The Intersection of Work & Life

You’ve heard it before: "My life is on my smartphone." What you probably haven’t heard is this: If your employer provides that laptop, BlackBerry or iPhone, then you should have no expectation of privacy.

The Intersection of Work & Life Multi-tasking electronic devices for work and personal life can have serious — and shocking — consequences By Tisha Crews Keller


You’ve heard it before: "My life is on my smartphone." What you probably haven’t heard is this: If your employer provides that laptop, BlackBerry or iPhone, then you should have no expectation of privacy.

Oh, who cares? Everyone does it. And they do.

But think about those e-mails to your husband. Texts about your co-workers. Calendar entries outlining exactly when and how your ex violated the custody agreement.

Ask yourself if you’d be comfortable airing that particular basket of laundry on the break-room bulletin board.


Then maybe you should think twice about using those electronic devices to chronicle your life. Because in today’s world, your employer and the courts have a right to see everything you write, text and store on your company-issued equipment — and maybe even your personal devices, if you’ve used them for work.

In today’s complex world of social media, electronic communication, e-calendaring and 24/7 access to e-mail, the line between work and personal life is blurring.

Experts say that not only is cross-contamination a potential privacy killer, it also creates potential problems that many business owners and managers don’t often realize.

For one thing, wasted work time can be an issue.

In their 2008 study, researchers Andrea Grimes of the Georgia Institute of Technology and A.J. Brush from Microsoft Research found almost four times as many personal events on professional calendars as vice versa. These events included social activities, sporting events, medical appointments and school events.


Wasting away

Leonard Dietzen, Tallahassee attorney, points out a scary statistic: Twenty-two percent of the typical workday is spent on the Web — what he calls "World Wide Waste." In addition, pornography viewing rates are highest between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Gambling, eBay, Facebook, Twitter and more are all time-stealers in today’s workplace.

Wasted time costs money, of course, but there is another reason Dietzen thinks companies should never allow employees to use business computers to update social media sites: One less-than-positive post can unravel years of expensive branding efforts.

Social media can undo a company in other ways, too. YouTube becomes like a water cooler, Dietzen maintains, when employees gather around to watch and comment on videos. This can create an uncomfortable atmosphere for some employees and could even lead to a lawsuit.

"Social media in the 2000s is the sexual harassment of the 1980s (in terms of risk to companies)," he warns. In the ’80s, it wasn’t good enough to just write a policy on sexual harassment. Companies learned the hard way that they had to train staff on what it was and how to prevent it. In court, Dietzen says, "You’re only as good as your policies and training."


The breech of privacy

Robert Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, is a noted authority on the legalities of the intersection between work and personal e-communication.

"We live in an information age, but we’re not very good at screening that information," he notes.

Jarvis gives a list of reasons why people should keep many aspects of their personal lives far away from work, but he knows that, in reality, most people don’t. Unfortunately, he says, once you start to use your business e-mail, calendar, PDA, etc., you give up any privacy rights.

Even if it’s not covered in an employee manual, the expectation is that any communication done at work or using company property is open to managers and company officials. In fact, some employers screen employee e-mails, Web browsing logs and more as a matter of course.

"Always use the common sense test: If your employer is giving you the device, why would you think the information on it would be private?" Jarvis says.

In terms of what can happen to your personal information, if you work in the public sector, it’s pretty clear. Florida’s Government-in-the-Sunshine Law provides that all communication — traditional or electronic — for official business is subject to public-records requests by reporters and the public alike.

Private businesses working with state and federal agencies beware: This pertains to you, too. Normally, private industry is only obligated to turn over communications to the courts. But doing business with the government is a totally different ballgame, according to Jarvis.

In addition, he says that if a private business is sued or there is a dispute between employer and employee, private information can come to light.

The recent case brought by reporters against Florida State University and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) — by which the NCAA’s emails to FSU lawyers may come to light — is a good example of how private organizations can become ensnared in public records law.

