Speedy Delivery: Why Your Email System Isn’t Entirely Yours Anymore

people working in office

Email. It’s one of the most indispensable tools in business today. It’s also the bane of existence for countless employees and employers alike, as we all find ourselves fighting feverishly to survive the inbox onslaught that plagues our daily lives.

As an employer, you know that your business can’t function without email, and you also know that the contents of business emails are your property. In fact, it says so right in your employee handbook (or it should). Clearly, business emails are like other business communications and documents, such as contracts, agreements, terms of service and confidential memos. In short, they’re your property.

The good news is, that’s still true. The bad news is, the email system itself is not entirely “your property” anymore – at least, not in the way you probably think it should be.

A fundamental tenet of labor relations is that employees have the right to communicate with one another about a labor issue or organizing effort at their workplace without obstruction.

Traditionally, this included things such as conversations in the break room or notices on the employee bulletin board. These rights are enumerated in Sections 7 and 8 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which are collectively titled “Interfering with employee rights”.

However, in a ruling made in December 2014, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) determined that employee rights to communicate openly with one another about labor and organizing issues now extend beyond the tried-and-true tools of the physical world, and into the electronic world.

In short, company email systems are now recognized as a protected forum for labor communications by employees. Of course, the content of business emails remain the property of the employer (the NLRB does not address business confidentiality issues within the scope of its rulings), but this does mean that, for the first time, an employer may actually be legally in the wrong by controlling, monitoring or limiting employee use of the company email system. And this includes not only using the system to send and receive emails, but also using the system to look up email addresses.

There are a few limitations defined within the ruling, which was reached as a result of a case between Purple Communications, Inc. of California and the Communications Workers of America, AFL-CIO. The limitations include:

  • The ruling does not require employers to grant access to business email systems for employees who do not or would not normally receive access as part of their jobs.
  • The ruling does allow employers to maintain controls over their email systems, but at the same time it makes clear that employer policies as written and communicated must allow permission for employee use of the email system in accordance with the NLRB ruling (i.e. for labor relations and organizing communications).

Clearly, this represents a dramatic shift in how employers will need to view, manage and establish procedures relating to their business email systems. Revisions to employee handbooks everywhere are clearly in order, along with development of new procedures and guidelines to better establish the line between the company’s controls and the employee’s rights.

Bottom Line: As digital communications become more and more central to the lives of employers and employees alike, the law will continue to evolve along with these changes and likely grant wider and wider recognition that digital platforms provided or supported by employers require regulation. Keep abreast of changes in labor law and make sure to regularly revise and update employee policies and procedures accordingly.

Selected Sources:

Interfering with employee rights (Section 7 & 8(a)(1))

NLRB Creates Right to Use Corporate E-Mail to Organize and to Complain About Work: Ten Key Implications for Employers

NLRB Ruling Extends Employee Rights for Section 7 Activities to Encompass Company Email Systems

Image Credit: Vinnie Lauria (Flickr @ Creative Commons)

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