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How E-mail Privacy Affects Morale

Companies should adopt a moderately restrictive e-mail monitoring system, and be sure that employees fully understand it.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

Title: E-mail Privacy in the Workplace: A Boundary Regulation Perspective
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Author: Jason L. Snyder (Central Connecticut State University)
Publisher: Journal of Business Communication, vol. 47, no. 3
Date Published: July 2010

It’s difficult to imagine the modern U.S. office without e-mail. Studies have shown that the average employee with Internet access spends about one-fourth of the workday on e-mail — not all of which is work-related. Almost 80 percent of employees say they send and receive personal e-mail on the job, and half use company e-mail accounts to do it, according to two separate studies in 2006. Because the law views such e-mail as the property of the company, employers have the right to read messages sent and received using their equipment. Indeed, in a 2005 survey, 55 percent of firms said they monitored their workers’ e-mail. This paper explored how office e-mail monitoring and employee privacy concerns affect relationships among co-workers and between management and staff. Employees who believed that their companies intruded on their e-mail accounts were less likely to trust their managers and co-workers. The author also found that poorly managed and poorly communicated e-mail monitoring policies not only damaged workplace morale but also hurt the organization’s profitability through the costly replacement of disgruntled employees.

The study surveyed more than 300 workers of various ages in both the public and private sectors, ranging from entry-level staff to upper management. The author used several standard psychological tests to gauge the quality of the participants’ relationships with co-workers, the level of their on-the-job paranoia, and the amount of e-mail privacy and intrusion they perceived at their workplace. Evaluations of paranoia played a large part in the study, but it’s important to note these evaluations measured nonclinical workplace paranoia, essentially establishing how much trust an employee extended to supervisors and the organization. Although firms can’t change their employees’ levels of this type of paranoia, they can implement policies that make their staff feel more secure. They can do so by precisely spelling out the company’s monitoring policies and reminding employees that the policies are not designed to snoop on particular individuals but to establish legal protection against, for example, harassment via company e-email. Some systems allow total transparency, permitting employees to see who has read their e-mails and thus reducing concerns over unknown supervisors peeking over their shoulders. The study found that employees who worked for organizations with more restrictive and secretive e-mail policies were more likely to worry about their company going too far and breaching basic privacy boundaries.

The author concludes that although businesses must, for legal and financial reasons, monitor how their equipment is used, they also have to be careful not to violate their employees’ trust. This will become increasingly important as new communication channels, such as social networking, instant messaging, and corporate blogs, become more popular in the workplace. The author argues that the best approach may be a moderately restrictive policy that preserves the organization’s authority to keep records of employee e-mail but limits the right to read the files to legally necessary situations. The paper also warns that it may not be enough to have employees read and sign the e-mail privacy policy. Companies should also strive to explain why and how the monitoring will take effect.

Bottom Line: E-mail is ubiquitous in the American workplace, and companies are increasingly monitoring the personal messages sent through their computers. This study finds that poorly managed e-mail monitoring can lead to disgruntled employees and urges a moderate system that offers legal protection without excessive snooping.  

Author profile:

  • Matt Palmquist was a founding staff writer and is currently a contributing editor at Miller-McCune magazine. Formerly, he was an award-winning feature writer for the San Francisco–based SF Weekly.
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