Computer and Internet Use

It is important to always keep in mind that your work computer is not like your personal computer at home.  If an employer has a company policy that employee computers may be monitored and the company has informed its employees about this policy, courts have generally held that employees do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in any emails or files stored on work computers or the company’s network and the employer may monitor Internet usage.  As long as your employer has a legitimate business purpose for reviewing the information stored on your computer, he or she is generally free to review your stored emails and monitor your Internet activity, regardless of whether your use relates to business or personal matters.  While it may be possible to win a lawsuit against your employer if the company’s computer monitoring policy is not routinely and fairly enforced, it is smarter to play it safe.  Don’t use your work computer to send emails, visit websites or open files that you would be embarrassed to show to your employer. 

This same principle holds true when it comes to using an employer-issued cell phone or laptop.  In 2010, the Supreme Court held that the government acted lawfully in its capacity as an employer when it audited the text messages its employees sent from their employer-issued pagers. As this article from the New York Times makes clear, the law regarding privacy on employer-issued technology is still unclear.  However, other courts have also held that employers may review the hard drives of laptops issued to employees through work, and employees therefore should not assume that communications made on employer-issued laptops, cell phones and pagers are private.

Social Networking

You have probably heard stories about employees who were fired because of comments or pictures they posted on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.  The frequency of these incidents has increased, and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has recently started taking action against employers who fire their workers for engaging in protected, concerted activity online.  This concerted activity is covered under the National Labor Relations Act, and it includes discussing wages and working conditions with coworkers.   The NLRB recently held that in some instances, employees cannot be fired for complaining about working conditions with coworkers on Facebook.

However, posting disparaging comments about your employer on a social networking site is generally a bad idea.  Often, posting complaints about your manager or making fun of customers or clients does not qualify as protected activity, especially if none of your coworkers respond to your post or join in the online conversation. In such instances, you can be disciplined or fired and would have no legal recourse through the NLRB.  It is better to be safe than sorry – if you want to complain, call a coworker or a friend.  Do not post complaints on a social networking site, even if you have restricted the general public’s access to your profile. 

For more information on the NLRB’s response to social networking issues, check out this special report.

*The information provided on social networking is current through September 2011.