You Have Mail, but Who is Reading It? Issues of E-Mail in the Public Workplace

You Have Mail, but Who is Reading It? Issues of E-Mail in the Public Workplace

Charles L. Prysby (University of North Carolina at Greensboro, USA) and Nicole D. Prysby (Attorney at Law, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-59904-051-6.ch016
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Abstract

The increasing use of electronic mail in the workplace has generated important legal questions for public organizations. The legal questions concerning e-mail in public institutions and agencies fall into two basic categories: (1) issues of employee privacy regarding e-mail messages, and (2) public access to e-mail under applicable freedom-of-information legislation. While the employer has broad legal grounds for reading workplace e-mail, at least if there is some legitimate business reason for doing so, employees frequently feel that such monitoring is an excessive invasion of their privacy, and the result sometimes is organizational conflict over these privacy issues. These privacy concerns have generated demands for greater protection of employee privacy in this area, and some states have responded with legislation that covers e-mail in the workplace. Government organizations also must treat at least some of their e-mail as part of the public record, making it open to public access, but this also can lead to conflict between public administrators, who may feel that much of their e-mail represents thoughts that were not intended for public disclosure, and external groups, such as the press, who feel that all such information belongs in the public domain. State laws vary considerably in terms of how they define the types of e-mail messages that are part of the public record, some being far more inclusive than others. Given the uncertainty and confusion that frequently exist regarding these legal questions, it is essential that public organizations develop and publicize an e-mail policy that both clarifies what privacy expectations employees should have regarding their e-mail and specifies what record-keeping requirements for e-mail should be followed to appropriately retain public records.

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