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The Ethics of Internet Privacy in Employment

This paper will discuss the ethics of employee privacy in a work environment. Using the six-step decision making model, the case of Michael Smyth, a former employee of the Pillsbury Corporation who later sued the corporation after they terminated him for the content of his private emails during work, will be discussed and analyzed. It will be the author’s conclusion that it is perfectly ethical for a company to intercept an employee’s email messages in the workplace, as employees are utilizing equipment at the expense of the employer. It is expected that employees remain professional at all times while on the job. There are, however, many methods to reduce employee misconduct; it is unethical to terminate an employee for such a trivial reason without administering a prior warning.

In October of 1994, Michael Smyth, who was a regional manager at the Pillsbury Corporation in Pennsylvania, was terminated from his employment after his employers discovered and intercepted several offensive emails which he had been exchanging with his supervisor (Schulman, 1998). Throughout one email, in particular, he was alleged to have been threatening the company managers in the sales management department, even being quoted as challenging to “kill the backstabbing bastards.” (Brown, 1997).

Even so, because he was aware of Pillsbury’s consistent reassurance to employees that all emails are confidential and kept private, Smyth elected to sue the corporation for wrongful discharge. However, the court, which dismissed the disgruntled former employee’s lawsuit even before it went to trial, still ruled in favor of the Pillsbury Corporation, citing that Smyth had “no reasonable expectation of privacy,” as he was utilizing a system which belonged to his employers. Additionally, they declared, the company’s interest in preventing “inappropriate and unprofessional” conduct far outweighed Smyth’s privacy rights (Schulman, 1998).

The Ethical Issue

Is it ethical for an employer to hold employees accountable for private emails if the emails are being sent from a company computer?

Principles, Beliefs and Values

The four basic ethical principles of autonomy, beneficence, nonmaleficence, and justice all appear to be relevant to this particular case, as each principle plays an accurate role in acquainting readers with the significance of the case.

Autonomy, by definition, projects independence, self-rule, self-determination, liberty, and freedom. It is a respect for persons, and a respect for the privacy and confidentiality that every individual is entitled to. It involves “truth telling” and full disclosure as a means of respect for all individuals. This is one of the most relevant principles in the case of Michael Smyth v. Pillsbury Co. as it manages the subjects of privacy and confidentiality. In relation to the ethical issue, it is able to define and discuss the levels of confidentiality to which an individual is entitled, in order to draw a final conclusion on the issue.

The second ethical principle, beneficence, is defined as the active promotion of that which benefits another individual. The Biblical principle of love, for example, is a principle of beneficence. This particular ethical principle can be used for the purposes of determining employer versus employee rights in the matters of Internet privacy during working hours; it could aid in the determination of fairness and civility in this case, as well as resolve the controversy over whether or not the employer’s final decision of termination was appropriate. Based solely upon the possible resulting benefits of each party’s persuasions, this principle will seek to discover which party was truly practicing ethical behavior.

Nonmaleficence, the third ethical principle, is characterized as the avoidance of harm, the warning of harms, and the effective balance of benefits and burdens. This principle is able to relate to the ethical issue at hand through the measure of harm that the company perceived former employee Michael Smyth to be engaging them in. Similar to the principle of beneficence, this specific principle can seek to analyze the situation through the balance of benefits versus burdens with which both the Pillsbury Corporation and Michael Smyth were dealing. As nonmaleficence also manages the warning of [possible] harms, this ethical principle will be a helpful assessment in determining whether or not the corporation’s perceptions of future harm or threats from Michael Smyth were ethically sufficient enough to discharge him.

The final ethical principle, justice, is defined in four aspects: the expectation of being treated justly; the reception of that to which one is entitled; the just distribution of burdens and benefits; and fairness – similar cases being treated in a similar manner. In relation to this case, the principle of justice will be able to conclude with an analysis of the situation, as well as a fair, ethical decision in response to the issue. Ethics are about rights and obligations, and the principle of justice will be able to determine such things in relation to this case. Was Michael Smyth treated justly in this case? Did he “get what he deserved”? Would a similar situation be handled in the exact same manner? These and other questions may be acknowledged in the quest to determine fair ethical practices.

Within the principle of justice are several biblical categories which also relate to this case. Merit justice, egalitarian justice, need justice, retributive justice, and distributive justice are all significant to the issues within ethical practices; however, for the purposes of relation to this particular case, only merit justice, retributive justice, and distributive justice will be discussed.

Merit justice maintains that one is owed what is deserved or earned; retributive justice is defined as that which is owed to an individual from a wrong action; and distributive justice is, by definition, that which is owed to an individual by virtue of designated criteria. As individual components of the overall ethical principle of justice, all three approaches relate to this case and possess the significance to be adamantly utilized in order to determine whether or not justice was served in this case.

