1. Elmo Bram Meijer

    Work e-mails are not as private as personal e-mails because they might contain information that’s useful to other workers too or because they refer to a work which is being carried on by a team. It’s unwise to use a work e-mail for personal messages, but I still think that one has the right to the privacy of his computer unless it’s a shared one.
    In my opinion, this boss has been way more than “a bit heavy-handed”.
    First of all, how do you decide that someone else’s e-mails are no longer necessary? Maybe they are not for you, but what about them? Should a boss throw away his employees’ documents just because he ‘feels’ they are outdated? I try to be an example for my colleagues with my behaviour, not by doing their jobs the way I think they should.
    Second, it’s very unlikely that some old e-mails can slow down a computer, unless of course you have stored zillions of them. And this is obviously not the case because he could go through the offending messages one by one so I doubt they were that many (or he actually sat there with you for a few hours scanning old e-mails).

    The lesson for you is obvious: your boss is very intrusive and you might have to give explanations on everything you do at work.

    • I still think that one has the right to the privacy of his computer unless it’s a shared one.

      The law disagrees on this one, and nearly always rules against the employee. It isn’t the employee’s computer as it belongs to the company, the computer is used on company time and the internet connection belongs to the employer. Therefore, the employer may look at any employee’s computer/files that s/he wishes (unless HIPAA or FERPA may be involved).

      • Elmo Bram Meijer

        That may be true in the US, but in some european countries (e.g. Italy) surveillance of the employees by their bosses is against the law unless there is the suspicion of a criminal offence being perpetrated or the police is inquiring.
        The writer is probably american, but this is just to say that this matter is not universally perceived and handled in the same way.

        Anyway, I only meant that the boss has been very rude, even if the law allowed him to act like that. To me it feels just like rummaging an employee’s drawers without asking.


        • Thank you for pointing out that laws vary by country.
          I don’t like it when an employer does this, but they are allowed here in the U.S.

          I worked for a small firm in the northeast, and my boss there actively dug through my desk drawers after I’d gone home. One time she found my acceptance letter to grad school, then called me at home that night to ask why I hadn’t told her I was attending grad school. I explained that I had just been accepted that day (why she didn’t check the letter’s date, I’ll never know), so I hadn’t had a chance to inform her. This was the same boss who expressed displeasure with my choice of grad school (NYU) as it wasn’t Ivy League, as her’s had been.
          As you might imagine, we rubbed each other the wrong way and I only stayed there one year. So yes, I do understand the frustrations with these sorts of employers.

    • Winifred Rosenburg

      I agree with Elmo. Even if the supervisor is legally within his rights to go through his employees emails, I don’t think it’s a good idea. It sounds to me like this falls under the category of micro-management. Does the supervisor really have nothing better to do than to go through emails on someone else’s computer? Micro-management is bad for office morale and ultimately results in employees not being able to do their jobs as effectively because they feel like they have someone looking over their shoulders all the time. The supervisor should give his employees some space, and that will likely increase productivity.

  2. Jerry

    I don’t think EPI went far enough in its advice, although the thrust of it was exactly right. I had a conversation similar in tone with two friends the other day. One friend (“A”) asked whether it was ok for him to read his (14 year old) daughter’s e-mail if she left the screen up just to make sure she wasn’t doing anything improper. The other friend (“B”) said that this behavior was absolutely correct given that the child was a minor under A’s control and that she had no right to privacy. While B was technically correct — there’s not much minor daughter can do — that sort of behavior is likely to upset daughter, will destroy trust going forward, and could lead to future estrangements. Therefore, unless A has a really good reason for snooping (i.e., he suspects his daughter is doing meth), he should stay away from that sort of thing.

    Just so here. Laura is correct that the employee’s boss (probably) has a right to read the e-mails on the employer computer system; however, all that is going to do is upset the employee, destroy trust going forward, and probably cause employee to start looking for a new job. That’s the difference between law and etiquette. Just because someone can do something (legally) doesn’t mean that someone should do something (the focus of etiquette).

    • Chocobo

      I agree. E-mail is a modern extension of posted mail in terms of etiquette. It is unpardonable to open and read the letters addressed to someone else, and I do not believe that e-mail is any different. However in the case of your friend’s daughter, leaving her email open it is akin to leaving a personal letter open on the kitchen table, which was foolish on her part. A parent could make the argument that anything left out in public space is clearly not meant to be private, but the consequences of destroying the already fragile trust of a teenager are high.

      • Jerry

        I agree with everything you’ve written and write to flesh out a few points. First, just because someone engages in a stupid action doesn’t mean that the person deserves to get punished for it. (Classic example: well dressed man walks through bad area of town late at night. He doesn’t deserve to get robbed, even though he should have taken some precautions.) And not to put too fine a point on it, but snooping through e-mail is worse than reading a letter on the table and you have to sit down at the computer and click various links to access the e-mail; moreover, you can learn much more going through someone’s e-mail (therefore the invasion of privacy is greater) than you can by reading one letter.

        Second, while the parent could make the argument that anything left in a public place is “clearly not meant to be private,” that’s dangerous. If parent leaves his wallet on the dining room table, does that mean teenager can rifle through it? What if parent leaves mail on the kitchen table? Or a sibling’s report card? What about thirty years later when parent needs his daughter to take care of him? Does parent lose all expectation of privacy once he become dependent on his daughter?

  3. scdeb

    This got my blood pressure going up–even though work emails are not private & usually have a disclaimer statement on the screen warning the user that signing in means you agree to the lack of privacy.
    My question to the OP is this: Did your “boss” sign in to your email to gain access? Did you log out before leaving and are you able to do that and/or lock your computer during your absence?
    My work computer locks after 5 minutes of no activity or if I want immediate results I do this myself. If you are allowed that would be my suggestion to give yourself some sense of privacy as well as always logging out of email before leaving your computer.
    It seems a shame that you had to be treated with such disrespect.

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