-mails are an invasion of their own privacy. Because of the potential for negative consequences resulting from the organization\'s action, the practice of E-mail monitoring may be viewed as unethical (CNET 1).
Employees often contend that E-mail is analogous to the U.S. mail and users are entitled to the same privacy expectations as persons transmitting written communications via the U.S. Postal Service (Meyerhoff