Which of the following is inappropriate behaviour: Using your workplace e-mail to send a note to your boyfriend telling him you'll be a few minutes late for dinner? Mentioning in the e-mail that you love him? Or telling him you're looking forward to some cuddle time and a back rub and maybe a few minutes more of that thing that you guys did last weekend?
Sorry, it's a trick question. The answer? All of the above.
The online release last week of amorous e-mails between Conservative MP Bob Dechert and Shi Rong, a journalist with Xinhua News Agency, is illuminating the peculiar role of workplace e-mail in the lives of office workers across Canada. Owned and administered (and legally monitored) by companies for the sake of productivity, e-mail is nevertheless regularly used for personal – and sometimes intimate – conversations by employees.
"People need to be reminded of what's appropriate and what's inappropriate," said Michael Marmur, a Toronto management consultant. "Find me one person who hasn't sent an e-mail they don't regret."
But employees need to remember something: "Any kind of corporate property is corporate property, and not to be used for personal use," said Alfonsina Chang, a professor in the Centre for Human Resources at Toronto's Seneca College.
While regulations may differ from province to province, common law in Canada holds that employees do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy while using corporate e-mail systems.
That's great in theory, but the reality is that, even amidst the explosion over the last decade of ways to communicate – here's looking at you, Facebook and Twitter and Google+ and text messaging – desk jockeys still regularly use their workplace e-mail to bang out a quick note to a drinking buddy. (Or coo sweet nothings to a paramour.) "People are just comfortable with [e-mail] and it's easy," explained Ms. Chang. Besides, there are pitfalls associated with using alternative communication channels: Last February, bureaucrats were scolded for using the BlackBerry Messaging service, which some believe to be a less secure channel than the federal government's e-mail servers, to discuss sensitive government information after being specifically instructed to abstain from doing so.
Our level of comfort, and sense of ownership, with workplace e-mails isn't entirely our fault: Workplaces are more innovative and efficient when staff members develop some level of personal relationship.
"Sometimes we use our e-mails to send out notices about personal holiday parties, because your guests being invited are from work," Ms. Chang noted. "Notices of events that are happening in people's lives – like birth announcements – which really have nothing to do with work, but just because their relationship is through (work), they're using e-mail: Is that fine? I guess. It is using it for personal use, yes, but you're also developing a bond and relationship."
Still, companies have good reason to create a culture in which employees believe their e-mails are being monitored. That will, they hope, prevent staff from using the accounts to engage in behaviour that could disparage the organization.
"Some potential plaintiff is always looking for deep pockets to sue, so if someone at Imperial Oil made threatening remarks from their computer, you can expect to get a statement of claim against Imperial Oil," noted Bob Thompson, a lawyer and professor at Seneca College. "Whether it would stick or not is a good question … but I can see the argument, and that's exactly what organizations worry about – risk to their reputation.
"To me, that's the number one thing: 'Are you dragging our name into the dirt? Have you embarrassed us?' " he added. "They'll act on it." Usually: As of Tuesday afternoon, Bob Dechert was still the Honourable Member of Parliament for Mississauga-Erindale.