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Both my partner and I work in the same company, same building, same floor, different rooms. As such we very occasionally email each other about semi-personal things (e.g., What time are you planning on leaving?, Have you been for your lunch yet?, Do you want to come to the pub later with our department?) along with more professional emails.

I work as a code monkey, he's a analytical chemist. The other day my department had been discussing impending staff departures and mentioned that somebody in my partner's team was leaving. As it was the first I'd heard of it I later sent a p.s in an email to my partner asking whether he knew that Joe Bloggs was leaving.

Later that day I got a verbal warning for sending confidential data to my partner over email. I am currently unsure whether to challenge it as I'm not sure whether I'm in the wrong or not. Do companies also generally monitor emails to this extent?

Edit: The guy was leaving due to retirement and the other team had already been made aware. Given that it was already being discussed in the open plan office I didn't think it was a confidential piece of information.

Edit: Spoke to my supervisor who has said it wasn't an official warning. He rolled his eyes and grumbled about management trying to make a point. He suggests that talking about other people is off limits within the realms of email conversations (along with the obvious of inappropriate personal conversations etc). The majority of staff here have family members/partners within the company so this must be something that crops up occasionally.

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What country are you in? This sort of stuff may be locale-specific. –  MrFox May 14 at 14:56
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I wonder how your company plans to hide the fact that this guy is leaving after he's already left. –  Blrfl May 14 at 15:25
    
They actually weren't trying to hide it. –  Ilythya May 14 at 15:30
    
While most companies are well within their rights to monitor email, most don't actively look for stuff - usually it's reserved for after-the-fact investigations, or maybe getting alerts for select keywords. That said, now you know they're watching very closely (that, or someone turned you in after hearing things through the grapevine) - so adjust your email behaviour accordingly. –  alroc May 14 at 15:39
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This question appears to be off-topic because it is a rant about your office and not a problem you are having to deal with. –  ReallyTiredOfThisGame May 14 at 17:34

5 Answers 5

up vote 11 down vote accepted

Yes you are in the wrong. Notice of layoffs should not be sent unofficially to friends. All emails are subject to monitoring as the email system is a company asset, so there is no expectation of privacy ever on anything sent through a company email.

Personally I would take this as a clue that you should not be using company email for anything personal at all at this company. When you are in a relationship with someone at work, even someone in a different department, it becomes easy to cross the line and get far more personal than is appropriate at work (people have been fired before for emails with sexual content sent to people they were having a relationship with through a work email system) or to share information that should not be shared. Clearly your company does monitor and you should be aware that having had one warning they will be looking at what you do more closely in all aspects of your performance.

Since you said the new was already being discussed in public, you would have a talk with your supervisor and ask for guidance on how you know what is confidential and what is not. You don't want to cross the line accidendtally again. But really start by not gossiping on company email at all until you better understand what is acceptable and what is not at this company.

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This might not be the case everywhere in the world. Where I live (Germany), employers are only allowed to monitor employees email under specific circumstances. However, Germanys privacy laws are much more strict than in other legislations. –  Philipp May 14 at 14:52
    
I have edited the question to point out that it was a retirement not a layoff. Obviously if I had knowledge that somebody was about to be made redundant/fired it's clearly confidential and I wouldn't have said anything. –  Ilythya May 14 at 15:04
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@Ilythya, that is why you need to talk it over with your supervisor. You need to thoroughly understand what they consider the line for confidential information as it is not where you would draw it. You are in trouble with the verbal warning whether you think it is justified or not. You need to adjust your actions for the future, but you can't do that until you understand what they consider confidential. At any rate, stop emailing your partner through work email unless you have actual work business to discuss. Take all personal communications with this person out of the work system. –  HLGEM May 14 at 15:16
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@Philipp: Germany has notoriously strict privacy laws, but is definitely not an exception. I'm no expert, but a quick review of relevant case-law reveals that article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights includes the right to privacy in the workplace to the extent that monitoring private e-mails, phone calls etc. is often illegal, despite the use of company hardware. –  Marcks Thomas May 14 at 17:08
    
@MarcksThomas - Is that using company hardware for a personal email (gmail) account or using a company account? –  JeffO May 14 at 19:25

Partner or otherwise, you should not have "gossiped" the information. I would take this as a lesson learned.

