Looking Over Your Shoulder: Private Communications on Company Devices

Increasingly, our private and work lives blend as employers encourage flexible schedules and telecommuting in exchange for increasing round-the-clock access to employees. This can blur the lines, however, when it comes to using company computers and Wi-Fi for personal business, even if conducted on a personal laptop, iPad or smartphone.

There is no reasonable expectation of privacy if employees are using company equipment to access personal communications, including the company network as a portal to the Internet and a private email account. Employees should assume that any online activity, whether it’s on Amazon, eBay, or booking a vacation, could be uncovered by their employer.

Employers need boldface policies that outline how company equipment and Internet services are to be used, and what personal devices employees are allowed to bring for their private use to the workplace and when they are authorized to use them to access the internet. These policies should be discussed in person, with the employing signing a document signifying they have been informed about the policy and possible consequences if it is violated. Clear unambiguous policies properly circulated can avoid problems for employer and employee.

Many employees will be surprised to find that upon termination of their employment, an employer can ask to see their personal phone or computer, if it has been used for company business, to ensure that trade secrets and other corporate data hasn’t been improperly transferred or otherwise misused. If employees do wish to use personal email during the workday, the most conservative approach is to bring your smartphone (one not issued or otherwise paid for by the company), iPad or laptop, and use breaks and mealtimes to do so. Many employers will be more liberal in the types of communication and activities they allow, but doing so risks creating a gray zone of conduct that can be exploited by employer or employee should disagreements arise.