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Forwarded work emails lead to psychological injury, approved WCB claim

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April 3, 2023
By Todd Humber

(Peera.P/Adobe Stock)

Employees don’t have a right to expect privacy with their work email, but that doesn’t mean employers have a green light to do anything they want with it either.

A 70-year-old woman in Alberta was recently awarded workers’ compensation benefits for psychological injury after her boss had the IT department forward her email to a co-worker in her absence — without her knowledge.

The employer, who was not named in the ruling by the Appeals Commission for Alberta Workers’ Compensation, made the move after the woman was suspended and required to take a mandatory leave using her vacation time.

The woman’s boss asked HR, a couple of days after the fact, if having the emails forwarded to a co-worker was “ok to do.”


HR’s response was that turning on the out-of-office feature was a more typical practice, with instructions on who to contact in the worker’s absence, and that could be done by either the worker or IT.

“You’re right that the email is company property and employees can’t expect it to be private. However, I can see that forwarding it without (the worker’s) knowledge in advance that it would happen will be concerning to her,” the HR professional said to the director.

“There’s nothing illegal or anything about forwarding the email of course, but in general as a courtesy I would recommend either advise that it will happen (in advance if possible) or else go to OOTO message route.”

Despite that advice from HR, the director did not immediately tell the woman her email was being forwarded automatically to a colleague. Instead, the director waited a couple of weeks and then sent a letter to the suspended worker — letting her know that the emails were being forwarded and, at the same time, chastising her for the content of her email.

“Receiving these incoming emails during your vacation has brought to light even further examples of the issues that need to be addressed,” the director said. “I also did not receive a high volume of requests for customer consultations during your vacation through your email, which would (be) indicative of the volume of work coming in.”

The commission ruled that this behaviour was “clear and confirmable harassing behaviour” in the workplace and was a violation of her privacy.

“While we recognize that the employer may own their worker’s emails, the advice of HR representative confirmed that the usual practice was to utilize out-of-office messaging informing the sender that the worker was out of the office and who to contact in her absence,” it said. “We find this usual practice to be within the intent of Policy regarding email management from a reasonable person’s perspective.”

The worker in this case had a medical certificate of disability from her doctor that confirmed a diagnosis of “acute reaction to stress,” the commission said in awarding workers’ compensation benefits.

For more information see https://www.canlii.org/en/ab/abwcac/doc/2023/2023canlii23725/2023canlii23725.html

Todd Humber is the senior editor for Talent Canada. He can be reached at thumber@annexbusinessmedia.com.

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