1435 Morris Avenue - Suite 3A, Union, NJ 07083
Tim Haresign, President


We all do it from time to time. We use our workplace computers to check our private e-mail accounts, to surf the web and do a little online shopping and we sometimes send our coworkers jokes and cartoons. Admittedly, most employers tolerate such activities. When employers wish to discipline employees for innocently or casually using work computers for other than work assignments, the Union can usually sort things out in the employee’s favor. However, when employees cross the line between an occasional harmless foray into cyberspace and a disastrous trip to the seedier side of the web — such as online porn sites, the Union will have a difficult, if not impossible time in defending their jobs.

The rapid proliferation of email and web use raises the issue of employees’ expectations of privacy regarding email and internet technology in the workplace. This VOICE article is meant to be a gentle reminder to think about the consequences of your computer use in the work place.

Privacy Clause in the Full-Time Agreement

The Agreement contains a privacy clause under Article XI Section M. which states, “The Colleges/Universities will not abrogate the lawful rights of employees as to opening of their mail or the privacy of their offices or personal belongings” (p.15- 16). When the Council first crafted this contract language, email did not exist. So it is doubtful that the Council can defend you using this contact clause if the employer wanted to administer discipline or terminate employment because of content in an employee's email.

Using the Web

Downloading materials from questionable sites and spending time surfing the web on “company time” are very risky. Do not think that you will never be found out. In recent months, tech services entered a unit member’s office on a work order to repair equipment and found downloaded pornography. Of course, the unit member thought no one would ever see this material and argued that an employee has a right to privacy in such matter. This is not so. College and university employees have lost their jobs over such activity. Because equipment and time belong to the employer, the Union has been able to do little to help the involved unit member

The Council’s Position

The Council operates under the premise that all employee email is the legal property of the College/University. In fact, the Union strongly advises grievance chairs not to file grievances or conduct any but the most routine union business over the College/University email system. 

The Union bases its position on court cases whereby “an employee does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in email communications voluntarily made over the company email system, not withstanding any assurances from the employer that such communications were private and would not be intercepted by management” (Michael A. Smyth v. The Pillsbury Company, No. 05-5712, January 18, 1996*).  The court’s reasoning is that email communications are voluntary in nature and as such, are distinguishable from a forced disclosure of employee communications or other invasions of privacy such as urinalysis or a property search that results in a termination.  The court also believes that management’s interest in preventing the inappropriate or even illegal use of email outweighs employees’ privacy interests in these communications.  * (United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania). 

What To Do

Whether members use email for union or non-union business, a good rule of thumb is that there shouldn’t be anything in an email that wouldn’t be appropriate in an interdepartmental memo.     

Grievance officers should find out if the College/University has a written policy in the Employee Handbook or if the Human Resources office has documentation about electronic monitoring of employee email. 

Legally, an employer can incorporate some of the following statements in an email policy:

  • Email is to be used for business purposes only.
  • Information transmitted and stored is the sole property of the employer.
  • There is no right to privacy in any matter created, received, or sent on the email system — messages may be accessed and reviewed by the employer.

Also, remember that in large institutions with network servers, all data are downloaded to a storage tape once a day and thus can be reviewed at a later date — including your email messages and the history webpage visits.

(Reprinted and revised from March 2005 Voice)