It got former congressman Mark Foley in trouble, and admit it: Sometimes your instant messages at work don't always deal with, well, work...

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It got former congressman Mark Foley in trouble, and admit it: Sometimes your instant messages at work don’t always deal with, well, work.

So what is it OK to instant message about at work and what is off limits? When you close that chat window, where does it go? Might your employer be spying on you?

Nancy Flynn, author of the book “Instant Messaging Rules,” offers this advice: If you’re instant messaging at work, pretend your boss is reading everything.

Four things to keep in mind:

1. Instant messages don’t just disappear when you close the window. If your company has its own IM system, it comes equipped to monitor and archive messages, Flynn said. If your company lets you use free IM programs, like AIM or Yahoo, your company could be using what Flynn calls “gateway management technology,” which monitors, filters, retains and archives.

“IM, just like e-mail, can create electronic business records. Employers are obligated to retain those IM business records so if the company becomes embroiled in a lawsuit you can take it to the bank your IM will be subpoenaed. You need to think of IM chat as an electronic equivalent of DNA evidence. If there’s a lawsuit you can bet it will come back to haunt you.”

Flynn says most companies use computer programs to sift through instant messages and flag any inappropriate ones. Those flagged messages are put into quarantine for a real person to review, she said.

“The only way you’ll get snagged and looked at is if you’ve violated policy or if it ends up subpoenaed,” she said.

2. Personal IMs are a gray area. Can you set up after-work drinks or IM your roommate to remind him about feeding the cat?

“As long as your employer doesn’t prohibit personal use of the company’s computer system then you’re probably fine,” Flynn says. “Those types of messages don’t usually rise to the level of a business record so there’s no issue that they have to be retained.”

3. Watch your content and tone. “Be careful what you’re sending. No gossip. No disparaging remarks. No adult language. Never tell jokes. It’s easy for people to misunderstand, to misconstrue. It’s full of risk,” Flynn says.

4. Check to see if your company has an instant message policy. If they do, follow it, Flynn says. “If they don’t have an IM policy, adhere to their e-mail policy,” she said. Follow the company’s harassment and ethics policy while instant messaging, she said.

What if you secretly downloaded a copy of a free instant message program on the company computer?

“There is technology out there that enables the company to scan their computer system to find out just how many employees have downloaded free IM tools,” Flynn says.