In matters of workplace privacy, employers hold most of the cards. Although state laws vary, in general it's perfectly legal to monitor phone calls, dig through files, or read e-mail. But if you get sued for snooping, a judge will consider whether employees had a "reasonable expectation of privacy." So make privacy policies as clear as possible.
CASE IN POINT:
Managers at AllOutdoors.com, an online retailer in Traverse City, Mich., allow their 60 employees to use the Web for personal reasons, as long as they don't do anything abusive or illegal. To help ensure that they don't, the company has an Internet and e-mail policy that allows for the monitoring of online activity. Acting on a complaint, managers recently tracked a worker sending e-mail under someone else's name without permission. He was fired. Another employee was disciplined after a search of computer files found he was sending inappropriate messages to women in the office. "It's important that employees know the rules, so there's no question as to what is acceptable or unacceptable," says Nicole Runyon, director of human resources.
In Small Business Legal Smarts (Bloomberg Press, 1998), author Deborah L. Jacobs advises that the best way to avoid a privacy suit is to have a valid business reason for conducting a search.
Alison Stein Wellner