Thursday, March 6, 2014

Managing Misconduct in Emails

More than 60 million Americans have e-mail and/or Internet access at work. Recent surveys and studies show that 70 percent of workers admitted to viewing or sending sexually explicit e-mail at work (this would include jokes and cartoons with sexual content). Most traffic to Internet pornographic sites occurs during regular business hours, most probably because Internet connections are usually faster in the workplace than at home.

Companies estimate that more than 1 in every 5 outgoing e-mails contains content that poses a legal, financial or regulatory risk. Twenty percent of companies have disciplined an employee for violating email, blog or message board policies and 10 percent have fired an employee for such an infraction. More than 10 percent of public companies investigated the exposure of material financial information via a blog or message board or other social media. Nearly a quarter of businesses have had e-mail subpoenaed by courts. Fifteen percent of companies have faced lawsuits based on employee e-mail to include claims of sexual or racial harassment.
For all these reasons, and more, email can sometimes qualify as HR’s biggest headaches.  

Electronic messaging can be one more opportunity for employees and managers to bring risk to their organizations – and sometimes themselves. It is more important than ever to have a solid internet and email usage policy, and to be consistent in applying it.

Email tends to be a pretty informal communications medium. The anonymity of being behind the keyboard can embolden people to say things they wouldn’t consider saying face to face.  Additionally, it’s often difficult to read tone in an email, so even a message not intended to be harsh or disrespectful can come off that way.

Document! Email does this for you. A written record is compiled each time an email is sent or received. Supervisors should save anything they find questionable. If an issue comes up later, having copies of those emails could prevent a costly legal headache. Supervisors should also remember that any electronic communication is discoverable in a legal action and deleting it from your desktop doesn’t really delete it forever!

Treat email misconduct just like other types of misconduct.  Saying something offensive to a co-worker in the cafeteria and saying something offensive via email is no different. Supervisors need to address unacceptable behavior specifically with the employee and then follow any usual disciplinary policy they would with other unacceptable conduct. Don’t let the fact that the email conduct is not "in person" minimize the effect or the importance of the behavior.

Ensure employees know and understand what’s professional and what’s not.  Consider providing guidelines that make clear any standards for style of communication you want your business to present. Many companies have templates for signatures and such in order to consistently present their brand. This can also prevent the stray tag line that may not be representative of your corporate culture. You may want to include such things as steering clear of humor (at least with any outside contacts), which often doesn’t translate well in an email; go easy on exclamation points, caps, italics, etc., and consider waiting 20 minutes before sending any email that was written in anger or agitation.

Email policies should cover several different areas:

  • Employees should be prohibited from sending or posting messages that contain objectionable or abusive language, that defame or libel others, or could be or are discriminatory or harassing, or that infringe on privacy rights of others.
  • Employees should be prohibited from viewing, downloading, copying, sending, posting or accessing information that is illegal, sexually explicit or obscene.
  • Employees should be prohibited from engaging in acts that damage or interfere with the company’s computer or network systems.
  • Employees should be prohibited from using the Internet or e-mail to solicit others, including for any commercial or charitable purposes. There should also be a prohibition against using the Internet or e-mail to proselytize for religion, campaign for or against political candidate or issues, etc.
  • Employees should be required to comply with all laws, regulations and rules including intellectual property and company confidentiality.
  • Employees should be required to maintain the integrity of all passwords or other means of access to the company’s computer systems and networks, and acknowledge that the employer is the holder of all passwords, etc.
  • Employees should understand they are liable for all transactions using their password and identification numbers.
  • Employees should be required to maintain and not deactivate company installed virus or spyware protection or other software, including browsers.
  • Employers should be informed and understand that the employer may monitor and/or track employee internet and email use.

Bad behavior is bad behavior, whether in person, on the phone, through email or any social media format. Creating, maintaining and administering an internet and email policy are effective ways to manage the risks a digital world introduces into our organizations.

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