Article

Creating E-mail Policies At Work

February 2008, Auto Dealer Today - WebXclusive

by Mark Benjamin - Also by this author

E-mail is a double-edged sword for business owners. Business owners rely on e-mail for its speed and convenience to conduct business; however, it can also serve as a time robber. Today, more than 40 billion person-to-person e-mails are sent daily, and the average e-mail user spends more than 30 percent of a given day on creating, organizing, reading and responding to messages. Due to this frequency, business owners have begun to institute e-mail policies that outline the rules for using corporate e-mail accounts. Additionally, business owners have started reading and retaining the e-mails that their employees distribute. In fact, one study by the American Management Association found that 55 percent of employers retain and read their employees’ e-mails.

Employers monitor e-mails for three main reasons: to stop the leak of proprietary or confidential company information, to protect private client or patient health or financial information, and to detect employees sending inappropriate or non-work related messages that may directly affect worker productivity or lead to allegations of harassment or discrimination.

Understanding a business owner’s rights
Many small-business owners are not fully aware of their legal rights when it comes to monitoring their employees’ e-mails and fear that the company may be breaching privacy laws by reading their staff’s e-mail correspondence. Computers are considered to be company equipment; therefore, employees normally should have no reasonable expectation of privacy and should be notified of this when they are sending and receiving e-mails from their office computers or from company-owned laptops outside of the office. Furthermore, while employees are at work, they have a responsibility to attend to their employer’s business, so conducting personal business or sending inappropriate e-mails can be cause for discipline.

While monitoring and saving e-mails may protect a business owner’s interests, owners may want to consider a certain amount of flexibility with their employees. For instance, many companies allow for “reasonable use” of their computers during working hours for outside communications.

Drafting e-mail policies
Written e-mail policies may protect business owners from many of the risks associated with the misuse of e-mail. For those business owners who may not currently monitor e-mails, written policies may protect an employer’s right to do so in the future. When drafting an e-mail policy, business owners should consider the following factors:

I. The variation of state laws: Since many states have different laws governing employers’ rights to monitor and retain e-mails, business owners should be fully aware of their legal rights and responsibilities when drafting a policy.

II. Specific rules and restrictions: When drafting the policies, employers should be very specific about what is expected of employees while they are at work and using work e-mail. Since technology allows employees to access their work e-mail accounts from remote locations, the policies should include rules for employees while they are at work during their normal hours, and when they are accessing their e-mail accounts outside of work. Additionally, the policies should clearly state that employees should have no expectation of privacy in their e-mail use at work (depending on applicable state law). By using written e-mail policies to establish strict rules, business owners limit potential problems by clearly stating the do’s and don’ts of e-mail use.

III. Specific parts of e-mails are covered: Since e-mail messages include both attachments and text that are written into the body of an e-mail, the policies should clearly state what may or may not be passed through a business’s e-mail system. Failure to clearly determine what aspects of an e-mail are covered may expose business owners to lawsuits.

IV. Keeping policies updated: As new technologies continue to develop and are incorporated into businesses’ daily routines, e-mail policies should be updated often to reflect these changes. For example, blogs, podcasts and other social media are being used by businesses as communications tools. With these evolving technologies, it is vital for businesses to include the updates in their e-mail policies, so that the businesses remain protected and the employees understand the rules.

In addition to drafting and implementing e-mail policies, business owners should consider conducting training sessions for staff that include an explanation of the rules for proper e-mail use. Training sessions can be made more beneficial by providing employees with specific examples and scenarios that illustrate the e-mail policies. In addition, training sessions also provide a forum for employees to ask questions and address uncertainties that may exist in companies’ e-mail policies.
 
Carefully written and inclusive e-mail policies help protect both businesses and their employees from the potential hazards that exist with using e-mail at work. While some employees may initially have concerns about their privacy, clearly defined standards actually serve as effective tools to protect and empower employees. For today’s business owner, e-mail will only continue to become a larger part of communications and the daily business routine. As a result, formal e-mail policies can limit potential liability and reduce confidentiality issues that may arise from e-mail misuse.

Vol 4, Issue 12

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