Many Texas readers have probably sat at work during the day, emailing back and forth with their coworkers about the latest office gossip or sharing a funny video they saw on YouTube. These types of exchanges often lead to a fleeting thought of what one's boss might think of this use of work time, and a question about whether or not employers can or do read emails sent at work.
This question came into the national arena recently when faculty at Harvard University learned that their emails had been searched and read by their employer after someone leaked news of a cheating scandal to the press. The employees were surprised and upset, believing that their privacy had been violated when their employer searched their emails.
A closer look at the situation shows that often, employers have broad discretion to view emails sent on a work device or through a work account. The precise latitude that they have will generally be dictated in the employee handbook or in policy on internet use at work. These policies are among the many contained within the human resources cannon that are crucial to questions of employment law, since the boundaries of the employee/employer relationship are frequently dictated by a specific contract between the two parties, and the employee handbook and office policies are a part of that agreement.
In the Harvard case, the handbook advised that the university could view employee emails in extraordinary circumstances, but further provided that the employees must be notified either before or after the search. The employees were not notified, which means that the employer likely violated the terms of that agreement.
Source: Slate, "Can Your Boss Read Your Email?" L.V. Anderson, March 11, 2013