Many employers monitor employees’ e-mail use to prevent data leaks, harassment and other legal problems. In one recent case, a manager went a step further, putting his company on the hook for a violation of privacy.
An employee was involved in a legal battle with her former employer after she was terminated. She filed three discrimination and harassment claims against the company.
At the same time, the company took her to court, alleging breach of contract, misappropriation of trade secrets and other claims. During the trial, the woman’s former boss, the company president, presented as evidence e-mails sent and received by her personal e-mail account.
He admitted to stealing the woman’s password and reading the e-mails for the purpose of “monitoring and documenting her personal business activity.”
After she found out he was spying on her, the woman sued the president and the company for violating the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.
The company argued it couldn’t be held liable because it didn’t know about or authorize the snooping. But the court disagreed. Since the boss was acting to “further the interests” of his employer, the company was on the hook.
The case went to a jury, and the woman was awarded a total of $400,000 from the company and its president.
Watch privacy rights
This case provides a stern warning to managers who suspect an employee of wrongdoing. While its OK to monitor an employee’s use of the company’s e-mail system, courts have drawn the line at accessing info stored by a third party.
Supervisors need to understand what actions do or don’t violate employees’ privacy rights — and that both they and the company can get in deep trouble when they snoop where they shouldn’t.