I was casually discussing the topic of corporate email privacy with another professional when he shared some information that caught me off guard. Although the standard policy on the topic is fairly well-known, I was shocked to learn how his company managed individual email accounts.
Before we go any further, let’s take a moment to review the scope your official, legal standing at work is with regard to communication conducted via corporate email systems. Here is a list of all of your privacy rights:
Technically speaking, there have been a handful of one-off legal cases where employees managed to convince a court that their messages should be immune to snooping. Practically, however, almost everybody knows that you don’t own your work email account. The computer, the network, the servers, and therefore your precious inbox, is company property. The strategy most people employ is simple: don’t be stupid when using the send button.
Back to the story about my colleague. At his employer, not only can management read his email, they routinely prove it to him through idle conversation! They use this power to praise (“Great job on that message to the prospect!”). They use it to coach (“Be careful about promising options without checking with the fulfillment team”). They use it to discipline (“Why haven’t you responded yet to that email from the client from 7AM this morning?”). In short, their corporate email system is the all-seeing eye.
You might think I’m going to talk about trust. After all, doesn’t a desire to quietly read every last employee email show a complete lack of trust in their ability to work independently? Isn’t the behavior a sign that managers have no commitment to their workers and no expectation of loyalty in return? Is perhaps the primary reason to spy on your team to gather evidence “just in case?”
Trust is certainly a critical aspect of any relationship, even one at the office. However, a group of people can be surprisingly effective at achieving their collective goals with a healthy distrust of each other. I think there’s actually an aspect of organizational dynamics which is even more fundamental than a shared sense of responsibility (but that’s another blog post.) What matters most in companies is not trust, but process and results.
What about employee email? I certainly can monitor what employees are typing and reading, but I have absolutely no intention of ever doing so! Sure, I trust my employees to use email wisely. I also trust them to make mistakes with email—because we’re all human and failures are the best way to learn. The reason I don’t dig around in other people’s accounts has very little to do with “trust.”
Instead, I choose not to quietly skim everyone’s email because it would be horrendously unproductive. If there’s a message that pertains to me, I’ll see it eventually through normal means such as a forward or a carbon copy. Can you imagine the inefficiency at my friend’s organization? It’s as if the company president is spending hours in the mail room steaming and resealing envelopes. The whole purpose of email is so you can quickly communicate without interrupting other people. Squatting on the server is a tremendous waste of time.
This is a new version of an old saying: “Just because you CAN doesn’t mean you SHOULD.” Email is a communication tool, not an apparatus for babysitting. Any company that is more interested in micromanaging than they are in productivity is one that is in serious trouble. Luckily for my colleague, the purpose of our meeting was to discuss a new direction for his career.