Mixing work with private
The scandal surrounding Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server for professional purposes provides lessons for us all, explains Paul McAleavey
Using a personal email for work-related purposes may seem harmless, but it is a decision that can often be career-defining, as it has recently been for presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. It would be hard to deny that Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election was heavily aided by the scandal surrounding Clinton’s use of a personal email server during her time as secretary of state.
According to Clinton, the primary reason she set up her own email address for both work and personal correspondence was for ‘convenience’. Her decision in this respect clearly backfired, and while an FBI investigation into her use of this private email server cleared her of any criminality, it concluded that Clinton and her aides were extremely careless in their handling of classified information. It will no doubt have been a learning experience for her, and also serves as a warning for our own working duties here in the UK.
Careful consideration needs to be taken before using a personal email address for work-related purposes. Just one spreadsheet forwarded to your Gmail account could likely land you in a sticky situation. But why?
Most employers will have policies in place stating that the privacy of client information is of upmost importance, and further that company information must be stored in a secure way. Carelessness in this respect (think of those high-profile cases of confidential information being left on a train), will not be tolerated. Sending a document such as a spreadsheet to your personal account is likewise likely to be in breach of at least one of your employer’s rules.
Despite the arguable fact that email is an inherently insecure foerm of communication, unsurprisingly employers are often riled when one of their documents is transferred to a server which they no longer control or monitor. And employers may have more knowledge about your use of personal email accounts than you might imagine. In some instances, an email sent containing confidential information to a third party can trigger an alert to your employer’s IT department, which in turn could lead to more extensive monitoring of your emails.
In my experience it is not unknown for an employer with a particular agenda to search through an employee’s ‘sent items’ to see if they have ever forwarded documents to their personal email address or responded to client emails using a non-work account, and use this information to help mount disciplinary proceedings and achieve a dismissal.
It is also vitally important to be aware that risks are also present in the reverse situation; using your work email account as a means for social interaction is not wise. You may be surprised at the amount of email monitoring that takes place, and your employer most likely has the ability to monitor all emails that you send and receive. The temptation to circulate comments on a ‘viral’ email that a friend sends to you could likely land you in hot water, as has been the case with a number of high-profile dismissal cases. In 2013, the technical director of Leeds United lost his £140,000 High Court damages claim over his dismissal from the club for sending inappropriate emails.
The most commonly-committed employment ‘offence’, however, is seeking new work during your employer’s working time. The law requires job searches and interviews to be conducted outside of your current employer’s working time. Using a work mobile to search out and speak to potential new employers would make it very easy for your employer to establish if you have acted in breach of this duty. Even WhatsApp messages could be disclosable in a court case, provided their content is relevant.Clinton may have won her presidential campaign had she really been made aware of the dangers of mixing work and personal emails. It is the safest course of action to keep work-related correspondence on work devices, and personal correspondence on your personal devices.
Paul McAleavey is a senior associate at Brahams Dutt Badrick French