It’s probably safe to assume that many office workers have used the company computer for something other than work. Your workday might temporarily halt when a certain pop-up sample sale starts every day at noon, for instance. And if you use Facebook at all, it’s likely you fit into the 77% of the Facebooking population that uses it from work. The jokes and videos? Sometimes they’re just too rich not to pass on. And yes, a little voice inside you warns that your employer could be monitoring your email usage – particularly if the company has specific policies and practices regarding personal email. But your boss doesn’t have the time or inclination to monitor your email…right?
Well, it depends. In a recent ruling, the Third Appellate District Court (Sacramento) agreed 3-0 to uphold a previous decision against a plaintiff, Gina M. Holmes, who sued her employer, the Petrovich Development Company, after she quit her job on account of "sexual harassment, retaliation, wrongful termination, violation of the right to privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress" that resulted from discussing the logistics of maternity leave with her boss, who forwarded emails in which she revealed private information about her pregnancy.
Unfortunately for Holmes, she’d used a company computer to send personal emails even though she had been told of Petrovitch’s policy that its computers were to be used only for company business purposes; she’d been warned that the company would monitor its computers for compliance and might “inspect all files and messages….at any time,” and she had been explicitly advised that employees using company computers to create or maintain personal information or messages “have no right of privacy with respect to that information or message."
The court determined that her emails didn’t constitute “confidential communication between client and lawyer.” In fact, when she sent her emails, it was “akin to consulting her lawyer in her employer's conference room, in a loud voice, with the door open, so that any reasonable person would expect that their discussion of her complaints about her employer would be overheard by him."
Holmes has since asserted her constitutional right to privacy, citing the company handbook that states, "An employee has a reasonable expectation of privacy when an employer's technology policy is not enforced; and that an employer violates an employee's right to privacy when he discloses private information about the employee without a legitimate business reason for doing so."
But the larger lesson here may be this: Do you even remember everything you signed when you took your job? It may be time to review – and change a few things about how you communicate from work. Moving forward, companies may start specifying under no uncertain terms what’s allowed and what’s not on your office terminal (and enforce it), and only the most daring (or oblivious) workers won’t start taking a little more care about what they send on company time. Have you already toned down your personal use? What are your expectations about computer privacy in the workplace?