Can You Be Fired for Sending Personal E-Mails at Work?

Email Used As Evidence Against Fired Worker

December 15, 2009, 4:05 PM

Dec. 17, 2009 — -- You probably don't think twice about sending personal messages through your work e-mail. But sending e-mails about a seemingly innocuous hobby cost one financial advisor his job when his employer tapped into his work account and read his messages.

Cameron Pettigrew, who worked as a client relations manager at Fidelity Investments in Texas, was fired after supervisors found out he was sending messages about a fantasy football league that he ran.

"Firing a guy for being in a $20 fantasy league?" Pettigrew told the Fort Worth Star Telegram. "Let's be honest: that's a complete overreaction."

Welcome to the realities of the cyber workspace. Pettigrew, a young MBA graduate, is just one of the most recent victims to find out the hard way that employers have almost limitless rights to check personal messages sent over company computers, cell phones and PDAs.

In fact, 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 growing number of disputes between employers and employees over cyberspace privacy has caught the attention of the Supreme Court, which decided this week to review a lawsuit between a California cop and supervisors who read his racy text messages.

"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 Long Island, New York. "Workers can get in trouble for forgetting that."

In this particular case, Pettigrew was fired because Fidelity disapproved of what it considered to be gambling.

"Participation in any form of gambling through the use of Fidelity time or equipment or any other company resource is prohibited," Fidelity spokesman Vin Loporchio told The Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "In addition to being illegal in a lot of places, it can also be disruptive. We want our employees to be focused on our customers and clients."

Privacy conflicts between employers and their staff are nothing new. Before the advent ofBlackberries, cellphones and even computers, workers and their bosses sparred over drugs and porn found in lockers and desk drawers. But the near ubiquity of electronic communication devices, along with the growing popularity of "sexting" and other online activities that could tarnish an employer's reputation, have once again dragged the issue into the news.

Employee Privacy at Stake

Interestingly, employees fall on both sides of the fence. Joseph Lull, an engineer from Detroit, says employees should never expect privacy on their work equipment.

"I keep a pretty clean line between work and personal stuff," says Lull, adding that he likes to make sure that his sensitive work data is kept secure, and he wants to keep his personal life private. "There's personal information I don't want work to find out about," he says, such as health and finance data, and information about his family.

Yvonne Haghighatian, a business manager at a political consultancy in Austin, however, doesn't believe in such strict lines.

"It all comes out in the wash," she says, pointing out that she uses her work iPhone for personal calls, and a personal laptop for work. "Employers should trust your employees. If employers are looking over someone's shoulder continuously it makes the employees less productive."

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 worker advocates argue that 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 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."

Supreme Court to Review Privacy Case

To shed some light on a murky area, the Supreme Court has finally decided to get involved. It said this week it plans to review a case decided in a federal appeals court last year involving a cop in California who sent mostly personal messages on his work pager -- including sexually explicit text messages to his wife. When his employer, the City of Ontario, Calif., obtained a transcript of messages from the wireless provider without his permission, officer Jeff Quon sued for breach of privacy and won. The city has now taken the case to the Supreme Court, which is expected to hear arguments in the spring and make a decision by the end of June.

Lawyers said the Supreme Court might decide to use the case to set guidelines on whether employees have a "reasonable expectation of privacy" for messages they send on their work computers, cell phones and e-mails.

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