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HR 101 – What to do When . . . You Want to Read Your Employee’s E-mails

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Please note that this pertains to South African Labour Relations, Basic Conditions of Employment Act and Best Practice requirements.

It is said that we here in South Africa, have the most progressive and democratic constitution in the world.

One of the issues of the constitution is the right to privacy. We as South Africans, as individuals have the right to keep our private stuff private.

But what about when your staff do private things during your business working time. I mean – that’s really not cool! You employ a staff member to work for you between the hours of x and y and you expect the work to be done, but said employee is playing on Facebook and sending out personal e-mails and even searching the internet for their own personal reasons.

Then, of course, you have the staff who may be selling your idea’s or your IP (in terms of the way that you do your business etc.) or even the list of your clients and their contact details. What then? Surely if the e-mails are being sent out in your time, using your infrastructure, your bandwidth, your electricity, your computer etc., you have a right to read whatever it is that they are writing or sending.

Well, the answer is both yes and no.

As the employer, you are not automatically entitled to read all of the e-mails. On the other hand, if you obtain written permission from the employee to read the mails, then, of course, you can.

If you have very real grounds in that your employee is abusing the use of your e-mail (for example sending out child pornography), then you have grounds to read those emails.

If the mail has been sent in the course of your company’s business (as in a business mail to a colleague or client), then you also may read the mail.

Prevention is always better than cure, therefore, getting the permission upfront (whether you need it at the time or not), for me is always first prize. So getting your permission as a clause in your contract of employment is a great way of getting permission before the time.

If you don’t have anything in place though, don’t stress or panic. Simply give them written notification (and get them to sign that they have received the same) of the fact that you will be checking and reading e-mails.

Here’s the thing – you can always read the mails, more often than not they will have no idea that you have read the mail! The problem is that if you try and discipline them for the contents of that mail, without their written consent, you will find yourself on the wrong side of the law, irrespective of what they have done.

It’s easier and less stressful to be proactive. Get the proper clauses into your letters of appointment or contracts and get yourself protected.