In simple terms, a work or company email is an employer’s property in the same way a direct dial phone number, phone (mobile and/or land line) and any other piece of equipment or resource is. Therefore, as a matter of principle, the employer is entitled to have access to that email address as necessary in order to conduct its business activities. Correspondingly, employees are obliged to co-operate with any request for access.
Where issues can arise is when an employee is allowed to use their work email for personal emails. This can either be set out in policy or implicit. In this case, care needs to be taken to ensure that personal emails are not read. The access should be limited to ensuring the employer can access business related emails.
If an employee is objecting to providing access to their work email, you can address this by confirming that as a matter or principle the work email address is the employer’s property and you require access to all work emails. Reinforce with the employee, you will not be reviewing personal emails and they can either forward those emails to their personal email address, delete them etc (as noted below). However, you will require their password and access as needed.
If an employee continues to resist, inform them you will be making arrangements with your IT service provider to gain access to the work email and given their lack of co-operation, suspending their personal use until further notice. If this step is required, it’s advisable to contact your employment law adviser first in order to ensure clear and succinct written communications are provided in respect of this step.
To avoid issues in the future, if there is no policy in place, or if there is a policy in place which does not address it, in the first instance all employees should be told that:
(a) Any work assigned email address is for work purposes;
(b) That where necessary you will require employees to provide access in order for you to ensure that email communications are dealt with as needed and to provide for business continuity;
(c) Personal emails received at the work email address can be forwarded to a personal email address, deleted, flagged or moved into a separate folder so they remain private; and
(d) A policy will be introduced to clarify email and internet access shortly, or recirculate the current policy (updated if/as needed).
Noting point (d), if there is no policy in place, it would also be timely to introduce an email and internet policy specifying how the internet and email facilities can and will be used. Alternatively, if there is a policy, but it does not cover this situation, the policy should be updated.
Above article kindly contributed by: Dean Kilpatrick (Special Counsel – Employment), Anthony Harper Law, For more information contact – Email