Beyond the ethical principles, there are other values and beliefs which affect this case. The three main categories of ethics – deontological, teleological, and virtue – may also be discussed in relation to the situation and then employed in order to make determinations regarding specific aspects of the case.

Deontological ethics are defined by an inherent “duty.” Deontological ethics maintain that the rightness or wrongness of an action is determined only by the nature of the action itself. By this definition, certain actions are simply wrong regardless of the results they may or may not produce. These ethics relate to this issue, as they may be applied and exercised through a critical analysis in order to demonstrate a position in this case. The role of these ethics within this particular ethical case is to explore the issue of private use of an employer’s equipment, and define the rightness or wrongness of the action.

Teleological ethics may also be utilized in contrasting components of this case. Teleological ethics are the polar opposite of deontological ethics, in that they declare the rightness or wrongness of an action to be determined by the results the action produces, not necessarily the action itself. In other words, an action could be wrong in one situation, yet acceptable in another situation; this determination is entirely dependent upon the end results. This ethical concept relates to the issue, as it can be utilized to determine the level of harm in which Michael Smyth engaged his employers, based solely on the results of the actions he chose.

Finally, virtue ethics focuses on the “actor’s” character, rather than on any specific action. Therefore, these ethics can be utilized to examine Michael Smyth’s true character, his motivation and intent behind his actions, and his overall performance as an employee of the Pillsbury Corporation.

Above all, the analysis of this case will seek to identify the ultimate intrinsic value — God — and develop a position on the issue, based on His truth.

Valid Alternatives

There are several identifiable valid alternatives to the issue at hand. Rather than terminating Michael Smyth, his employers at Pillsbury could have elected to disclose to him what they had discovered in his email, following up by administering a warning.

A second valid alternative would have been to call a company meeting within that particular location, and to inform the employees that private, personal use of the company’s equipment would not be tolerated. Without disclosing Smyth’s name, they could have warned all employees to save personal discussions for breaks or personal time, and not to use the computers for such activities. During this discussion, it would have been helpful for employees to recognize that their emails were, in fact, not confidential, and that, by law, employers have the right to intercept them during any period in time.

However, employers could still remain on guard for any negative vibes or behavior between Smyth and those individuals to which he was referring in his email. If anything was presumed to escalate, the company managers could have called a meeting between those individuals in order to resolve their issues.

Of course, a third alternative would have been for the employers to contact the local police department, due to Michael Smyth’s clear threat to “kill the backstabbing bastards.” Considering the fact that the employers had no possible way of determining whether or not Smyth was serious in his impendence, and, if so, how soon this event would occur, this option would have been a valid alternative as well.

A fourth and final alternative would have been for Pillsbury to do exactly as they did by terminating Smyth; however, when he entered into controversy with them over this issue, they could have agreed to either pay him an acceptable sum of money or to re-hire him into the company, under the conditions that he would agree to no longer utilize company equipment for his personal conversations and benefits.

Analysis of Consequences

If Pillsbury had chosen to take the route of the first alternative, opting to discuss the situation with Michael Smyth and issue him a warning rather than discharging him, it may have worked out admirably. It would have been a demonstration of distributive justice on the part of the company, as the company would have elected not to hold Smyth responsible for his actions, especially due to the fact that the managers seemingly broadcasted the misconception that an employee’s individual emails would remain confidential.

Choosing this option would have also been a display of the application of virtue ethics. As no prior negative behavior had been discussed throughout this case, it is an assumption that Smyth’s overall character was generally good-natured and hardworking.

If the company had elected to utilize the second alternative, choosing to conduct a company meeting regarding personal use of the company equipment among all employees, the situation may also have been reversed. In this event, Smyth would not have felt singled out; but he would also have learned which particular activities were not tolerated on the job. Furthermore, he would have been informed that employee emails actually were regulated and monitored by the company; consequently, he may not have felt as “cheated” in the event that he chose to continue with his personal emails.

More importantly, the safety of other employees would not have been compromised, as employers would be on special guard for negative behavior exhibited between the parties.

Utilizing this option would have demonstrated beneficence within the company. To attempt to resolve an issue without singling out an individual employee would have been in the best interest of all employees. It would have also shown a healthy respect for each employee’s autonomy and privacy because it would have set boundaries and regulations without attempting to assert unnecessary control over the employees.

Additionally, this action would have been an expression of teleological ethics; although the managers may have deemed his actions wrong, there were no harmful end results. For that reason, they could have elected to continue his employment – only with an open warning.

