If you’re in the middle of writing a scathing email about your company to one of your work buddies, you might want to reconsider. Not only because there’s no place for negativity in the workplace, but also because there’s a good chance your boss is reading that email over your digital shoulder. And unfortunately, there isn't much you can do about it.
Online privacy has been a hot-button topic lately, with social media companies and government bodies alike doing their best to explain what they're doing with your data. However, from a legal standpoint, your boss or IT department enjoy some pretty scary access to your messaging and browsing behavior in the workplace or with work-supplied equipment.
Think you're safe to say whatever you want in a private email at work? Think again. We clear up the misconceptions about what you can and can't get away with in the modern digital workplace.
The Legality of Reading Your Emails
While it might seem like your boss shouldn't be allowed to monitor your online activity, the reality is that the law is very much on the side of the employer. This the case for two very specific reasons:
You Signed Away Your Rights
Signing an employment contract is an exciting moment for any new employee. However, before you get set up at your desk, most companies will have you agree to legal jargon that effectively signs away a great deal of your online privacy within the workplace or using work equipment.
In legal terms, signing a contract negates any reasonable expectation of privacy, which is a legal test for measuring the validity of privacy. Want to work there? Be prepared to agree to your employer's IT terms, which aren't written in your favor.
They Have A Good Reason
It may seem like this legal jargon is designed to give employers all the power when it comes to your data. But, these suspicious-seeming provisions were put in place, first and foremost, to protect employees.
In the case of, for example, sexual harassment, employers need access to emails and other means of in-company communication to properly investigate an allegedly offending party. Likewise, when investigating data leaks, employers' ability to monitor employee data could be the only means of tracking down the mole.
Unfortunately, these kind of dramatic scenarios blur the lines of workplace privacy, allowing employers to search your emails without express written consent. As long as employers have “a good, work-related reason” for the search, they can monitor pretty much any activity conducted by you using office equipment or over office servers.
What Else Can Your Boss Monitor?
Reading emails is the most infamous means of invading someone's privacy. However, when it comes your boss' right to monitor your activity online, they can go a lot further than your company Gmail account.
Text Messages and Calls
If you have a work phone, you should probably know this already. Any device provided by your company can be monitored by your boss. And if you were hoping that personal calls were sacred, they definitely are not.
Depending on what state you live in, employers have varying rights when it comes to monitoring personal calls. Unfortunately, most of them are pretty lax, only insisting that bosses must stop listening once they realize the call is a personal one. However, bosses are still legally allowed to reprimand employees for whatever they heard on a personal call, even if it wasn't the entire thing.
Social Media Use
Scrolling through Facebook has become as much a part of daily office life as chatting at the water cooler. Unfortunately, your boss or IT department is most likely keeping an eye on what you're doing.
If you're lucky enough to work somewhere that doesn't outright block websites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, don't get too excited. Your boss might still be monitoring your use of social media sites, and the last thing you want to do is get on their bad side over a retweet.
Monitoring phone use and social media engagement is one thing. However, as technology evolves, so too does your boss' ability to monitor your workplace behavior. And, insanely enough, that now includes how many times you touch your keyboard.
Keeping track of keystrokes is an admittedly new tactic for monitoring employees, but it's becoming quite popular. A wide range of softwares now offer the feature to gauge and manage productivity, making employees all the more unsettled in this decidedly complicated age of data and privacy.
Fortunately, monitoring keystrokes isn’t nearly as sinister as it sounds, as most bosses use softwares like this simply to see how many hours of the day are actually spent typing. While monitoring keystrokes to, for example, steal someone’s password is possible, it’s likely not the reason your boss is using it.
Do’s and Don’ts of Online Conduct at Work
All of this online data tracking at work might make the office sound a little bit scarier on a Monday morning. But, some basic good practice will keep you on the right side of your company IT policy.
- Don’t write anything on your work email you wouldn’t be happy for your boss, IT department or HR department to see. Save the sass-talk for the water-cooler or, better yet, the bar after work.
- Don’t use your work computer and internet for Facebook, Twitter, and other personal sites
- Do read your workplace IT usage policy
- Do stay informed about your specific state’s online rights in the workplace
Read more about your online privacy on TechCo