Workplace E-Mail and Internet Use: Employees and Employers Beware: An Employee's Personal Use of an Employer's E-Mail System and of Internet Access Is Not Protected under the Law, and Employers Can Face Legal Liability for Employees' Inappropriate Use Thereof

By Muhl, Charles J. | Monthly Labor Review, February 2003 | Go to article overview

Workplace E-Mail and Internet Use: Employees and Employers Beware: An Employee's Personal Use of an Employer's E-Mail System and of Internet Access Is Not Protected under the Law, and Employers Can Face Legal Liability for Employees' Inappropriate Use Thereof


Muhl, Charles J., Monthly Labor Review


The widespread use of the Internet and electronic mail ("e-mail") has transformed the way business is conducted in the typical American workplace. Written communication to almost anyone in the world now can be completed nearly instantaneously; information about any subject encountered in a daily job task can be retrieved in seconds from the Internet through multiple search engines. These technological developments have benefited employers and employees alike--employers in accomplishing business goals and employees in performing their duties.

Undoubtedly, the Internet and e-mail also have given employees a new means of escaping briefly from long days at the office. What sports enthusiast, for example, hasn't taken a quick peek at ESPN.com on the Internet during working hours to see the latest sports news? Who hasn't interrupted his or her work for a moment to send a quick note to a friend about the coming weekend's social events?

A recent extensive survey (1) of employers and employees to gauge their opinions on Internet and e-mail use at the workplace revealed that both groups view non-work-related use of the Internet and e-mail as appropriate, even though, in their mutual opinion, such use may hinder employees' productivity. As a general matter, most employees believe that some personal Internet or e-mail use at work is acceptable and that employers should not have the right to monitor what sites employees are visiting or what e-mails they are sending and receiving. More than 87 percent of employees surveyed stated that it was appropriate for them to surf non-work-related Web sites for at least some portion of the workday. Of these, some 55 percent indicated that it was appropriate for employees to spend anywhere from 15 minutes to 30 minutes on the Internet or dealing with personal e-mail each workday. Nearly 84 percent of the employees surveyed indicated that they regularly send non-work-related e-mails each day, with 32 percent sending between 5 and 10 such messages. Almost 57 percent of employees felt that this personal Internet and e-mail use decreased their productivity.

Yet, despite this widespread activity and acknowledgment that the activity may make them less efficient, only 29 percent of employees reported being caught by their employers engaging in nonwork-related Internet surfing. Almost 55 percent of employees thought that their employers were not monitoring either their Internet usage or the e-mails they sent and received. Furthermore, only 57 percent thought that employers should have the right to monitor their employees' Internet and e-mail usage.

Interestingly, employers' viewpoints were largely the same on these questions. More than 82 percent of employers indicated that it was appropriate for employees to view nonwork-related Web sites, and 58 percent of these opined that it was permissible for employees to do so between 15 and 30 minutes per day. Similarly, some 86 percent of employers believed that it was appropriate for employees to send personal e-mail, and 61 percent of them felt that one to five messages per day was an appropriate number. Only 31 percent of employers indicated that they monitored or restricted employees' Internet usage, even though 51 percent believed that inappropriate use of the Internet and e-mail compromises worker productivity. The following tabulation presents the main results of the Vault.com survey:

                                         Percent       Percent
                                      of employees   of employers
             Question                  responding     responding
                                         "yes"          "yes"

Is it appropriate for employees
  to surf non-work-related
  Web sites?                              87.5           82.2

Is it appropriate for employees
  to send personal e-mail during
  the workday?                            83.7           85.8

Have you ever caught an employee
  (or, if an employee, been caught)
  in the act of surfing a
  non-work-related Web site? … 

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Workplace E-Mail and Internet Use: Employees and Employers Beware: An Employee's Personal Use of an Employer's E-Mail System and of Internet Access Is Not Protected under the Law, and Employers Can Face Legal Liability for Employees' Inappropriate Use Thereof
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