It's recently been widely reported that Hillary Clinton used her personal email account for all of her work messages during her tenure as Secretary of State instead of an official government email account. It's probably safe to assume that Clinton was issued an email address while at the State Department, but chose not to use it.
In a press conference, Clinton stated that she complied with the “letter and spirit of the rules” and that she provided copies of her emails as required by law.
Here's why it's never a good idea to mix personal emails with business:
Just like any other employer, the State Department has security concerns around Clinton's actions. Generic web based email systems such as Gmail or Yahoo are not secure (and neither are texts). There's probably no such thing as a perfectly secure email system, but most major companies and government entities have more advanced email security systems than an off-the-shelf Gmail account.
The vast majority of US employers don't require government security, but almost every employer has its own unique confidential information.
Think about the information that you send to recipients outside of your organization. For example, in human resources we often have access to reports that include personal employee information such as birthdays, social security numbers, addresses, and pay rates. That information should never be emailed unless it's encrypted and sent securely.
Some of us don't realize that information is in fact confidential. Your employer may have a different opinion. Unless the information is otherwise publicly available, most companies consider items such as customer lists, business methods, product designs, inventions, programming specifications, and sales reports as confidential. Your employer can terminate you for disclosing this information. In some cases they may also be able to sue you personally for disclosing it without their consent.
“E”mail Stands for Evidence
If you blur the line between personal and work emails you're subjecting yourself to other legal complications.
Clinton handed over 55,000 pages of emails to the State Department in order to comply with record-keeping practices. Federal law states that letters and emails written and received by federal officials are government records that must be retained.
But guess what? The same thing can happen to you.
Even if you don't use your personal email regularly for work, most of us use it occasionally. It happens all the time: your employer's email system goes down, but you want to remain productive. This is why my colleague Sonja McGill advises that regardless of how pressured we are to deliver results, we should always keep work and personal email separate.
If you use your personal email account for work and the company is sued, your entire email account can be subpoenaed. Even if you only use personal email occasionally for work, emails relating to a company lawsuit must be preserved. If you co-mingle your work and personal emails, plaintiffs can argue that they can't rely on employers to screen what's work related and what's personal. The rules of evidence will determine what ultimately gets produced, but do you really want a team of lawyers or a judge poring over your personal emails? How would you feel about having your personal email read in open court?
Most companies have rules about data and the use of their systems and email accounts. Even if your company doesn't have a formal policy you probably still have a duty to protect your company's confidential information and systems under common law theories.
Manage Your Employer's Use of Your Device
Most employers have a “bring your own device to work” policy. If your employer has a policy like this, you'll probably be asked to sign it. Read it carefully and make sure you're only giving your employer access to their emails. McGill reminds us that if your employer gives you permission to download company email on your personal device, it probably reserves the right to inspect your device when you leave the company. If you regularly co-mingle your personal email with your work email, that permission extends to inspecting your personal email, too. Do you want your employer to be able to review your emails about your job search? What about those emails you sent to friends complaining about your employer? These types of emails will ruin any hope of maintaining a professional relationship with your previous employer.
Your employer probably has a policy that states that all of your business-related emails are their property. Most employers want all of their property back when you leave their employment. Keeping a wall between your personal and business emails makes this easy. But if you blur that line, employers can ask for that information even years after you leave.
Clinton's situation is a bit different than the average American's. As a government official, all of her emails are subject to federal regulations. She could argue that the line between personal and private emails was already blurred. Her political opponents will counter that her use of personal email was inappropriate. Here's the lesson for all of us: keep work and personal emails separate or risk giving your employer and other third parties access to your personal email correspondence.
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