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Last modified January 23, 2006 at 07:13 PM

Email in the Workplace: Employees Perceive Email Differently than Employers

Jessi Knox
Argues that employees' misunderstanding of email in the workplace has in part stemmed from employers not being direct about the need to monitor it. By being clear and direct, employers can possibly reduce misuse and ultimately the need for such intrusive email monitoring.

Email has been incorporated into the business world without employees having a clear understanding of its importance. This misunderstanding results in employees misusing email. In turn, this misuse of email is causing employers to implement email monitoring devices to determine when misuse is occurring in order to end it. However, it is possible that email misuse is in part the employers fault. This essay will argue that employees misunderstanding of email in the workplace has in part stemmed from employers not being as direct as they should be about the value of email and why they feel the need to monitor it. By being clear and direct, employers can possibly reduce misuse and ultimately the need for such intrusive email monitoring.

I do not want to remove all responsibility from employees regarding email misuse, because I do think individuals hold some responsibility in acting appropriately at work. I also do not want to give employers the impression that using email monitoring devices is the best way to solve the issue of email misuse. Instead I want to explore why this misunderstanding exists and provide some possible insight on how to clear it up.

Employer Understanding of Email

A look at employer expectations and perceptions of email gives exactly what employees are misunderstanding. The development of email into a business communication began long ago, when business documents became the way to increase efficiency and profit. David M. Levy notes this as the the dark side of documents (59-77). Although Levy points out the negative results of turning documents into functions of bureaucracy, he demonstrates a realistic view of these business communications. Documents considered business communication are supposed to be depersonalized, efficient and mechanistic. (77). Because employers view email on the same level as something like a form used in the office, they expect email to be just as Levy points out, impersonal and efficient.

Employee (mis)Understanding of Email

Although some employees understand email on the same level of their employers, there are a number of employees who do not perceive email in the same manner. Many employees see email as more casual than formal. This section will walk through some of the email misuse that occurs due to the more casual perception of email. This misuse will then be explained as derived from a misunderstanding of email functions in the workplace.

A casual understanding of the email leads to what are considered misuses in the workplace. Consider this example of an email sent around an office but never directly to the supervisor: a 40-page chain letter was sent out discussing the importance of religion and how people (co-workers in this case) should convert to the religion mentioned in the email. Oddly enough, the company in which this email was sent has a somewhat strict email policy that clearly employees are not paying much attention to.

Many employees operate under the false assumption that personal email messages sent for work are protected from their employers scrutiny (Ciochetti). In the example mentioned above, the supervisor did in fact read the email, using an email monitoring device. The employee received a warning that he or she will be fired if something of this nature ever happen again.

Furthering the evidence of the casual perception of email, a study done in by Janice C. Sipior and Burke T. Ward discovered in 1999 that email correspondence is totally un-work related 40% of the time (88). Why is email seen as a casual means of communication in the formal workplace? Naomi S. Baron argues that email is a communication device not yet specifically oral or written (247-259).

Email can serve multiple functions, as David D Dawley and William P Anthony show. In a 2003 study, Dawley and Anthony determined email is being used for multiple tasks such as circulating documents, requesting information and having brief conversations at the users convenience (172). With email serving both formal and informal purposes, misunderstanding of how to use it in the workplace occurs. In some cases this can be in very offensive manners, as Ayelet "Ellie" Lichtash, an attorney points out.

The informality of email often encourages its users to lose their inhibitions and reservations and to communicate with an unusual degree of candor and recklessnessAs a result of emails ease of use and informal nature, some employees may make derogatory statements about a co-worker, circulate off-color or sexually explicit jokes or pictures, make bigoted remarks, or even make overt or implied threats (27).

Along with formal and informal purposes, email also serves multiple levels in the workplace. Parag C. Pendharkar and Karl Young discovered that

at an individual level, a persons perceptions may be impacted by emails role in improving productivity, supporting team work, and providing global reach. At an organizational level a persons perceptions may be impacted by emails role in making an organization vulnerable to viruses, exposing proprietary information, and/or encouraging unprofessional and illegal behavior (130).

Pendharkar and Young show that there is even more confusion for employees in the workplace because email is perceived as both beneficial and damaging. With uncertainty of email functions in the workplace, it is obvious that employer and employee perceptions are going to differ.

Increasing Misunderstanding: Email Monitoring

Now that it has been established that employees and employers perceive email in very different ways, a look at email monitoring can provide a connection to the existing tension caused by email misunderstanding. Employers are using email monitoring as a way to uncover the misusers of workplace email. This does little to clear up confusion; instead it seems to only create more confusion and tension in the workplace.

