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Thursday, August 19, 2010

is it legal for my boss to open my mail at work?

A reader writes:

My own postman is unreliable, so I often have book orders from amazon, half.com and ebay sent to me at work. The other day, my boss opened a package addressed to me and was offended. He wasn't offended that I had something mailed to me at work, he was offended by the subject matter that the book dealt with (sex). I asked him why he opened a package addressed to me and he replied that he is the boss and can open my mail if it is coming to a business he manages.

It is indeed legal. Postal regulations say that mail delivered to an organization, even if addressed to a specific person, is delivered to the organization itself, and the organization can decide how to distribute it from there.

But as is so often the case, the question of what's legal is different from the question of what's polite.

I don't know if your boss opened your package on purpose or by mistake. It's certainly not that hard to accidentally open someone else's mail without meaning to; I'll often just open anything left in my in-box without thinking to look at the address, and I've sometimes opened something meant for someone else by mistake. But if it was a mistake, the correct response is "I'm sorry, this was inadvertent," not "too bad, I'm entitled to do it if I want." And if it was intentional, your boss is an ass. So really, either way, he's kind of an ass.

Now, that said, there's also the question of what's smart. Having books on sex sent to your work address, when it is sooooo easy for a package sent to a work address to be accidentally opened by someone else? Not necessarily the smartest thing to do. I don't know if this was some academic treatise on sexual issues,  which really shouldn't offend someone, or something a bit more, uh, lowbrow, but if it was the latter, you were kind of asking for trouble.

I completely understand the desire to have your packages sent to your work address. I used to do it all the time when I had a UPS man who refused to leave packages without a signature. But (a) not every business welcomes or even permits it, and (b) it's not a good idea for things you wouldn't want someone else to see.

26 comments:

Anonymous said...

If your regular postman is unreliable, perhaps you should consider opening a P.O. Box at your post office. If you don't want that expense, then check with your post office to see if you can have them note when certain things come in for you to pick up at the post office instead of delivery. I don't know if it's possible, but it never hurts to ask.

This is interesting. I haven't known before that the mail can be opened by the organization. I thought if something was addressed to someone, no one has the right to open it unless granted permission by the addressee. I would've asked the same question as the OP.

However, in the link for the word "legal" in AAM's post, the writer there wrote: "But, an employer can't obstruct delivery of employee mail, or destroy it, or open it with the intent of prying" (Ann Kiernan). The latter seems to be the closest to what we have here in the OP's letter - the boss apparently said he can open it since he's the boss. Unfortunately, it's hard to prove intent like this. You'd have to see if it became a pattern with your personal shipments.

I'd keep the questionable packages out of the office.

Anonymous said...

Of course anyone at work can open your mail if it's sent to a work address. That is a no brainer. Add this to 101 ways to ruin your career - really a dumb thing to do when your ordering material on sex or porn etc and having it mailed to work. The question asker should consider getting a PO box.

Class factotum said...

One of the things emphasized to us in my first out of college job was that we were not to get any mail at work. I guess they thought the mailroom guys worked hard enough already, which does have a certain logic.

An HR Person said...

I agree with the advice others have offered - the OP should get a P.O. Box.

I have packages delivered to my job (it's allowed here, but I never have anything delivered that I would embarrass me or cause me trouble if one of my coworkers were to open it.

Anonymous said...

Also, the post office instituted a policy a little while ago that a supervisor has to respond to you when you email a complaint through usps.com. You are also well within your rights to ask to speak to a supervisor at your local post office. I once went in Brooklyn and caused a stink, and instead of the supervisor, my deadbeat carrier came out with my package that had been missing for 6+ weeks.

That being said, Amazon uses UPS, no?, which has putrid customer service.

Anonymous said...

First Anonymous back again.

What the OP wrote didn't sit right with me. Amazon, like another anonymous wrote, uses UPS, not the USPS. At least that's what I recall from the last time I used Amazon, which was a while ago (nothing against Amazon, just curtailing spending). It's not the postman then who would deliver that. Instead, it's the UPS driver who does. So where is the problem - USPS or UPS?

