Does the “Private” E-mail Exist?

Innovations in technology have blurred the lines between work and private life.  Many professionals regularly utilize personal devices, such as smart phones and tablets, while in the office, and can likewise access company files electronically through work-issued computers while at home.  Given the lack of a bright-line distinction between that which is work and that which is private, employees may be tempted to engage in conduct on personal accounts or devices that would otherwise be clearly prohibited in the office.  

Take, for instance, the recent scandal involving a justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court who just announced his retirement amidst allegations that he exchanged hundreds of sexually explicit emails through his personal email account using a state computer.  The messages were discovered in the course of the state Attorney General’s review of files relating to the Jerry Sandusky investigation.  The emails were described by some accounts as “extremely disturbing” and “highly demeaning portrayals of members . . . of the population.”

After receiving significant media attention, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued an order suspending the justice, who publicly accepted responsibility for sending the emails, amid other allegations of misconduct. The Court determined that the explicit nature of the photographs caused it to be held up to public ridicule and required immediate disciplinary action.  The Court further ordered the state’s Judicial Conduct Board to determine whether there is probable cause to file formal misconduct charges against the justice. Upon notice of the retirement, the Court cancelled the investigation.  

Professionals can help to avoid improper computer use by implementing a formal electronic use policy for company computers and personal electronic devices.  An electronic use policy should set forth clear parameters for what types of conduct are permitted, and define what activities are prohibited.  A thorough electronic use policy should include not only what conduct is considered inappropriate, but also rules related to transporting confidential data off-site, adding and removing software, limiting non work-related internet use, the transfer of copyrighted material, and use of company image, among others.  By instructing employees regarding the electronic use policy, firms can best ensure that employees conform to company policies and that appropriate disciplinary action can be taken against those who do not.