Under the third alternative – contacting the police with Smyth’s threat as evidence of harmful intent – the company would have been demonstrating deontological ethical behavior, nonmaleficence, merit justice, and even teleological ethics.

In relation to this alternative, deontological ethical behavior would have been demonstrated through the company’s realization that his behavior was wrong, regardless of whether or not he meant it, and regardless of whether any harm had actually been inflicted. It was wrong to threaten harm upon other employees; therefore, his actions could have been punished through police involvement.

On the other hand, teleological ethics could also be interpreted in this scenario. The company could have viewed the situation from the perspective that, perhaps Michael Smyth’s threats would have evolved into actual physical harm. Similarly, this option would have demonstrated the ethical principle of nonmaleficence, as the company would have been attempting to avoid all possible harm. Although no harm had occurred yet, by the demeanor of Smyth’s infuriated emails, it was quite possible that damage or injury could likely have been an end result.

Finally, this alternative would have demonstrated merit justice. In other words, Michael Smyth may have deserved for this to happen. Merit, as defined in one definition by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is something that is deserved, whether good or bad. If Michael Smyth had been more responsible and professional in his work practices, this situation would not have occurred.

However, the consequences of this alternative could have been severe. Smyth could have elected to sue for defamation of character and attempted to collect any fines he may have been required to pay. It is likely that he would have been even more upset than he was in the original situation; and the anger, combined with the feeling of a lack of control in the overall spectrum of the situation, may have caused him to actually carry out his threat of inflicting harm or damage upon particular Pillsbury associates.

In the last possible valid alternative, there would have been examples of retributive justice demonstrated. Although Smyth clearly did the wrong thing, the Pillsbury Corporation may have been comparatively wrong for terminating him without a prior warning. Accordingly, they may have owed it to him to compensate him in some form. More than likely, Smyth would have been satisfied if the company had made the decision to execute this alternative.


The most valid alternative with the least severe consequences would have likely been the second option. In this alternative, overall beneficence would have been practiced; and the best interests of everyone would have been taken into consideration. As previously mentioned, in this option, Smyth would have been more informed about the actual company practice of regulation of employee activities. It is also highly probable that this alternative would have completely eliminated the issue without singling Smyth out for his actions. This alternative would also be compatible with the Christian practice of forgiveness, as it would have given Smyth another chance to demonstrate a professional work ethic.

In all other alternatives, Smyth would have been personally called out for his behavior, which, although justified, would likely have sent him into defense mode and possibly created further issues. In the last two alternatives, he would have been further embarrassed by public knowledge and possible scrutiny of his behavior. For those reasons, it is concluded that the second alternative would have been the most respected choice.

Based on these conclusions, although Michael Smyth should not have been terminated without a prior warning for his behavior, it is definitely ethical for an employee to be held accountable for sending private emails under the circumstance that a company computer is being utilized to do so. Whether or not a company claims to practice a privacy policy regarding employee emails, employees should be realistic in the sense that they are using their employer’s equipment, and, therefore, it is highly likely that they will be under the surveillance or monitoring of the company’s network administrators. Employee monitoring is permitted by law (Schulman, 1998); in consequence, it is always possible that an employee’s personal actions are being observed by an employer. If an employee feels that this is a violation of privacy, personal activities should be confined to time spent off the clock.

An employer interested in decreasing or eliminating the amount of time spent on personal activities by employees throughout the workday should elect to address the issue in a company meeting. If the issue is still unable to be resolved, employees should be singled out and given warnings. Only as a last resort should an employee be terminated for an issue such as this.

However, in a case such as this where a threat was made, it should be taken more seriously, although an employee should not be immediately terminated. Many individuals make “threats” such as that, without any genuine substance to the threat. The situation should have been evaluated and monitored before a discharge occurred.

In conclusion, it is completely legal and ethical for an employer to monitor the activities of employees when they are on the job; although not always fair, employees may be held accountable and even terminated for unproductive, personal activity. Therefore, it is not wise for an employee to utilize company equipment for personal benefit and conversations. As employers may elect to intercept this information at any time, it is in the employee’s best interest to save personal matters for personal time.


Brown, Eryn. (February 1997). The Myth of E-mail Privacy. Fortune: New York. v. 135(2), 66.
Schulman, Miriam. (1998). LittleBrother Is Watching You. Business and Society Review v. 100/101, 65-69, as cited by Rae, Scott B, Wong, Kenman L. (2004). Beyond Integrity Second Edition: A Judeo-Christian Approach to Business Ethics, 414-417.

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  • Mary McDwell

    Monitoring is really needed to any company. http://www.easemon.com/features I think employee should monitor employers to maintain the discipline in workstations.