E-mail: The Phantom Menace of the Office

I love “talking” through e-mail.  I don’t know what it is, but there’s something about communicating from one glowing screen to another that feels just as private as if I were speaking to that person behind closed doors.  Unfortunately, a court of law doesn’t see it that way.  Legally, an e-mail is as formal a communication as a letter typed on company letterhead and sent by first-class mail.

E-mail:  More Like a Letter Than a Phone Call

The false sense of intimacy that e-mails create has led more than one company astray.  In 1995, for example, Chevron Corporation shelled out 2.2 million dollars to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit stemming from inappropriate e-mails circulated by male employees (sample topics:  25 reasons why beer is better than women).  Apparently, some of the 1.1 billion business e-mails sent daily by 80 million U.S. workers cross the line between candor and recklessness.

Best Practices in E-mail Policies

For many of us, e-mail is the backbone of how we communicate with partners with partners, vendors, customers and each other.  For management, the challenge is to keep this backbone from breaking the company’s bank, and the best defense is a good offense — an e-mail policy.  A policy that is likely to protect a company from the fall out of e-mail abuse should:

a)      be tied to a company’s harassment and discrimination policy

b)      clearly state that the content of e-mails are the property of the company; and

c)        specify the scope and frequency of any monitoring that occurs.  A generic warning that e-mail can be read by company officials at any time is better than nothing, but not likely to be as effective a deterrent as coming clean with a full disclosure.

Attorneys disagree about how restrictive an e-mail policy should be, from outlawing personal use completely (conservative but often unrealistic) to setting clear guidelines about acceptable personal use.  In my experience, companies that set clear guidelines about personal use (lunch time, off hours), outlines specific boundaries about appropriate communication (no gambling, pornography, offensive language), and address in detail disciplinary action for violating the e-mail policy may be most effective in balancing efforts to protect the company legally with the realities of human nature.

The Bottom Line

At the very least, an effective e-mail policy will communicate the message that the legal buck stops with the person sending the e-mail.  At the most, it will help protect your company from liability, and, hopefully, encourage reckless e-mailers to pause and reconsider before hitting the send button.

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