As a general rule of thumb it is not advisable to share information with others at work that do not have a need to know.

Additionally, the email system is a tool that belongs to the company and it is their right to snoop, so don't assume anything there is confidential. You are probably fine with casual stuff, but anything of a personal nature or company politics or is this case staff decisions should be kept for in person or on personal email.

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"don't assume anything there is confidential" -- spot on. Many employee contracts or handbooks even state as much. –  jcmeloni May 14 at 14:37
    
This might not be the case everywhere in the world. Where I live (Germany), employers are only allowed to monitor employees email under specific circumstances. However, Germanys privacy laws are much more strict than in other legislations. –  Philipp May 14 at 14:55

What you did was indeed wrong. You shouldn't share confidential information with people you have private relations with.

However, depending on where in the world you work, it might be a breach of privacy when your employer monitors your email, especially when it's done systematically. You might want to do some research about how work email confidentiality is handled in your specific jurisdiction.

But note that no matter if the email monitoring was legal or not: two wrongs don't make a right. It does not change the fact that you shared confidential information you were not allowed to share.

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I think it comes down to whether it was clear that it was confidential or not. I agree with you in general, but in this case it doesn't sound like it was clear that the information was confidential. –  starsplusplus May 14 at 16:42

Yes this seems a little harsh to be singled out, although I would find your supervisor's support encouraging.

I think management are warning you in case this ever happens with a scenario where the data is actually sensitive. Imagine if your partner hadn't already known and accidentally let something slip. While this may be a casual sounding company from their IT policy, don't get too complacent.

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Management keeps info about departures of personnel confidential. It doesn't matter if you learned that Jo Blow is leaving from reading what was written on a bathroom wall - the info on Joe Blow's departure is still confidential. As far management is concerned, confidential info remains confidential info no matter how you learned it including reading it from the front page of the New York Times. So, if management hauls you in to spend quality time with them, the only thing they care about is that the info is confidential and that you breached that confidentiality. It does not matter that 50 million people also did. The difference is that they can't get their hands on 50 million people. But they can get their hands on you and that's why you're getting smacked. Is it unfair? Yes, and your point being?

Next time that you want to talk scuttlebutt undisturbed, use your cell phone and text from it.

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He's decided to retire and has already told his team. It hardly seems confidential at that point. –  starsplusplus May 14 at 16:41
    
Never said that keeping it confidential makes sense. Never said said that it makes sense to punish someone for breaching confidentiality when the info is open knowledge. But again, it's a prerogative of management to be pointy headed about anything they want, as long as they are not doing anything illegal. It's also our prerogative to push back when someone in management loses it and sends a memo "You shall immediately kneel and bow and scrape every time I take off my socks and wriggle my toes" - Not that I think that the law would be on our side in a right-to-work state if we pushed back :) –  Vietnhi Phuvan May 14 at 17:10
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Your definition of "confidential" seems very weird - by definition, confidential is something that is entrusted to someone, i.e., told that information and told to keep it secret. If I obtain info on Joe Blow's departure in any other way, then the fact that 'some management keeps that info confidential' is irrelevant, and also simply false, since they obviously have not kept it confidential. If it's written on the bathroom wall, then the person who wrote that may have breached confidentiality, but all the readers have no obligation to keep the no-more-confidential information a secret. –  Peteris May 14 at 17:48
    
@Peteris You are arguing logically. Take your argument up with them not with me. I am the one who gives the bad news and tells you what they think. What I think doesn't matter - It's their outfit and they run it any which way they want, as long as they don't break the law. I am not the one who needs to be dog shamed :) –  Vietnhi Phuvan May 14 at 23:29

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