What might Pillsbury have done differently

Michael A. Smyth v. The Pillsbury Company
914 F. Supp. 97 (E.D. Pa., 1996)
In this case, the District Court dismissed the wrongful discharge claim brought by plaintiff, an at-will employee, against his employer. The court reached this conclusion notwithstanding accepting as true, for the purposes of the motion, the following allegations advanced by plaintiff:
defendant employer promised that it would neither read employee e-mail, nor terminate or reprimand an employee based on the content of such e-mail; and
in breach of this commitment, defendant intercepted plaintiff’s e-mail, and discharged him because defendant found its content inappropriate and unprofessional.
The court rejected plaintiff’s contentions that such conduct constituted an invasion of plaintiff’s privacy under Pennsylvania law. Reasoned the Court: “[W]e do not find a reasonable expectation of privacy in e-mail communications voluntarily made by an employee to his supervisor over the company e-mail system notwithstanding any assurances that such communications would not be intercepted by management. Once plaintiff communicated the alleged unprofessional comments to a second person (his supervisor) over an e-mail system which was apparently utilized by the entire company, any reasonable expectation of privacy was lost. Significantly, the defendant did not require plaintiff, as in the case of an urinalysis or personal property search, to disclose any personal information about himself. Rather, plaintiff voluntarily communicated the alleged unprofessional comments over the company e-mail system. We find no privacy interests in such communications. … [W]e do not find that a reasonable person would consider the defendant’s interception of these communications to be a substantial and highly offensive invasion of his privacy. Again, we note that by intercepting such communications, the company is not, as in the case of urinalysis or personal property searches, requiring the employee to disclose any personal information about himself or invading the employee’s person or personal effects. Moreover, the company’s interest in preventing inappropriate and unprofessional comments or even illegal activity over its e-mail system outweighs any privacy interest the employee may have in those comments.”
Do you side with the defendant or the company and why?
What constitutes “inappropriate” communications and how do companies establish, monitor, and hold accountable corporate communication norms?
What might Pillsbury have done differently in this employee relations case?

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