Why You Shouldn’t Have an Office Affair Using Work Email
I'm not going to talk about the ethics of having workplace affairs or affairs in general, especially if you're married. That's up to you. But if you're using your office email to correspond with your lover … better think twice!
It may or may not be specifically mentioned in your Employee Handbook (assuming you even have one), but most employers consider their email system to be their property. And many prohibit workplace romances outright. So if you're sending secret emails to someone in your company using company email address, your words may come back to bite both of you.
An office email affair to remember (after being fired)
I once worked for a financial company where one of the Vice Presidents (no pun intended) was having an affair with a woman in another division. And despite his being an otherwise savvy member of the IT unit and knowing this was against company policy, he never imagined that their emails were being eagerly read by the email tech team.
Knowing how things really work in such places, it probably only became an issue because he had strong opinions and voiced them often, most likely offending the wrong someone at some point. And his being married only added to the juiciness of the story. Interestingly enough, it was the woman who was fired, NOT the male VP. I made a point of bolding the part about who got fired, since that is not an uncommon outcome. So while the moral decision is your own, remember that there can be far-reaching consequences to your career – including accompanying stories and rumors that get passed on and can even be found online long after by new employers.
Is it really okay for an employer to check your email?
If you're using email that goes through their servers, then the answer is most likely "yes!" According to employment attorney Donna Ballman (Can Your Boss Read Your Email?): "If you are emailing to and from your work email address, then that address is probably your employer's property, not yours." In fact, in the case of the VP, I was told that the emails made it to the top of the "can't wait to read the next one" list. And it was all legal since they were corresponding using their employee email addresses – and not even trying to use code of any kind. Just "oh baby I want you now" type emails. Unless otherwise stated, if you use company email there is no privacy guarantee, although in most cases no one is reading it. But it is there and easily found if needed for any company reason, such as an investigation or law suit. And, there have been cases of snoopy employees just reading for fun.
Personal email at work
Personal email is trickier. If neither you nor the person you're writing to are using company email, then in theory that should remain private. BUT it's important to note that opened personal emails can be seen by the company, since at that point the contents reside on the company servers. More from Ms. Ballman:
"If you open your personal email on a company-owned computer, phone or other device, those emails may sit on your company's server indefinitely. Some companies even use key-logging programs that may capture every keystroke you use, including passwords … If they use those on work devices, the company will have access to their personal emails."
While the odds of this happening are slim and legality questionable, technology does make it possible for an employer to store your keystrokes and passwords and then use them later on to peruse (hack) your personal email. Still, unopened emails on 3rd party systems should be safe.
Some final thoughts
Can you sue your employer if your rights are violated? Depends on the specifics of the situation and your own ability to both fund and handle a lengthy legal process. But as it drags on, most likely your career and perhaps marriage will be in the dumpster. Should you run right out and buy encrypting software that you install on every one of your office devices? Or should you make it a policy to never again write anything of a personal nature at the office? That's up to you, of course, and your particular situation. Neither would be my first choice.
Still, since that time, I've had an awareness that my work emails could be read and have acted accordingly. So if you are doing something you need to keep secret or saying something nasty about a co-worker or boss, you might best save it for when you are not on company time or equipment.