E-Mail Policies of the 50 States: A Content Analysis

Article excerpt

Even though wide-scale use of e-mail and the Internet in government organizations came a bit later than it did in private sector organizations, growth in e-government initiatives are currently narrowing the gap. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce (1), the percentage of employees using the Internet and/or e-mail at work grew from about 18 percent in 1998 to almost 42 percent in 2001. As its use has grown, e-mail has also become an increasingly risky and potentially costly mode of communication, mostly due to the intentional or unintentional abuse of the system by employees.

The number of incidents of e-mail abuse is on the rise in both the private and public sectors. Abuses range from employees spending excessive time on personal emails to sending harassing or otherwise inappropriate messages. Such abuses, at times, have led to difficult personnel decisions and, at times, public embarrassment. Growing awareness of such realities has prompted many organizations to develop written e-mail policies. Having a well--thought-out e-mail policy, along with training employees on the proper use of e-mail, is a major safeguard against employees' abuse of office e-mail privileges. A growing body of literature offers suggestions on the essential components of a well-written e-mail policy. Comparing these essential components with the provisions of state governments' actual current e-mail policies will permit an assessment of the adequacy and comprehensiveness of the states' policies.

The Importance of Written E-Mail Policy for Limiting Costly Personnel Decisions

A well-written e-mail policy can help) managers avoid having to make costly personnel decisions, prevent the loss of productivity, avoid public embarrassment for their agency, and prevent misunderstandings among employees. It effectively communicates the agency's expectations for proper employee use of office e-mail and also informs employees of their rights and responsibilities regarding e-mail.

Stories of employees being fired over e-mail abuse have become somewhat common. To cite just two examples, 23 people were fired from a New York Times Co. administration unit in Norfolk, VA, in December 23 for violating the company's e-mail policy. Merck and Co. dismissed an unknown number of employees for inappropriate e-mail and Internet usage in 2000. In addition to these disciplinary decisions, hostile workplace lawsuits have also increased. Chevron paid a $2.2 million settlement in 1999 to employees who claimed that unmonitored, sexually harassing e-mails created a threatening environment. The offenders' e-mail messages included, among other items, "25 Reasons Why Beer is Better Than Women."(2)

Similar stories abound in the public sector as well. Clearwater, Florida, has experienced widely publicized incidents of e-mail abuse. In 1999 the acting information technology director resigned following allegations that he used a private e-mail account to send sexually provocative statements to another city employee. Early in 2000 the supervisor of Clear-water's solid waste department was accused of racial discrimination because he e-mailed a questionable joke to a coworker. These incidents led to a series of investigations by city officials and, later, revisions of the city's e-mail policy. Even as the policy review and update were being conducted, however, the city's planning and development administrator was forced to resign for using the city's computer system to send e-mails containing improper jokes and conversations about his private storage business. (3)

Two other incidents bear mentioning. Firefighters in Columbus, Ohio, triggered an internal investigation, media sensation, and public uproar when a routine scan of a surge in on-the-job Internet usage revealed that fire division headquarters' staff were visiting as many as 8,000 pornographic sites a day. (4) A Federal Communications Commission employee inadvertently sent a dirty joke titled "Nuns in Heaven" to 6,000 journalists and government officials on the agency's group e-mail list, which led to negative publicity and national embarrassment for the agency. …