Strictly Business

Tuesday, Nov 20 2012 12:00 PM

ROBIN PAGGI: Private emails might not be so private

BY ROBIN PAGGI Contributing columnist

"Another one bites the dust," the No. 1 hit by the English rock band Queen, aptly describes the recent resignation of former CIA director David Petraeus. Like a number of well-known figures in politics, sports and business before him, Petraeus' emails shed light on an inappropriate relationship, which cost him his job (although, in this case, voluntarily).

News reports say the emails were discovered during an investigation that was triggered by a complaint against Paula Broadwell, Petraeus' purported lover. Broadwell was accused of sending harassing emails to another woman, the FBI investigated, and the emails between Broadwell and Petraeus were found. National scandal aside, this case should be of interest to employers and employees because it demonstrates once again that personal emails can destroy careers or at least cause people to lose their jobs.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that many people still believe that emails that they deem to be private may not be viewed by their employer. Although our state Constitution does say that our inalienable rights include the right to pursue and obtain privacy, employers do not violate that right when the employee should have no reasonable expectation of privacy at work.

For example, if an employer states in writing (whether in a handbook or individual policy) that company equipment is to be used for business purposes only and that emails will be monitored, then there is no expectation of privacy. However, if there is no policy, or if a policy exists but everyone knows that emails really aren't being monitored, then the employee could have a reasonable expectation of privacy. In the latter case, employers could get in trouble for perusing their employee's emails without their consent (unless the perusing is part of an investigation into misconduct).

Having said that, employees should still refrain from sending personal (especially inappropriate) emails or texts using company equipment because of the court case of the City of Ontario v. Quon. In this case, Sgt. Jeff Quon claimed his supervisor told him that his text messages on his city-issued pager would not be audited by the city as long as Quon paid for any overage charges. However, his text messages were indeed reviewed to determine why he was exceeding the limit on the number of messages allotted. After the review revealed that the majority of Quon's messages were personal and many were sexually explicit, Quon sued the city for violation of privacy. Even though Quon was seemingly led to believe that his texts were not being monitored, the U.S. Supreme Court still found in favor of the City of Ontario.

Employees should also note that Petraeus used a personal account and not his CIA account when emailing Broadwell, according to a CNN report. Which demonstrates that, in some cases, employees can get into trouble for their personal emails even when they are not sent on company equipment.

Of course, because of his former position as the director of the CIA, the Petraeus situation is much more than just an inappropriate email exchange. However, it was the inappropriate email exchange that led to his demise and to his total lack of privacy today.

Employees need to know that they don't need to be the head of the CIA for that to happen to them as well. And, as Billy Graham once said and Petraeus undoubtedly now knows, "Once you've lost your privacy, you realize you've lost an extremely valuable thing."

Robin Paggi is the Training Coordinator at Worklogic HR Legal Solutions. She can be reached at rpaggi@worklogiclegal.com. These are her opinions, not necessarily those of The Californian.

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