Can an employer open personal mail addressed to an employee?

I was talking to a buddy of mine, and we were discussing a scenario at his work where management (he’s part of management) suspects an employee may be doing some stuff “on the side”. Basically, they have a long list of suspicious things she does, which all could individually be explained away as perfectly normal or legit, but when looked at as a whole at least suggest she’s got something going on or is hiding something. I’ll admit that from what details he’s shared with me, I find very plausable that she’s got some sort of kickback scheme going or something, altough like I said, there is zero real proof.

One thing they’d be interested in finding more out about is some mail she receives regularly at work. Apparently she receives quite a bit of personal mail at work, which doesn’t sound all that unusal to me, but is kind of unexpected according to my friend.

He’d like to open some of the mail to see what’s going on, but of course doesn’t want to do anything illegal or that would hurt their case if it did end up she was doing something wrong. He’s thinking of doing it in the context of “accidentally” opening an evelope or three, and if it ends up being nothing he can play it off like an honest mistake. If it did end up being something shady, it would be the first real proof management would have.

My question is weather or not he can do this, or if he would be breaking the law. He’s in Florida if that matters. Also, would it make a difference if the mail were addressed to the employee only (no company) at the company’s address, or if it were addressed to the company, but to the employee’s attention?

P.S. I do realize that if there is really something going on here, its probably unlikely that the employee would have incriminating evidence mailed to her at work. But, I guess stranger things have happened, and its not like management could go to her house and check out that mail.

What do you mean by 'kick back scheme?" Are you worried that this employee is making money that the company should be getting? Making money working on the side with a competitor? Or is this truly personal mail that really doesn’t have any effect at all on the business? If it’s just personal mail (no matter what it is) that really has nothing to do with the business, I wouldn’t even worry about it. If they are somehow doing something that effects the business, then that would be different, but I’m afraid your OP is just slightly to vague for me to tell.

Sorry, I don’t think when I said kickbacks that it was exactly what’s going on here. What is (might be) going on is this:

Employee works is sales, and is responsible for quoting and pricing jobs she brings in. Her prices end up being about 1/2 of what they should be, and she tries to sneak other perks in for customers (free shipping, etc.) as well which leads to the company losing money or not making a profit on a lot of what she sets up. When management brings to her attention that her prices are too low, she generally goes to the argument that they have to be that price to get the business. Apparently, this isn’t the case, and her pricing ends up being well below what any competitior could reasonably offer and still make a profit. I do understand that making a bad sale is better than no sale at all as far as she is concerned (beacuse she still gets her commission), but it does seem like she’s going above and beyond just putting together a competitive bid. Because here prices are so ridiculous, management wonders if the customers are paying her something under the table.

I’m not sure what a scenario such as this would even be called. Maybe reverse kickback?

IANAL, but I’m pretty such that’s a huge no-no, like a felony.

My reaction as an HR person is that the answer is probably going to hinge on the details of this part I quoted and that this is where he needs to get legal involved. As in, get his attorney up to speed on the situation and, when specific envelopes have been identified, give the attorney specifics of the address and get advice.

Some companies have a central person open all incoming mail. That sets the tone that there’s no expectation of privacy. He might want to look into that.

Alternatively, from the perspective of HR, he might just be better off making the case that she is a bad salesperson and firing her for performance. There are also ways to structure sales commissions so that salespeople don’t make their money on bad sales.

Here’s a case that suggests that the employer can indeed open mail addressed to an employee at the employer’s address: http://www.usps.com/judicial/1991deci/md-128.htm

Here is the relevant DMM:

http://pe.usps.com/text/dmm300/508.htm

That’s a strange sort of commission arrangement. Independent of any kickback scheme, you quote seriously lowball prices, hordes of customers love it, you pocket commisions on a serious volume of gross sales, your company takes a bath.

Commissions are normally based on what you can make for your company, not how quickly you can drive it into Chapter 11.

Stealing. This person is funneling part of the company’s money into her pocket. Call an attorney explain it to them, and let them advise. Perhaps a new policy is in order. ALL MAIL is opened when it comes in, and then distributed to the addressee. Effective immidatly.
PS It has to be effective NOW so you can grab all the mail that’s already en route before she can call the customers and tell them to stop.

Also, if you plan to catch her, I wouldn’t even mention that you have any suspecion.
Another way you could find out what’s going on is to call her customers and ask them. Perhaps the question, in writing, on a lawyers letterhead would be better. Or simply calling the customers and asking. Maybe “Hi, I’m taking over X’s customers blah blah blah, any future corresponce should be addressed to my name” and see what happens. Yeah, I know that probably wouldn’t work. Just thinking out loud.

What Xema said-

I can’t really wrap my head around how this would work in real world terms unless there is effectively zero oversight by the business owner or office manager on the quotes being approved. If that’s actually the case that business has a lot more problems than a low balling commissioned employee.

Your friends description of how she would be cheating the company in that scenario seems somewhat improbable. It assumes almost zero concern with profitability, and that the gatekeepers would swallow her crazy “I’m making it up in volume” argument.

Plus if you’re going to get kickbacks or side compensation for low-balling a quote only a complete and utter loon would have the checks sent to her place of work.

Lot of people have side businesses they monitor from work (eBay is by far the most common scenario in this possibility) and sometimes even have payment checks sent to a work address vs a less secure home mailbox.