Is employees' E-mail protected by privacy laws? Recent controversial court rulings have generated confusion on the matter. Lee Gesmer, partner in the Boston law firm of Lucash, Gesmer & Updegrove, answers key questions about the legal aspects of monitoring employee E-mail:

What rights to privacy do employees have on E-mail?

The law provides little or no guarantee of personal privacy on a company's E-mail system. There is no constitutional "right of privacy" for internal E-mail communications. The Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 prohibits the interception of messages sent over online systems or the Internet, but exceptions exist that give employers the right to monitor employee E-mail.

Is it legal to read employees' E-mail without their knowledge?

Yes, under most circumstances. The issue has arisen in cases in which an employee has been terminated after the employer read E-mail. To date, no court has upheld employee arguments that termination was based on a violation of privacy rights.

What is an effective E-mail policy?

Avoid giving employees the impression that they can expect E-mail privacy. This message should be stated in policy manuals and posted prominently on the E-mail system itself. However, the law is so favorable to employers that even when they do the opposite? tell employees that E-mail will be treated as confidential? they may not be bound by their promise.

How should companies handle E-mail monitoring?

That's up to the employer and based on technical and personnel resources. There are no legal restrictions.