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Can employers open employee mail that was sent to the office?

Federal law prohibits the obstruction of mail delivery. But, according to the U.S. Postal Service, mail is delivered when it reaches the workplace. Accordingly, employers do not violate federal law if they open personal mail addressed to employees.

However, intercepting employee mail may violate common law. Under common law, employees can bring two potential privacy claims: “intrusion upon seclusion” and “public disclosure of a private fact.”

“Intrusion upon seclusion,” as applied to employers, goes something like this: If an employer intrudes upon the seclusion, or solitude, of an employee in a way that a reasonable person would find highly offensive, the employee can bring an invasion of privacy claim. 

The “public disclosure of a private fact” standard is equally vague: Employers may be sued if they publicly disclose a private fact about an employee in a way that a reasonable person would find highly offensive.

To minimize the potential for these common law privacy claims, reserve—in writing—your right to search all mail you receive, and take the following steps:

  • Tell employees not to receive personal mail at work. This limits your exposure to personal information.
  • If you open a letter and determine it is personal, stop reading. In other words, if you realize you are reading a love letter, don’t keep reading to determine how much the correspondents love each other.

Keep confidential any personal information you discover when reading employees’ mail. Disclose such information only as necessary to take disciplinary or other corrective action (or to defend an adverse employment action upon which it is based).


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