Do you make computers and email available to your employees? If so, you should seriously consider adopting a policy explaining the rules for using email -- and reserving your right to monitor the messages sent and received on company computers.
Benefits of Having an Email Policy
There are several very good reasons to adopt an email policy. First and foremost, you need to let your employees know that you may monitor their messages. Even if you have never read employee email and don't plan to make it your regular practice, you should protect your right to do so. If you don't, you might find yourself unable to investigate claims of harassment, discrimination, theft, and other misconduct -- or threatened with a lawsuit by an employee who claims that your investigation violated his or her privacy.
Consider these statistics: In a 1999 survey commissioned by Elron Software, more than 60% of workers admitted to sending or receiving adult-oriented personal email at work; more than 55% admitted to sending or receiving personal email messages that are racist, sexist, or otherwise offensive; one in ten employees admitted receiving confidential information about another company in personal email, and a significant number admitted sending messages that included confidential information about their own companies.
If you are ever faced with an employee who uses email to transmit pornographic images, reveal trade secrets, or send racist or sexist messages -- and these statistics demonstrate that you may very well find yourself in this position -- you will have to read the messages to figure out what to do. If you don't have a policy warning employees that you can read their messages at any time, an employee might sue you for violation of privacy. Although these lawsuits are generally unsuccessful -- that is, employees have lost most of them -- you'll still have to spend time and money to defend yourself in court.
In addition, some states -- including Connecticut and Delaware -- require employers who monitor email messages to let their employees know. Every year, more states consider imposing similar requirements. Putting this information in a workplace policy helps you meet these legal obligations.
Finally, you can use an email policy to tell your employees how you expect them to use the email system -- and what uses are prohibited. Laying down the rules clearly, in writing, will go a long way towards preventing abuses in the first place.
What to Include in Your Email Policy
Your email policy should address these issues:
- Personal use of the email system. Explain whether employees can use email for personal messages. If you place any restrictions on personal messages (for example, that employees can send them only during nonwork hours, must exercise discretion as to the number and type of messages sent, or may not send personal messages with large attachments), describe those rules.
- Monitoring. Reserve your right to monitor employee email messages at any time. Explain that any messages employees send using company equipment are not private, even if the employee considers them to be personal. If you will monitor regularly using a particular system -- for example, a system that flags key words or copies every draft of a message -- explain it briefly. This will help deter employees from sending offensive messages in the first place.
- Rules. Make clear that all of your workplace policies and rules -- such as rules against harassment, discrimination, violence, solicitation, and theft of trade secrets -- apply to employee use of the email system. Remind employees that all email messages sent on company equipment should be professional and appropriate. Some employers also include so-called netiquette rules -- style guidelines for email writing.
- Deleting email. Establish a regular schedule for purging email messages. If you don't, you will eventually run into a storage problem. Let your employees know how they can save important messages from the purge.
For more tips on creating and executing the best technology policy for your workplace, from cell phones to the web, see Smart Policies for Workplace Technologies: Email, Blogs, Cell Phones & More , by Lisa Guerin (Nolo).
If you want some advice from a lawyer, Nolo's Lawyer Directory can help you find a local employment lawyer.