Can my employer read email from my personal account?

Question:

My company discourages us from using our work emails for personal use. That's fine with me; I'd rather keep my work and private lives separate. However, I'm wondering about the emails I send on my personal Gmail account while using my work computer. The company says that they have the right to monitor and read our emails. Does this mean they can read emails sent or received in my personal account, if I access them on my work computer?

Answer:

There are two parts to your question: Is it possible for your employer to access your personal emails? And if so, is it legal for your employer to do so?

From a practical perspective, whether your employer has the ability to read your personal emails depends on how it monitors and tracks its computer system. However, chances are pretty good that your employer has the capability to access those messages. Even if you have to enter a personal password to get into your gmail account, it may well be captured by your employer's system.

From a legal perspective, though, the answer is less clear. Virtually every court to consider the issue has found that an employer may read emails employees send using the employer's company email system, even if the employee labels or considers those messages to be private. Many employers adopt written policies stating that work emails are not private and require employees to sign a form acknowledging their understanding of this state of affairs. Even without this extra step, however, courts have found in favor of the employer's right to monitor use of their own email systems.

When it comes to personal email accounts, however, the rules are not as clear cut. Some courts have held that employers may monitor an employee's personal email if the employee is using the company's equipment and the employer has warned employees that company-issued equipment is not for personal use and that all communications will be monitored. However, these decisions may vary by state and often depend on the circumstances of the monitoring, such as the contents of the email and how intrusive the employer was. For example, at least one court has held that emails between an employee and his or her attorney should be considered private when they are sent through a personal, web-based email on a company computer (unless the employer has specifically warned that these personal emails will be monitored).

It sounds like your employer's policy doesn't explicitly refer to private email accounts. However, if your employer had a clear policy informing employees that their use of personal email accounts on work computers was not private, and that the employer could monitor those messages, you might have a harder time winning an argument that those messages were confidential.

As you can see, there are a number of open questions here and relatively little guidance so far on how courts will decide this issue. So, if you value your email privacy, it might be best not to access your personal account on employer equipment.

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