Office e-mail is never far from the headlines and businesses would be wise to heed the hard lessons learned from time to time. E-mail has become an essential part of everyday business and personal communications and – because it is as instant as a phone call – has taken on an informal nature. But it is precisely this informality that can get businesses of any size into trouble.
As some Companies have found out, it is often all too easy to put things in an e-mail that normally would not be said over the telephone or face-to-face. This, combined with e-mail’s immediacy and permanence (it is, after all, in writing), has all the makings of a scandal waiting to happen. One firm of London solicitors was taken to court over an e-mail between two senior lawyers commenting on a secretary’s resignation. The lawyers expressed a desire for a more visually appealing replacement and the secretary, resigned but not yet gone, read the e-mail. She sued the firm for an unlimited amount of compensation. Another Company was sued by a female employee who witnessed pornographic e-mails exchanged between male colleagues – she won £70,000.
Such cases underline the fact that owner-managers and employees alike would be well advised to think of e-mail as a formal business communication, just like using company-headed paper. But what makes e-mail even more dangerous is that, unlike other types of communication, it can be passed around with unprecedented ease. Although the headline-making cases often involve office banter, it is possible that such informality could affect business deals and negotiations.
Businesses should have a formal written e-mail and internet policy incorporating some of the following points:
- Preventing employees from using the internet, or online services for: personal financial gain; political, religious, or charitable campaigning; soliciting for non-company outside organisations or commercial ventures; selling internet or other carrier access time
- Not to access/download/forward inappropriate material, such as pornography, from the internet, which may or may not contain any comment that may insult a person’s age, sexual orientation, religious or political belief, national origin, ethnicity or disability
- E-mail messages should have appropriate signature files and company standard trailing disclaimers attached
- To use the appropriate etiquette when writing e-mail messages; the use of capitals, for example, is considered to be the equivalent of SHOUTING
- Prohibiting inappropriate messages including those that are sexually harassing or offensive to others on the grounds of race, religion or gender
- Not to send potentially defamatory e-mail messages that criticise other individuals or organisations
- Not to create/contribute to/forward “junk” e-mail messages
Such a policy would normally state the extent of Company monitoring for legitimate business purposes and that misuse of the e-mail and internet will be considered as gross misconduct. It is then easier for an employer not only to deal with e-mail issues that arise but also reduce potential claims.