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Who owns the email you send at work?

September 29, 2009 @ 17:00 By: gordon Category: General, In the news

CBC had a story yesterday evening about a CUPE union executive who is suing the union for violating her privacy by reading her emails. According to Katherine Thompson, when she was the secretary-treasurer of CUPE’s Air Component Lesley Swann, the then-president strong-armed an IT consultant into providing access to her emails, which Swann then allegedly monitored. (A union executive using strong-arm tactics – imagine that! But that’s for another time.) Swann says she believed that Thompson had violated the union’s bylaws, which is why she did what she did.

The case seems to hinge on whether it was reasonable for Thompson to expect that the communications she made using the union’s email system were private.

Personally, I think that in normal circumstances, an employer is going to respect an employee’s privacy when it comes to email sent with the employer’s systems because that fosters good relations and trust between the employer and its employees. And, frankly, it’s a pain to monitor someone else’s email.

But in unusual circumstances, such as when the employer suspects the employee of wrongdoing, such as sending corporate secrets to a competitor, the employer is going to monitor the employee’s email to confirm this before taking more drastic action.

Ultimately, if an employer wishes to monitor every email their employees send and receive, that’s the employer’s right. If an employee is conducting themselves in an appropriate manner, then there’s nothing to worry about. If you don’t like this as an employee then you can stop sending private emails when you’re at work.

But, just because an employer can read their employee’s email doesn’t mean that they can necessarily do what they want with what they find. Some communications an employee might send could be covered by privacy legislation – discussions concerning an employee’s medical leave, for example, could be privileged information.

The same concept applies to using the Internet while at work. An employer is well within their rights to monitor their employees’ use of the Internet. If you don’t want the boss to know what you get up to on the Internet, don’t do it from work.

And should you work for a public-sector employer, your email and web browsing activities could even be subject to an access to information request. I have a friend who used to have to respond to requests for information about what was in the in-basket on her desk on an almost daily basis. Remember, an ATIP request only costs $5 to file.

All this is to say that I think the the union president at the time had cause to have Thompson’s email monitored, but it sounds like how this was handled was less than ideal and that better procedures are needed if the union is going to do this again. If the information in the email was used to harass Thompson, then I think she has grounds for complaint. In any event, Thompson has since beat Swann and is now the president of CUPE’s Air Component.

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