The Geek Girls were recently asked “Is it safe to log into my mint.com account from work? I never have time to work on the budget at home, but during lunch is the perfect time.” This question, along with its sister query “Can my employer read my personal email if I am accessing it from my work computer?” and twice-removed-illegitimate cousin question “Is it OK to surf porn at work?”, is one many of us never had to consider when beginning our careers. Placing whispered personal phone calls to a date or a doctor, sure. Surreptitiously reading City Pages under the desk, of course. But only in the last decade has personal usage of company technology become such a serious issue – one often resulting in employee termination, lawsuits, identity theft and more.
The purpose of this article is to outline the answer to this question on four levels: rules, reputation, ruin and reality:
1. Rules. What can and cannot legally be monitored, accessed and/or forbidden by an employer (as it pertains to technology only – I’m not going to comment on the political propaganda hanging in your cube or the micromini that should have been retired when you were 17. Not in this article, at least.)
2. Reputation. Even in company settings with more lenient policies, consideration of your professional reputation is important and often overlooked. If non-work-related online activity is affecting the quality or productivity of your work, it’s time to curtail it. Similarly, if you are visiting “questionable” (read into this however you wish) sites using company technology, your credibility and integrity could be affected within the establishment.
3. Ruin. As in financial: Identity theft. PIN number swiping. Rare, but unfortunately feasible and a serious issue to address.
4. Reality. Situations in which it is most likely alright (highly caveated that you are not to use this article as your defense if you get busted) to disregard the policies and guidelines from points 1, 2, and 3 above.
Without exception, it is completely legal for an employer to monitor an employee’s online activity and information on a computer that is provided by the company. During working hours, after working hours, data saved to a “private” folder on the hard drive, emails sent from a work-provided email address, and even emails sent from a personal email address using said computer. This information is all legally accessible by the employer – even if it is password-protected.
Even after an employee leaves a company, the employer is within its rights to access and review activity and information from said employee’s computer during her tenure. This 2008 Techdirt.com article reiterates the fact that “anything on the computer is fair game for the employer (even if it’s password protected).” Now granted, this particular article pertains to a former employee that was stealing from the employer, whereas our reader simply wants to check her finances during lunch. Night and day, right? One would think. But it is important for her to know the facts: Her financial information can and may legally be accessed by her employer if she is using Mint.com on her work computer. Even if her manager condones the employee’s taking 5 minutes to do some personal budgeting during the day, another unscrupulous colleague could very well be accessing her financial information. More on this in “Ruin,” below.
While it is legal for employers to monitor and access the activity and information noted above, it goes without saying that many do not. It’s just important to know that they can. The majority of employers I have had, as well as those of my family, colleagues, and friends, will not admonish a competent and productive employee for spending some personal time online during the work day or at home on a work-provided machine. Let’s face it: Most of us work upwards of 40 hours per week and there are bills to be paid, news headlines to be read, and personal correspondence to attend to—and just not enough hours after work to manage all of it. In addition, more and more employers are encouraging their employees to spend some time online each day in non-task-related/billable activities—social networking sites such as Facebook or Twitter or company blogs being examples of potentially positive ways to gain knowledge, share information, and promote the company via nontraditional methods.
Unsure about your employer’s policy on personal use of company machines? Ask your manager, read the employee handbook, or play it safe and do it as little as possible…or not at all.
When I informed my manager that I was writing an article on personal use of company technology, he snorted and reminded me that I am on Facebook and Twitter all day. OK, guilty as charged. However, my productivity reports and completed tasks/projects indicate that my manager’s expectations are being met even with these diversions. If this is the case for our reader as well—that her workload is not being affected by her lunchtime personal budgeting—and she is fortunate enough to work for one of the more understanding employers noted above, then her professional reputation should remain intact. However, if productivity and/or performance are slipping, whether noticed only by the employee or by her colleagues or manager, then it goes without saying that personal use of company technology needs to stop during working hours, plain and simple.
Our era of tweets and blogs also brings up another sort of reputation damage control: that of TMI (too much information.) Employees who are using company technology to save/send/ post photos of last week’s kegger, or oversharing via status updates that can be viewed by clients or colleagues can find themselves in a world of trouble. Take the recent downfall of Ketchum VP James Andrews, who insulted the fair city of Memphis when in town to meet with his client, FedEx. FedEx employees immediately circulated the tweet corporation-wide, as well as responded scathingly. Awkward.
Be smart about the sites you visit while on company time and equipment, and what you post on said sites. You never know who might be paying attention.
If the reader is using Mint.com, a free online money management application, on a company-owned computer, then her employer has access to any personal information stored within her Mint.com account, even though it is password-protected. It is illegal for her employer or colleagues to use or access that information without just cause, of course, but it is definitely feasible and could lead to theft of finances or identity.
Think twice before accessing financial or personal information on company machines. You could become a victim of identity theft.
So, in a roundabout way we have answered the reader’s question: Is it safe to log in to my mint.com account from work? No, it is not safe – yet it is likely that if your employer condones occasional personal use of company technology during work hours, and if your productivity is not being affected, it is probably fine. Just save the porn-surfing for your own computer on your own personal time, OK?
Andrea Vogel is a Senior Producer at Popular Front who leads teams in the development of online experiences for clients including Hasbro, Deluxe and Gustavus Adolphus University. She holds a BA in French with a minor in Women’s Studies from the University of Minnesota, as well as a cosmetology license, of all things.
Follow her on Twitter: AVogel75