Journal of Business Ethics

, Volume 19, Issue 1, pp 99-108

First online:

Ethical, Legal and Economic Aspects of Employer Monitoring of Employee Electronic Mail

  • Thomas J. HodsonAffiliated withU.S. Army Corps of Engineers
  • , Fred EnglanderAffiliated withEconomics Department, Fairleigh Dickinson University
  • , Valerie EnglanderAffiliated withEconomics Department, St. John's University

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This paper examines ethical, legal and economic dimensions of the decision facing employers regarding whether it is appropriate to monitor the electronic mail (e-mail) communications of its employees. We review the question of whether such monitoring is lawful. Recent e-mail monitoring cases are viewed as a progression from cases involving more established technologies (i.e., phone calls, internal memoranda, faxes and voice mail).

The central focus of the paper is on the extent to which employer monitoring of employee e-mail presents a structure of costs and benefits to the employer which are unlikely to make such a practice profitable or practical to the employer. The practice of employer monitoring to detect illicit employee behavior (e.g., fraud, harassment of fellow employees, industrial espionage) is considered.

It is argued that not only does such monitoring behavior fall short of the standard imposed by Kant's categorical imperative for ethical behavior, monitoring also fails to meet Aristotle's ethical standard of practical wisdom. Other ethical aspects of employer monitoring are considered.