I don't have a problem with UPS; the driver who works for my neighborhood is very pleasant and takes care of packages.

And Anonymous 5:31, it's not much of a "no brainer" as you call it. That's why the OP wrote in, and that's why I admit to not have knowing it. Like I've stated before, if it's addressed to someone, it's typically intended for that person, not the entire household or organization. I don't agree with it, but I guess there's a reason.

Ask a Manager said...

For what it's worth, I was unsure too and had to look it up. My assumption was that it would be legal, just based on other laws involving privacy in the workplace and also because if you get mail for a former employee, you can do whatever you want with it (including open it), but one never knows with the post office.

Charles said...

AAM, I agree with your advice. But not your calling the boss an ass.

OP states:

" I asked him why he opened a package addressed to me and he replied that he is the boss and can open my mail if it is coming to a business he manages."

But, I have a feeling that is not exactly how things went down. We are only hearing one side of the story - a clearly biased one-side. Perhaps, the OP is really the one who got upset about her mail being opened by someone else at the organization.

I read this as with so many other complaints from (inexperienced?) employees who claim that their "rights are being violated" - they read my email, they listen in on my phone calls, they tell me what to wear, they look in my desk, they check to see what websites I am visiting, they tell me when to eat lunch, etc.

Work is for work. Keep your personal stuff out of it!

Perhaps, the OP's defensive nature (How dare you open MY mail!) is why the boss responded the way he did.

AAM, you often mention how important it is to understand an organization's culture. That is important here too - and we are missing it in the OP's letter. A case in point; I used to be a supervisor who received packages from clients all the time. While it never happened, I would be upset if a package came in while I was out and no one opened it. These packages would be work related and needed to be started on right away - not sitting around waiting for me to return. Perhaps, that is why the boss opened it. Doing so, does not make him an "ass." However, getting bent out of shape because he does open it does make one seem unprofessional. One exception might be if it is clearly marked "personal and confidential." OP doesn't state that it was marked this way.

And, yes, in a large organization the extra volume of packages at Christmas time can be too much for the mailroom to handle - so many companies do limit or "ban" personal mail at work. Personal email and internet usage are often banned for the same reasons - too much demand on the internet server.

Ask a Manager said...

Charles, that's true. If that's how it went down, you're right that our assessment of the boss should be different!

Anonymous said...

Mail delivered to a business is assumed for the business. Not only can the boss open it - so can any staff involved in mail delivery to the business. In short, you have NO expectation of privacy when you choose to insert your personal life at work.

Sending your personal mail to work isn't the best idea. Get a PO Box.

Anonymous said...

I don't have mail sent to work but my workplace does not forbid this. Management has said in the past that occasional deliveries are fine since they would rather have us here at work than off looking for a package at home. All that aside, I can't even imagine my boss opening and then commenting on a personal delivery. That kind of thing simply does not happen in a professional environment. If I worked for someone with those kind of basic boundary issues, I would look elsewhere. That is shocking behavior.

saf said...

Our employee manual states that all mail will be opened, and it is.

That annoys me, because while I understand all mail that might in any way be organizational mail, I do not understand how a package addressed to me with my mother's name on the return address could be considered office mail.

Oh well, our Operations Manager likes to think he's the big man in control of everything and uses this to prove to us that he can do whatever he wants without us being able to do anything about it.

Anonymous said...

Owner perspective: You want me to pay my staff to sort through and deliver employee personal mail at work?

The domino down time on this could be pretty significant across a company. Lou receives a delivery and has to sign for it, then enter the delivery into our system. He passes the item to Thelma, who determines where it goes.

She gives it to Jacob who was going to the 44th floor to deliver business mail but now has to stop on the 12th floor to deliver personal mail. He still has enough time to get to the courthouse when the person he's delivering mail to on the 12th floor wants to know where the rest of their mail is. He excuses himself but this delay means he may not be able to get to the courthouse in time to file a motion.

