Just because e-mail is the most common method of communicating in the business world these days does not mean that it is a benign form of communication. E-mail is frequently used by employees to harass, slander, stalk, insult, and discriminate against coworkers. If you tolerate the use of your company e-mail systems to send pornographic, hostile, crude or offensive jokes, slurs, pictures, stories, language or documents, the company is probably responsible and you are setting yourself up for a lawsuit.
If you haven’t taken steps to protect your company from these liabilities, this problem won’t go away, so don’t stick your head in the sand. Get busy implementing a policy and training that will let your employees know that your workplace information systems are not the appropriate place for unprofessional and libelous statements.
As with most workplace problems, there are 4 steps you need to take:
- Implement a written policy (signed by the employee and giving consent to monitoring the e-mails) saying that the company’s e-mail system is monitored and that unprofessional, harassing, offensive, etc. material may not be transmitted. Employees should be required to write and send e-mails with as much judgment and care as they would formal letters to clients. Prohibit harassing attachments and the forwarding of offensive material just as you would an e-mail written by employee. You should also have anti-harasssment and anti-discrimination policies that complement and reinforce the e-mail policy.
- Train your employees on your harassment and discrimination policies as well as appropriate e-mail use.
- Monitor your employees e-mails randomly to make sure that the policies are being followed.
- Enforce your policies by effective disciplinary measures, including written warnings and termination for egregious violations of your policy. Be consistent in enforcing your policies, even if it is your best manager or salesman who has violated the policy.
You also need to address e-mail retention. If you even suspect that a lawsuit may be filed against your company, you must assure that all e-mails are safely stored electronically so that you are not sanctioned for destruction of evidence (e-mails frequently are relevant evidence in employment and other lawsuits). Your only defense if the judge finds out you can’t locate an old e-mail is if you practice regular destruction of e-mails as part of an efficiency policy adopted before the lawsuit arises.
For example, you can adopt a policy that allows your back up software or provider to destroy all e-mail older than 6 months. If you are doing this consistently, you may be able to avoid having the lawyer of a disgruntled former employee find a “smoking gun” among e-mails sent before you carefully trained you employees and monitored their electronic communications.