This confusion and tension is described by Patricia A. Chociey:

Most employees underestimate their employers legal right to monitor email activities. In addition, employees tend to believe their employers have no right to read their email correspondences, discover abuses and take legal action. Contrary to this opinion, employers and network administrators argue that monitoring is justifiable, since the company owns the electronic mail system and the data it contains (34-5).

Furthering the tension is the statistic mentioned by Robert Fox, Fewer companies that monitor email are telling their employees they are doing so--84% in 1999, down from 91% in 1998 (10). Clearly employers feel strongly about their rights to monitor email, so why would they keep it secret?

There are a couple of reasons employers might use to justfy keeping their monitoring secret. First is the idea that telling employees they are monitoring emails will defeat the purpose of the practice (Thompson, DeTienne, and Smart 158). It would be hard to catch an employee misusing the system if they realize they are being monitored, but as noted in the discussion of employee understanding, even those who are operating under an email policy will misuse email.

Another reason employers might not tell employees about monitoring is because it is an invasion of privacy. Employees are very sensitive to the idea of being watched, and this is in some ways what email monitoring is doing. Frederick S. Lane III discusses why employees should be concerned about their privacy rights with regard to email monitoring in his book, The Naked Employee. Lane argues privacy laws regarding the protection of email monitoring are limited because email is a relatively new communication device and because it rests between written and oral communication, as mentioned before (138-41). Employees feel increasingly insecure and tense when it comes to having their emails monitored because they do not feel completely protected by laws.

Employees feeling that their privacy is being invaded can lead to a number of negative impacts on workplace morale. Jeffery A. Thompson, Kristen Bell DeTienne, and Karl L. Smart state that privacy is what builds trusting relationships and if privacy is denied employees have no way to build upon the trusting relationship. Privacy is also what helps make people feel individual, without privacy people may feel their actions are constrained and this can lead to negative feelings toward their employer. (160). Employers must weigh the cost of telling employees that their email is being monitored over the impacts of employees knowing that some of their privacy is being taken away.

Despite the tension caused in the workplace by email monitoring, there are some valid reasons for employers to monitor email. Employers are being held liable for employees actions even over email. Not only is this creating a bad name for the employers, it is costing them money.

One of the largest judgments in a sexual harassment and discrimination case, Scribner vs. Waffle House Inc. (1997), totaled $8.1 million. Even if a case of alleged sexual harassment is defended successfully, the organization may still incur significant litigation costs, lowered employee morale, reduced employee productivity, and negative publicity (Sipior and Ward 89).

Also as Samantha Lee and Brian H Kleiner point out it is the employers responsibility to create a safe environment for all its employees. Secondly, employers need to protect company information from leaking out to the public, because companies have rights just as employees do (77). They do note that monitoring can result in both positive and negative reactions. The positive being that monitoring can help motivate employees to do their job more appropriately because they realize they are being watched, while at the same time they may feel stressed out by this pressure and this could result in a loss of company loyalty (77-8).

Because employees do not originally understand the value of email in the workplace, they can not be expected to understand why employers monitor email. Even though employers do have some justifications for monitoring email, employees have reasons to feel they should not monitor it. It is quite evident that something needs to be done to ease the tension that comes from misunderstanding.


There are a couple of things I would recommend are available to ease the tension between employers and employees. The first would be to go public with email monitoring. Letting employees know what is going on provides the opportunity to explain in detail why email is so valuable in the workplace. However, there are some considerations that go along with going public. Thompson, Bell DeTienne, and Smart recommend creating some guidelines within the corporation to keep employers in line. These are:

Conduct a self-analysis of the reasons for monitoring, provide notification before monitoring, establish probably cause before searching, limit monitoring to transactional information only, establish a mechanism for (employee) appeal, tell employees which messages have been monitored, and apply a stature of limitations (on the information gathered from the monitoring) (161).

Making employers take responsibility for their own actions may encourage employees to do the same. This also allows employees a way to assess if their privacy rights are being violated.

Many companies feel mentioning email monitoring in their policy guidelines gives enough information to employees to allow them to make their own decisions. However, Patricia A. Chociey discovered that members in both groups tested in a study, were still willing to send controversial messages and that monitoring policies did not restrain them from doing so (38). Chociey ends her article by to providing some advice for employers creating a policy manual taken from Frederic J. Coopers book Implementing Internet Secrutiy. Some topics to include in the monitoring policy are:

what might constitute abuse in terms of system performance, whether users are permitted to share accounts or let other use their accounts, statement forbidding the duplication of copyrighted or licensed software, statement on Electronic Mail Privacy, and a statement on the companys policy regarding controversial mail, or postings to mailing lists or discussion groups (39).