Jacob is on a final write up for missing deadlines by a boss who doesn't know about personal mail deliveries at work and Jacob doesn't want to be a rat. He knows his boss is going to be furious if he doesn't get to the courthouse. Jacob makes it on time, files the motion, but gets called into the bosses office anyway.

The person on the 12th floor went to their boss to complain about Jacob's attitude and how he didn't fully answer their questions. Time for a sit down to discuss professional expectations with both Jacob and the person on the 12th floor.

How many people are involved so far? How much non-work related time has been spent and paid for by the company? Multiply that number out by the number of employees using the business as their mailing address.

Look OP -The personal mail delivery position has already been filled by USPS, UPS, Fed Ex etc.

Cop an attitude for one of my team (doing their job) by opening business mail you won't a reason to have mail sent here again.

Mike said...

A whole lot of the comments here are unnecessarily harsh on the original poster. There are tricky issues regarding the workplace and privacy - even implied privacy.

For instance, the OP discusses how this is the first time her package has been opened by her boss, even though she's received plenty of mail at work before. This, in some states, raises implied privacy issues as the employee previously had an expectation of privacy that isn't there any more, and was taken away for no reason other than, "because the boss can".

I'm not a lawyer, but I have to wonder if the business allows and knows that employees receive mail at work and has never opened it before if that creates an implied right to privacy there.

We can wax all day about "what the smart thing to do is", but I can't help but think it was disingenuous at best for an employer to create an atmosphere where mail was allowed only to arbitrarily violate the trust and privacy of the employees

Mike said...

@Anon with the "Owner's Perspective"

1. Why were you allowing employees to send mail to work in the first place?

2. Why would you be wasting time opening up random packages?

Come on now, this is silly.

Philip said...

Mike raises good points. I think the OP should simply use this as a learning experience for the future, with the knowledge that any expectation of privacy has been lost. OP should consider this a lesson learned, and either get a PO box or find another sensible way to get her personal mail delivered to her.

Anonymous said...

The legal matter addressed by AAM simply covers the legal rights as they pertain to mail delivery.

But there is also the legal matter of the contents. Most businesses have at least some mail that needs to be date-stamped. And its not always clear which types of mail requires a stamp and which doesn't, and it usually isn't up to the receptionist or mail clerk to decide, so most companies have the policy that everything is stamped--magazines, letters, checks, postcards, packages. Everything.

Also, the idea that OP has the 'implied' right to privacy because nothing has been opened in the past, is intriguing but I don't think it holds water. We don't have the right to privacy with our internet usage, for example, even if our usage has never been monitored before. That has been covered pretty thoroughly by the courts.

Furthermore, OP I think has opened herself to potential legal problems by having inappropriate subject material delivered to the office. If the manager had Playboy magazines delivered to the office, would OP be offended? I bet so, and I bet a lot of other workers there would be too, and rightfully so. It is not appropriate material for the workplace.

OP needs to find a better way to deal with their personal delivery issues.

Anonymous said...

To Mike: It's not silly, it's business - dollars and cents, productivity and time wasted on my dime. I'm sure you could teach me how to run several successful companies consecutively. Until then, I'm doing the best I can to meet payroll and keep my staff efficient and employed.

The mindset that employers can afford to absorb any/all costs is a myth. If any economy in the last 100 years drives that point home - it's this one.

If I found out an employee sent sexual mail to themselves at work, I'd think 1. judgment is lacking & 2. they were as smart as a bag of rocks. Until I give a directive that it's okay to send porn to work, I expect all mail received at work, is work related.

Cass said...

At my workplace, we are not supposed to get personal mail - whether it's regular postal mail or UPS/Fedex. The reason being that when the mail comes in, we have employees who then distributes the mail to the appropriate offices (i.e., the mailman or Fedex guy does not do the delivering). So while someone may think "oh, it's just one small book I ordered", if everyone used their office address for personal mail, the numbers would add up.

I don't know the legalities of employers opening up mail addressed to an employee, but I assume it's legal. Even if the boss opened the package intentionally and I would hope that my boss doesn't open my mail, but I think he/she has the freedom to do so.

