Who Owns a Work E-Mail?

A couple of weeks ago, it was revealed that Harvard University searched the official email accounts of over a dozen deans and faculty members as part of an investigation to determine the source of a leak regarding last year’s student cheating scandal. Although Harvard apologized for the search since many faculty members protested the search as a breach of privacy, the event should serve as a reminder to employers and employees alike about the issue of work e-mail ownership. As a general rule of thumb, employers, not employees, own official work e-mail accounts, even accounts that the company has an employee set up themselves on a third-party service such as Gmail (especially if that account is used solely for work purposes, accessed on employer technology, and is accessible by the employer).

Employers should have a technology policy that clearly states to employees that work email accounts are the property of the company, and that they should have no expectation of privacy in any work e-mail account or any communications sent through work hardware (e.g. company-owned computer or smartphones) or on the company network or internet connection. Employees should be further warned that the employer has the right to search work emails at any time and for any reason. Although employers will almost always be in the legal right regarding any actions it takes relating to work e-mail accounts, it may be sensible from an employee relations standpoint to make sure employees are fully aware of the company’s ownership and rights to work email accounts.