With this information available to employees, they might understand the reality of their actions and it could alter their perception of email to a way in which it is more formal than casual.

Other ways employers could help employees to understand the value of email in the workplace is to have a training session upon hire specific to how to use email. Though Dawley and Anthony focus their study on email overload, they offer advice on training programs that can be applicable to creating a common perception of email among employees and employers. Proper training can get employees familiar with the particular email system used by the company, it can create a place to define what is considered appropriate and inappropriate, and also how to make the most out of email messages to prevent email overload (194-5). Ultimately they found that many of the participants would benefit from training because it would put give all employees a general concept of email.

Finally, Mary Munter, Priscilla S. Rogers, and Jone Rymer present some guidelines for business email that may also prove helpful in creating a common understanding of email in the workplace. They note that email is considered casual because it is quick and easy. But that this is not the way to perceive it, instead it should be looked at as work because it often replaces duties that are considered work, such as meetings and phone calls (26).

Even though the article was created as a handout for students in business communication I do feel it is worth handing out in the office. It provides a number of tips on how to use email appropriately for the workplace and to communicate effectively. The first piece of advice is one I have mentioned a few times and that is to recognize the nature of email, it is a hybrid of form of speaking and writing (27) and also recognize that email varies by type of message and the context it is being sent in. Also consider the reader of the message (and particular to this paper, any unintended readers, such as an employer), compose email in ways that it will be read and understood (30). This can be done by having a good subject line, chunking information, making the message easy to skim, and put the important information in the beginning so that readers will realize it needs to be read. They also mention that varying style is acceptable and with some email it is ok to be more conversational, but they warn against using jokes and being too informal (31). Finally they suggest revising emails before they are sent (34). Revising emails is important because it ensures all that emotions surrounding the email have been eliminated and that the email is professional. The article ends by giving advice on how to process and manage email.

Taking all these factors together, employers have a way to inform employees of their perception of email. Though it may seem like a costly and timely investment, it is well worth the cost. A mutual understanding of email between employees and employers can result in fewer lawsuits, less misuse, less fear of privacy invasion, and less interruption of company morale. These factors would also provide a way to protect employees against employers who abuse the email monitoring they are doing. All in all, if both sides would take responsibility in understanding email in the workplace, much tension could be reduced. This understanding, however, must begin with the employer taking initiative.

Works Cited

Baron, Naomi S. Alphabet to Email: How Written English Evolved and Where It's Heading. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Ciocchetti Corey A. Monitoring Employee Email: Efficient Workplaces vs. Employee Privacy. 2001 Duke L. & Tech. Review 0026. 25 July 2005. Duke University. 28 Feb. 2005.

Dawley, David D. and William P. Anthony. User Perception of E-mail at Work. Journal of Business and Technical Communication. 17.2 (2003): 170-31.

Fox, Robert. The Boss Knows. Communications of the ACM. 43.2 (2000): 10.

Kleiner, Samantha Lee and Brian. Electronic Surveillance in the Workplace. Management Research News. 26.2-4 (2003): 72-81.

Lane III, Frederick S. The Naked Employee: How Technology is Comprimising Workplace Privacy. New York: American Management Association, 2003.

Levy, David M. Scrolling Forward. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2001.

Lichtash, Ayelet Ellie. Inappropriate Use of E-mail and the Internet in the Workplace: The Arbitration Picture. Dispute Resolution Journal. 59.1 (2004): 26-37.

Munter, Mary, Priscilla S. Rogers, and Jone Rymer. Business E-mail: Guidelines for Users. Business Communication Quarterly. 66.1(2003): 26-40.

Pendharkar, Parag C. and Karl Young. The Development of a Construct for Measuring and Individuals Perceptions of Email as a Medium for Electronic Communication in Organizations. IEEE Transactions on Professional Commuication. 47.2 (2004): 130-43.

Sipior, Janice C. and Burke T. Ward. The Dark Side of Employee Email. Communications of the ACM. 42.7 (1999): 88-100.

Thompson, Jeffery A., Kristen Bell DeTienne and Karl L. Smart. Privacy, E-mail, and Information Policy: Where Ethics Meets Reality. IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication. 38.3 (1995): 158-164.

Last modified January 23, 2006 at 07:13 PM

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