Q. At my former job we shared computers. I worked the overnight shift while employed there. On several occasions when I got to the computer I was going to use that evening, the person before me had not logged out of the system. If it was slow, I would peek at that person’s emails. What could be done to me? The employer did not have a policy against this, only that the email system was for work related mail not personal.
A. You do say it was at your former job, and I wonder if your employment status is related to your question. Colleagues share offices, desks, computers, refrigerators and more, hoping for honesty, and professional courtesy from others. Organizations set policies to help people understand what they are accountable for and to help people make good decisions in areas which might be confusing. Policies don’t typically cover life lessons learned much earlier, so I wouldn’t expect to see a specific policy against accessing other people’s mail.
The person who used the computer before you made a mistake and did not log out. This was careless, and unprofessional. There are many situations like this that may tempt some people to “peek”. You might find yourself with the opportunity to look at what is on someone’s computer screen, or at papers left on a copier, or papers on a desk showing headlines that you can easily read upside down.
We are faced with these ethical dilemmas frequently. You had a choice to read on, or to protect your colleague from his or her forgetfulness. In your situation I would advise logging your colleague out of the system, and posting a reminder to log out so that you can eliminate any temptation a repeat situation might bring.
You asked what could be done to you as a result of your actions. That suggests to me that you know reading emails meant for another person is not only unprofessional, it is just plain wrong. What can happen to you as a result of reading information not intended for you, can range from termination, to a written warning, to an angry colleague. Your colleague may also face repercussions. If you choose to do something with the information you gained, based on what kind of information it is, the penalties can be more severe.
Many people have become immune to the concept of computer security in the office, as they are surrounded by trusted colleagues, and systems which typically go dark in just minutes. Though we may complain about the scores of usernames and passwords we need, it’s best not to become someone else’s ethical dilemma.