Magazine article The Futurist

Preventing E-Mail Lawsuits

Magazine article The Futurist

Preventing E-Mail Lawsuits

Article excerpt

Employers face lawsuits as workers misuse computers.

Employee misuse and abuse of computers are forcing businesses to spend millions of dollars on lawsuits. When employees circulate inappropriate jokes via e-mail or download pornographic or copyrighted material from the Internet, they can open their companies to sexual harassment suits, discrimination suits, and copyright violations.

A company's best defense is a written employee policy on computer and e-mail use, says Michael R. Overly, a lawyer with expertise in Internet law and the author of E-Policy: How to Develop Computer, E-Mail, and Internet Guidelines to Protect Your Company and Its Assets. "In the event of a lawsuit, having a well-written policy may mean the difference between liability for damages and early dismissal of the action," Overly writes.

Sexual harassment and discrimination suits based on e-mail evidence "are particularly prevalent and have resulted in substantial settlements," says Overly. In one case, Chevron paid $2.2 million to settle a suit by women who alleged that the company permitted a subsidiary's internal e-mail system to be used to transmit sexually offensive messages. One piece of evidence was a message that listed "25 reasons beer is better than women."

Although one or two potentially offensive internal e-mails are probably not grounds for a lawsuit, "a hostile work environment may be created if e-mail is repeatedly circulated that contains sexually explicit language or jokes. An employer who becomes aware of this activity and fails to take immediate corrective action may very well find itself the subject of a lawsuit," Overly explains.

The best policy is to monitor employees' computer use, Overly says. The company's written policy should make it clear that employee messages and files could be reviewed at any time, without notice. The policy should expressly state that employees shouldn't expect anything they create, store, send, or receive on their computers to be private.

The average employee spends three hours a week surfing the Net for nonbusiness reasons, Overly reports. In addition to wasting a company's time and money, this nonbusiness surfing can make a company vulnerable to copyright violations. …

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