There is a mistaken belief that by using a private e-mail account (or device), you can go around the Sunshine Law. It is true that if you’re not dealing with information that can be found as a public record, there is an expectation of privacy. But a communiqué to public entities cannot be protected. Dietzen’s advice?

"Always be on guard," he says. "Once the monster is out of the box, it can be edited, forwarded and more." Beware, too, he says, that what seems informal now can become evidence for lawsuits later on.


Business, protect thyself

Obviously employees need to think twice before sending their personal communications out into the ether, but what is at risk for employers? A great deal, according to experts.

First, trade secrets and other confidential information may be distributed to competitors or otherwise opened to the world at large when employees are allowed to use their company device for personal use. Knowingly or not, an employee may take sensitive information home to a system that doesn’t have appropriate security safeguards.

If you’re dealing with human-resource issues via e-mail, then you’ve opened yourself up to even more risk. It’s best, Jarvis says, to use the telephone for personal or confidential information.

Jarvis cites cases in which employees wanted their personal information retrieved before surrendering a company computer. In other situations, employees were consulting with their lawyer via company e-mail about suing the employer. Neither of these situations came out to the employee’s advantage, says Jarvis, but he warns about opening the company up to such exposure.

To that end, Dietzen suggests that companies develop a policy and a timeline for it to take effect. Train employees, he says, to avoid any ambiguity. And, for goodness’ sake, keep all HR and employment decisions off the electronic paper trail. An e-mail tells what was discussed, who read it, and when they did so. Evidence such as this is almost irrefutable in a court of law.

Also on the suggestion list? Follow Dietzen’s example and carry two phones or PDAs to keep personal and business information completely segregated, just to be safe.


Permissive posting

Some companies revel in the new boundlessness of electronic communication. Ivette Marques, a senior account executive at Ron Sachs Communications in Tallahassee, says that her company actually encourages online activity and social media during the workday.

Marques’ clients expect the Sachs staff to stay on top of sites such as Facebook and Twitter because they are an integral part of viral marketing campaigns.

"Social media should be a vital forum for conversation and information," she says. "It is 24/7, and it can be a learning tool."

While Marques does use her company laptop at home, she is careful to segregate e-mails into clearly identified folders. In addition, she has her personal e-mail feeding into her company e-mail program, but always makes sure replies and forwards stay within the same domain. This means a Junior League e-mail to her personal Gmail account is replied to from the same

e-mail, whereas any Ron Sachs Communications messages stay separate.

For Marques, using e-communication wisely is all about protecting a brand, whether it’s that of Ron Sachs Communications or her own personal one. She (and her progressive employer) realize that in the modern business world, fast-paced communication is key. But a key to professional communication is policing oneself. And she’s on to something.

According to Dietzen and others, 90 percent of business communication is electronic. It behooves us, then, to take notice of what we’re sending and the inevitable trail that follows. (Remember, data recovery experts can get anything off of a computer — even instant messages!)

In the words of Jarvis, "The great thing about technology is it has freed us from being at the office, but we’ve also taken home the responsibility (to monitor ourselves). If I’m taking my company’s device home — or just using their network, IM program or e-mail server — all the things I can’t do at work I now can’t do at home."

The prying eyes that may read your words can be either your boss or the world at large. So if you don’t want it widely read and distributed, don’t type it.



Avoid E-Mail Blunders

Don’t send confidential or sensitive e-mail messages.

Never send or forward inappropriate e-mail messages.

Never e-mail messages when angry.

Don’t forget to proofread for content, spelling and punctuation.

Avoid using your company e-mail for personal reasons.

It’s not necessary to respond immediately to every e-mail message, which could result in a loss of productivity.

Avoid accessing your personal e-mail account from company computers.

Cut down on choosing "reply all" when responding to a message.

Never forward outside your company information intended for internal use.

Be wary of contact "auto-find."

— Leonard Dietzen