For better or worse, email is a part of life at most jobs, and many employees use work email accounts to communicate not only with business associates and colleagues but with friends and family members as well. Of course, there's nothing wrong with doing the latter, just like there's technically nothing wrong with using email as a forum in which to vent your frustrations about boring job-related projects, unreasonable deadlines, or insufferable coworkers. But what happens when a seemingly harmless tirade on your part or a casual reference to a wild and crazy night out with friends results in your job being compromised?

Believe it or not, it can happen -- especially if your company has a policy that allows it to read employees' emails. And if you're not careful, the things you say over email could come back to bite you.

Man typing on a laptop.

IMAGE SOURCE: GETTY IMAGES.

Is email monitoring legal?

Though email monitoring might seem creepy, the reality is that your company has every right to do it, provided you're given ample warning that your electronic communications are subject to review. Generally, companies will spell out their rights to read your work emails in employee handbooks or provide some other type of official notice that makes workers aware of such policies. But even if your company doesn't put that information in writing, it might still have the right to monitor information submitted through a company account or server.

But is someone actually reading your every typed word?

Of course, just because your employer has the right to monitor your emails doesn't mean that your boss sits at his or her desk every night combing through messages between you and your pals and peers, searching for evidence of immoral behavior or misconduct. At the same time, if your boss suspects that you're up to no good -- say, that you're stealing company property or sharing company secrets with competitors -- he or she might take a more proactive approach to monitoring and reviewing your electronic communications.

Another thing to consider is that some company email systems automatically save copies of all messages for a host of reasons -- to have a means of accessing critical data in the event of an outage or protect themselves from liability, to name a couple. So you might find that a message you deleted -- or thought you deleted -- has, in fact, been retained in perpetuity.

Staying out of trouble

If you want to avoid email-related trouble at work, your best bet is to assume that every single electronic message you send is going to be read by your boss or another company higher-up. Will this likely be the case? No, especially not if you work for a large firm. On the other hand, be aware that some systems are designed to flag certain keywords that are deemed suspicious, and if your emails contain too many of them, you might find that your messages are subject to an internal audit by your manager, an IT person, or someone in compliance.

Additionally, there are certain things you should never do via a work email account. These include but aren't limited to:

  • Badmouth a colleague or manager
  • Discuss personal financial matters in detail
  • Allude to the use of illegal substances or the abuse of legal ones
  • Communicate with recruiters and conducting an outside job search

Unfortunately, you never know when a message you write that's intended for one person will wind up being read by someone else at your company. And even more unfortunately, there's not much you can do to cry foul, especially if your employer makes it clear that email monitoring is something it does. Therefore, proceed with caution when using a company email account, and save those truly sensitive conversations for face-to-face meetings (which, presumably, aren't being recorded).

One final thing: If you use company equipment to check and send emails from a personal, nonwork account, don't assume those messages aren't being read, either. Though that's more of a gray area, ultimately, your best bet is to check your personal email account from your phone on a noncompany network. Doing so might make you seem paranoid, but it's better to err on the side of intense mistrust than to wind up getting fired over something you say in an electronic message.

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