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Legality of H.R. mailbox monitoring?

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Whatever the motivations of your company's management, the person now being monitored now knows or suspects they are being monitored. I used to work at a facility where every email was monitored by my former manager, and he was NOT a nice person (I am glad to be out of there too!!). I found out because he would put a physical privacy screen on his monitor so unless you were directly looking over his shoulder, you would not see anything. When he was finished with his *review*, he would take off the privacy filter/screen. I know he read emails I'd sent because he would gauge the length, tone, and content-brevity of the messages to determine when he could unload more of his work onto my co-workers and me. I know this because he slipped up one day and said my predecessor had never done the day-to-day things that the manager kept piling onto me. It got to the point that I was needing over 60 hours/week just to keep up with the work load (all of mine, and a large portion of his), while he suddenly had time for leaving work early (and often!), taking a large number of work breaks, taking 2 lunch breaks 3 or 4 days per week, etc. He was basically retiring on-the-job. And he covered most of his activities by deflection & misdirection, i.e., he would deflect performance criticism of the department by pointing at his overloaded-by-him employees as being under-performers; which is also his misdirection method. The question no one seemed to figure out was that he was the person who was perpetually hiring the so-called under-performers.
Somehow he had the IT dept automatically bcc all incoming and outgoing messages to a special folder in his email client. That way he could read the emails without my co-workers or me being the wiser. I figured it out by planting certain ideas in a few outgoing emails, and then he would take the idea and claim it as his own. I verified this three times until I was convinced he was snooping. A few unsuspecting co-workers had also told me that an idea (s) they were thinking of were suddenly being implemented by the manager... so he looked like he was a genius, but in reality he was just a thief.
This might be the mistake your company made... they read and acted on the monitored employee's email. My advice is to _always_ get the request in writing strictly for CYA purposes. Otherwise, if a legal action occurs, you won't be left twisting in the wind.