Ask DW: Whose Computer Is It?

Dear DW,

I sometimes check personal e-mail, update my Facebook page, and browse online at work. My sense is that a lot of people do. But how OK is this, really?


Secret User

Dear Secret User,

Find out exactly what your employer’s policies are for e-mail and Web usage, and know that if you’re in violation of those rules, you could be fired. A quick foray into Internet articles on the topic (please, not on company time) will reveal that people have been ousted for blogging, playing computer games, looking at pornography, and writing personal e-mails.

U.S. News and World Report warns that 43 percent of companies monitor company e-mail. Although the laws are evolving, courts are ruling that companies have the right to do so, and the legality of monitoring e-mail messages sent using personal, Web-based e-mail accounts (like Yahoo and Gmail) on work computers is still a gray area. More than a quarter of employers in the United States have let workers go for e-mail-related offenses, according to a 2007  American Management Association/ePolicy Institute survey.

Also keep in mind that your e-communication could be subject to discovery in a federal lawsuit much later. Nancy Flynn, executive director of the ePolicy Institute, says that because companies are concerned about their legal liability, a growing number are archiving electronically stored information.

Above all, with whatever you write to whom, make sure it’s squeaky clean. Most e-mail-related firings have to do with content considered offensive.

The bottom line: If your employer’s policy states that computer usage should be confined to company business only, anything you do outside that is grounds for dismissal. Know that if you break the rules and keep typing away, you could be taking the loss of your job into your own hands.

One more tip: Whether from your home or work computer, never “friend” your boss!  DW

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