Labor and Employment

Internet and Email Policies in the Workplace

By Lisa Guerin, ​J.D., Boalt Hall at the University of California at Berkeley
Nearly all employers should have policies regarding employee Internet and email use at the workplace.

Does your company have computers and employees? If so, you should also have written policies for Internet and email use. The lightning-fast connectivity and communication allowed by digital technology also carries significant risks, including wasted time, lost productivity, inappropriate workplace behavior (such as viewing pornography or sending bigoted email), stolen trade secrets, and more.

To guard against these potential problems, your company should have policies that clearly spell out what uses are allowed and prohibited. You should also warn employees explicitly that their online activities are not private, at least when they use company equipment.

Privacy and Monitoring

Your company policies play a significant role in determining how much privacy your employees have at work. A court asked to decide a workplace privacy dispute will weigh the employee’s reasonable expectations of privacy against your need to intrude. How reasonable your employees’ expectations are depend, in part, on what your policies say.

If your Internet policy warns employees that their use of company computer equipment and their Internet access will be monitored, then employees will have a hard time arguing that they reasonably thought their web surfing was private. Similarly, if your email policy explains that the company reserves the right to read all employee email sent on company accounts, an employee who claims to have expected privacy won’t have a leg to stand on.

Even if your company doesn’t plan to set up monitoring software or routinely read employee emails, your policies should reserve your right to do so. If a problem arises—such as an employee accused of harassing coworkers by email, downloading pirated software, or passing confidential information to a competitor—you’ll be able to investigate employee email and Internet use quickly, without worrying about privacy concerns. And, your employees will know that their Internet use and communications are not private, which should go a long way toward curbing inappropriate online behavior in the first place.

Different rules apply to using surveillance cameras to monitor employees in the workplace. For more information, see Workplace Cameras and Surveillance: Rules for Employers.

What to Include in Your Internet Policy

An employment lawyer can help you draft an effective Internet policy that creates clear boundaries, protects your company’s rights, and follows any state or local laws that might apply. However, here are some major items your policy should address:

  • Personal use of the Internet. Will you allow employees to use the Internet for shopping, Facebook, and other personal activities? If so, will you limit how much time employees spend on these pursuits, or will you limit employees to personal use only during breaks and lunch? (If your Internet policy addresses social media use, you should be aware that employees have certain legal protections in this area; see Employee Posts on Facebook, Twitter, Blogs, and Other Social Media for more information.)
  • Prohibited uses and sites. Most companies prohibit employees from viewing certain sites, such as those involving pornography, online gambling, and so on. You may also want to prohibit employees from downloading software, streaming movies, or using certain types of online shareware. This will not only protect your company systems from viruses or other interference, but it will also help prevent intellectual property disputes with other parties.
  • Posting to other sites. Some companies prohibit employees from posting to other websites from their workplace computers. If employees post something about your company’s products, strict rules require them to identify themselves and disclose their status as employees. But, be aware that even unrelated posts can cause problems for your company (such as an employee including racist language in an online movie review, with an IP address that can be clearly traced back to your company).

What to Include in Your Email Policy

Your email policy should tell employees that their use of the company’s email system is not private. If you will regularly monitor employee email, you should briefly describe how that will work. In addition, your policy should cover:

  • Appropriate content. Make clear that all of your company conduct policies—for example, those that prohibit harassment and threats of workplace violence—apply to employee email. You may also want to remind employees to maintain a professional tone in all emails, even internal communications.
  • Personal email use. You may want to limit employees’ use of company email for personal reasons. While this is generally allowable, you should be aware of certain limitations. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the federal agency that interprets and enforces laws regarding unions and workplace organizing, recently held that employers must allow employees to use work email to communicate about the terms and conditions of their employment during nonwork hours (unless the employer has a compelling reason to restrict such communication). This is an extension of the rules on workplace speech that have long been in place. An attorney can help you draft an email policy that complies with this interpretation.
  • Email retention policies. Your company should explain its policies on how long employees must keep certain types of email—and what they should do with email that is past its sell-by date. Again, a lawyer can help you figure out your obligations here.

Written Policies and Acknowledgment Forms

Once you have drafted your policies and had an employment lawyer review them, it’s time to put them in place. Circulate copies of the policies to employees, along with a written acknowledgment form where employees can sign to indicate that they have read and understand the policies. Hold meetings to answer questions and train employees on the policies.

Because technology is constantly changing and new court decisions on communications and privacy are released all the time, it’s a good idea to have an attorney review your email and Internet policies annually, to make sure they are still up to date. If you decide to make any changes to your policies, you should circulate the latest version, along with a new acknowledgment form for employees to sign. This will help you make sure employees have read and understood the policy, and it will help keep your company out of legal trouble if it has to enforce its policies.

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