To Monitor or not to Monitor Emails: That is the Question

Topic: Job Performance
Publication: Academy of Management Perspectives (NOV 2009)
Article: Monitoring employee emails: Is there any room for privacy?
Authors: W.P. Smith and F. Tabak
Reviewed By: Benjamin Granger

It’s hard to imagine work without email. For many employees, email is a necessity. One potential problem with email, however, is that it can be easily abused by employees (i.e., using email for personal reasons at work). In response, many organizations have implemented email monitoring software. But, is email monitoring fair? Does it illegally infringe on the rights of employees? And how does it affect employees?

In a recent review of the email monitoring literature and relevant case law, Smith and Tabak note three basic reasons why organizations may want to monitor employee emails:

(1)    To protect the organization from potentially damaging information being transmitted via email.

(2)    To protect the organization’s assets that may be leaked during email transmission.

(3)    To facilitate productivity that may be cut due to excessive emailing.

The Legal Perspective: Though these are certainly legitimate concerns, the major legal issue is whether email monitoring infringes on employees’ rights to privacy. Although there are good arguments for and against employee privacy, the courts have predominately ruled in favor of organizations using email monitoring systems. However, case law in the area of email monitoring is sparse and thus provides little resolution to this issue.

The Employee Outcomes Perspective: Other research evidence suggests that email monitoring leads to decreased commitment and employee dissatisfaction. Email monitoring can also lead to increased stress and distrust. Though not discussed in detail by the authors, relevant topics from other research literatures (e.g., justice, performance monitoring) suggests that providing reasons for employee monitoring can go a long way to legitimizing such action and avoiding negative employee outcomes.

Finally, although Smith and Tabak note that a firm resolution to the complex issues surrounding email monitoring is unavailable, their critical review of employee email monitoring is an excellent source for organizations using or planning to use such processes. The debate will continue, but as a good rule of thumb, employees should always assume that their supervisors are watching over their virtual shoulders.

Smith, W.P., & Tabak, F. (2009). Monitoring employee emails: Is there any room for
privacy? Academy of Management Perspectives, 23(4), 33-48.