Welcome back to Ask a Lawyer, where I, a lawyer, respond to your questions. Got a vexing legal issue? Send it over, or drop it in the comments below. Today’s query:
Help! I started dating someone who maybe happens to be the daughter of my boss. Last week, my boss was looking through some of my emails to her daughter sent from my work account, got pissed, and fired me. Can I sue her for wrongful termination? Seems kind of wrong for her to go through my email like that.
I feel like this is the modern equivalent of a “farmer’s daughter” joke. But less funny. There are two parts to this answer, and you’re not going to like either one.
When you start your next job—and good luck on the job hunt, by the way—remember that very few spaces in your workplace provide an expectation of privacy. This goes for both real space—offices, hallways, the break room with a sign that reminds everyone that the fridge will be cleaned out on Friday—and virtual space, such as work-issued technology. This means that your employer not only has the ability to legally hang out in the hallway and monitor what people are saying, but also to monitor email transmitted on work accounts. Your boss is paying you to be living and breathing your job while you’re using her resources (note: Her daughter does not count as one of her resources), and she’s going to make damn sure that you’re actually doing it.
There are some exceptions to this, and a good employer will have this right specifically noted in the employee handbook you were given at orientation and then threw unopened into a desk drawer, to slowly be buried under spare ketchup packets, loose binder clips, and pretty much anything else that Human Resources distributes for reading. This is especially important with the rise of bring-your-own-device policies, where work accounts are residing on employee-owned hardware.
So the fact that your boss was monitoring work-provided email accounts and happened to catch some presumably racy correspondence between you and her daughter is not much of a surprise and likely not controversial from a legal perspective.
What’s also not a surprise is the vast amount of people who mix their personal shit with their work shit. The main lesson here is to never use work accounts to send anything remotely personal. Next time you’re ready to send a faptastic email to your friend-with-benefits over work email, stop and imagine yourself reading it out loud in front of the board of directors or a courtroom. How does it feel now? This goes for anything: snarky remarks, weekend-plan discussions, even emoticons. Once you send an email at work, assume that it lives forever, can be seen by a thousand eyes, and could one day be snagged up in a litigation information request or otherwise be intercepted by legally legitimate means.
You should apply this idea to your general computer activity at work, as well. Your browser history, for example, is open game. Though, if you’ve ever done a screen share at a meeting, you know damn well that you need to do a comprehensive history wipe or risk all attendees knowing that you’re a rabid fan of Japanese tentacle porn thanks to a sudden betrayal by your browser’s auto-correct in the address bar. In your defense, you were only a little curious and a lot high the night you visited those sites.
And don’t be fooled by Incognito mode, stealth mode, feeling-kinda-creepy mode, or whatever it’s called on your browser. Incognito mode on your work computer is not going to stop your IT guys from seeing that you’ve visited sleepingwithdaughterofboss.tumblr.com 12 times today. Those stealth and incognito functions generally work locally on your device–and they don’t mask your IP or proxy traffic for you. If you want total privacy from your employer, stick with your own device that’s not running on your work network or wifi, or at least do some research on personal VPNs and browser extensions that are intended to give you more end-to-end privacy.
As for wrongful termination, this may surprise you, but out of the billion ways to get fired, nearly all of them are perfectly legal in an employment at-will jurisdiction, which means either the employee or the employer can end the employment at any time. Sure, there are exceptions to this (discrimination against a protected class, etc.)—and if you have an employment agreement, it might spell out the exact ways you can get terminated—but otherwise, in most states, you’re pretty much at the mercy of your boss and the horrible decision you made to have sex with her daughter. So next time around, avoid the wrath of boss by using your personal email, on your personal phone, and not using the office wifi.
Ask a Lawyer is a practicing lawyer with over 15 years of broad legal experience. He is part of the team at Unwonk Podcast and can be found on Twitter. Keep in mind that this is general information, and not formal legal advice or legal representation; if you need any of that, you should get it from a lawyer in real life, not an internet column. A legal problem is serious and fact-specific, and you should treat it accordingly. But you have common sense and already knew that.
Art by Sam Woolley.