Magazine article Journal of Property Management

Avoiding Costly E-Mail Disasters. (Legal Issues)

Magazine article Journal of Property Management

Avoiding Costly E-Mail Disasters. (Legal Issues)

Article excerpt

With an estimated 1.3 trillion e-mail messages being sent annually, electronic mail is quickly becoming the communications medium of choice in many business settings. While e-mail transmissions do offer many benefits, such as speed, ease of use, and relatively low cost, business owners are learning the hard way that e-mail is a visible and potentially perilous communications tool.

For example, one company faced six claims of sexual harassment because an employee downloaded an "adult bulletin board" to the company's computer system and programmed it to display the offensive material on employees' screens when they accessed their mail. Another company paid $2.2 million for racially charged e-mail messages exchanged on its system by employees. But these incidences don't only occur in large organizations. Companies as small as ten employees have had to discipline employees for misuse of company computer systems, with violations ranging from inflammatory messages to software piracy.

E-mail abuse and Internet misuse can cripple communications, disrupt operations, or embarrass a business. It also increasingly leads to real legal liabilities. Inflammatory or abusive content, off-the-cuff jargon, ambiguous instructions, imprecise memos, embarrassing gossip, unprofessional language, or breaches of confidentiality are all sources of concern for e-mail writers and their employers.

Many of these e-mail related challenges can be eliminated or controlled through pro-active techniques for generating online communications. Below are the three most critical steps to take to reduce the possibility of an e-mail disaster.

1. Enact an E-mail Usage Policy. To improve your company's control over employee e-mail, adopt policies that clearly define what rights the company reserves and explain that e-mail communications are not private. The specific language of the policy will vary depending upon the company, the industry, and the specific needs of the work environment. The policy should be written and incorporated into employee manuals or policy books. Employees, indicating that they have read it and agree to be bound by its terms, should then sign the policy.

Some common e-mail usage policy highlights include:

* Defining the permissible uses of the e-mail system. Make it clear that the business owns the email system. All messages that are created, sent, or received using the system remain the property of the company. Indicate that workplace e-mail systems are to be used for business communications only. Personal business is unauthorized and should nor be conducted at any time. It is wise to state that offensive, discriminatory, or disruptive e-mail messages are strictly prohibited.

All employees should be made aware that access to messages received by or transmitted through the e-mail system are limited to persons who need to know the information. Employees should disclose information or messages only to authorized employees. Equally important is to put employees on notice that any mail communication may be read by individuals other than the intended recipient.

* Defining appropriate content. Employees must know specifically what is allowed and what is prohibited in the e-mail system. Explain that messages containing insensitive language, as well as racial, sexual, ethnic, or religious material is not acceptable. …

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