Amazon ships via a variety of methods - using (at least) both UPS and USPS.

Akarui said...

As far as mail goes, why not leave private mail "in the mailroom" or wherever it's delivered, so that employees would pick that up themselves ?

Mailroom employees could leave notices on an intranet system (in case of big buildings), or whatever system would work best, and employees could pick up their mail at the end of the workday.

Of course that may not work with all companies, but it could be a compromise : if Joe Smith gets a package sent to his work address, he can move his behind and get it himself :P ...

Anonymous said...

People responding to this letter have made some excellent comments. I feel it's not professional to have non-work related mail sent to one's office; it's just not professional. Renting a P.O. box is the safe way to do this.

And how foolish to have sexually-oriented material sent to one's place of business! You're just asking for trouble. Speaking for myself as a pagan and practioner of witchcraft, I would be very worried about my job security if I ever had witchcraft books mailed to my office, since this is not tolerated by a lot of mainstream corporations.

Talyssa said...

Kinda feel bad for the question asker. I can't even begin to talk about how incredibly embarrassing that must have been. I mean sure its easy for all the commenters to be like "DUH, don't do that stupid!" but they already did it and not only was it embarrassing but the boss made a big deal about it. Boss could and should have just closed the box and handed it to the person. I sincerely doubt the person would have ever been dumb enough to send material like that to work again.

But you know, let it be a lesson to all who come after, especially I suspect younger persons who expect a more casual and naturally less discriminatory work environment (as opposed to a work environment that does not discriminate due to regulation).

As someone who works in a very gossipy company in a very gossipy industry (not by nature, but for some reason thats the culture) I would NOT want to be in a position where you went to a new job or company and everyone went "omg thats SO AND SO, thats the person who ______"

If I were the question asker I think I'd pick up and move to another state entirely.

And by the way, question asker, you might consider using a friend or local family member instead of work. I tend to have stuff shipped to my mom since she only lives 2 miles away and she doesn't work so she's around to sign for packages. Even if your work DOES allow personal mail to be sent straight there, it seems a little bit .... like overusing the system if you are having stuff shipped there ALL the time. Just because the privledge exists doesn't mean you should use it to an extreme. I work somewhere with very generously flexible hours, no one watches your lunches or breaks, its fine to come in at 7:30 or 9:30, whatever, and if you need to leave at 3 to wait for a handy man or see the doctor, you just let your boss know you're taking off and go. But we have a person here who gets in after 10 every day, leaves prompty at 5pm, 3 days a week or more, and still spends 45 minutes or more at lunch every day. Everyone notices and no one thinks very favorably of it. I can assure you that even though it was "ok" to get your packages at work, everyone noticed that you had a significantly higher mail volume than the norm. Maybe they didn't think anything of it, but I bet a LOT of them wondered what on earth you were ordering so often.

Anonymous said...

I always thought it was a federal felony to open mail addresseed to another person, whether they're your boss or not...is this another civil liberty that was taken away by the Bush administration/Patriot Act that no one noticed?

Ask a Manager said...

No. It's that mail sent to a business address is considered to be delivered to that BUSINESS, no matter what individual is on the package. Otherwise, without this rule, it would be illegal to open business mail addressed to an employee who no longer worked there.

Anonymous said...

If I sent a business letter to you at your place of work, and three weeks later I had not had a response, I might just ring and ask what has happened. If I am told that there is a pile of mail addressed to you, which is waiting on your desk - because you are off sick, or on holiday, on behind with your work - I think I would have a poor impression of the company.

Anyone who works in HR will receive plenty of post marked 'confidential'. Should we leave these letters on their desk when they are on leave, in case one of them is a letter from their Mum?

Where I worked last time, we had a corporate Amazon account, so the fact that an Amazon package had my name on it did not mean it was personal.

Anonymous said...

I used to work for a major organization and EVERY package that gets delievered to the office is opened by the mailroom person before it actually gets delivered to the person.