Last year, a for example, a financial advisor in Texas was fired for sending e-mails about a seemingly innocuous hobby. Cameron Pettigrew, who worked as a client relations manager at Fidelity Investments in Texas, lost his job after supervisors found out he was sending messages about a fantasy football league that he ran.
More than a quarter of companies have fired employees for misusing e-mail and one-third have fired employees for misusing the Internet, according to a survey by the American Management Association. The same survey found that 43 percent of employers read workers' e-mail messages and 66 percent check Web site connections.
"The law gives most employers a great deal of freedom to monitor communications sent using work equipment in order to make sure that work they are paying for is being done," says Jonathan Ezor, a professor of law and technology at Touro Law Center in Central Islip, N.Y. "Workers can get in trouble for forgetting that."
Employers cite a wide range of reasons why they should be allowed to snoop. They want to know if a worker is wasting the company's time and money updating his Facebook status instead of updating spreadsheets. They fear that co-workers could sue if they feel that company equipment is being used for sexual harassment. And they definitely want to know if an employee is stealing client information or leaking confidential data.
Company lawyers often argue that employers have undisputable rights because they own the equipment, and because they usually have policies that make it clear that messages will be monitored. But workers' advocates argue it's inevitable that employees will have to use work equipment to take care of personal matters, and that their bosses shouldn't be allowed free rein to snoop.
"In the world we live in, I don't think it's realistic to say you can't send a personal e-mail or a quick text while you're at work," says Paula Brantner, executive director of Workplace Fairness, a Texas-based advocacy group that defends workers rights. She points out that technology has increased the burden on workers, who are now expected to check work e-mail and take work calls from home. While she says she understands that employers must sometimes monitor messages to make sure no rules are being broken, limits must be set.
"The widespread viewing of messages – I can see why it's troubling to employees."