As an employer, you provide an email account and internet service while at the office. If you suspect the employee of misconduct, like stealing or altering time sheets, can you look through their email accounts to confirm your suspicions?

If you provide the server space and email address to the employee, as a general rule you may read those emails. If you discover that the email sent from the business account is actually personal in nature, but does not otherwise show employee misconduct, you should not continue to read it and you should not use the contents of that email for any purpose. However, state and federal law generally prohibit the unauthorized access of an employee’s personal email account. This is especially true if the personal email account is web-based, and you have access to it because the employee saved the username and passwords on the work computer. In this instance, viewing the employee’s email messages could subject you or the company to civil and criminal penalties. There are lawful ways to obtain an employee’s personal email messages in this situation, but relying on your employer-employee relationship and looking through their email without their consent is among the riskiest.

Most Houstonians have at least one personal email account, and at least one work email account. You may be tempted to find out how your employee’s use of their email accounts affects your business. Unfortunately, these situation happens all too frequently. The good news is that your business can get ready for this problem now. Your business should have a written policy on the acceptable uses of employee email accounts, and it should also have a plan on how to conduct investigations into violations of this email policy. A written policy can prevent employee misconduct, and it can keep your business out of trouble as well.