Companies can’t limit e-mail to ‘business purposes only’

A company that gives its employees access to its e-mail system can’t limit their use of the system strictly to “business purposes only.” That’s the word from the National Labor Relations Board.

The Board’s decision applies to both unionized and non-unionized workplaces.

However, the ruling is fairly limited, and it doesn’t mean that employees now have an unrestricted right to use company e-mail for humorous banter or idle chit-chat.

The issue arises because federal law allows workers to communicate with each other to address legitimate workplace concerns and grievances. Thus, a company can’t stop employees from using workplace e-mail to address these issues.

The case involved a sign-language interpretation business called Purple Communications. The company had a policy that employees could use its e-mail system only for business purposes. Specifically, employees could not send “uninvited e-mail of a personal nature,” or use e-mail “on behalf of organizations or persons with no professional or business affiliation with the company.”

According to the Board, this policy went too far, because it could prevent workers from e-mailing each other over legitimate workplace problems or asking for outside help with such problems.

Interestingly, the Board had issued a decision back in 2007 that said businesses could limit employees’ use of e-mail, because the e-mail system was the property of the business. But the Board now says that times have changed, and that e-mail has become such a pervasive part of corporate life that a new rule is needed.

The Board noted that a company isn’t under any obligation to give employees access to e-mail in the first place – but if it does so, it must obey the new rule.

Also, a company is still permitted to monitor employees’ work e-mail. Although workers can use a company e-mail system to discuss workplace issues, they do not have a right to privacy in their messages.