As we rely more and more on email to transact our daily business any potential exposure regarding email increases at the same rate. This has been a topic that has received a fair bit of exposure recently.
Many employers don’t actually have a policy regarding the use of email in their workplace and it is only when problems occur that the issue gets any attention and by then it is often too late. In many cases the establishment of policies regarding the use of IT equipment is left to IT, but this is a key area that impacts across all aspects of a business and needs to be set up with that in mind.
There have been a number of cases, most notably the Ansett decision, where the use of an email facility featured significantly in the dismissal of an employee. The email policy was called to account throughout the process and formed the basis of one of the arguments for dismissal.
Obviously the whole point of emails is that it makes communication easier, so the last thing anyone would set out to do is reduce that advantage. However, problems can occur when an employee uses this valuable business tool for personal use, or in some cases to the detriment of the employer. In the Ansett case, an employee who was also the union representative was using the company email system to distribute union information to other employees. In Ansett’s opinion, the email “sought to encourage employees at Ansett not to trust management.”
In another example, employees spent so much time using the email as a kind of boot sale vehicle that the CEO was convinced he was losing 20% productivity. There is also an example where an employee felt they were being sexually harassed by a colleague – via email. Without carefully drafted policies there would be little recourse to any kind of disciplinary action so these employees can carry on unchecked.
Within reason, an employer can limit the use of emails to be business related only and within the course of their usual activities and responsibility. The key is the communication and awareness of the policy from the day it is implemented – clear and concise and easily understood by every employee. A message on the bottom of a log-in screen that is full of technical jargon may not stand up!
Obviously the email policy needs to be consistent with other policies in place and not in conflict with other laws relating to employment, discrimination or privacy. A major consideration should be the implementation, communication and ongoing reference to the email policy – whether that is in regard to employment contracts, log-in screens or employee handbooks – in fact wherever an employee has open access to information regarding the company and its policies.
In drafting the policy it would be a good idea to involve as many people as possible – I don’t usually like management by committee but this is one of those instances where getting as much “buy-in” as possible from key influencers makes the job much easier. I would recommend that the policy, or a reference to it is incorporated into the employment contracts, it gets published on memo form for existing employees (who could also be asked for their feedback on the policy) and then reiterated somewhere at a log-on screen or on communication from the MD or IT department.
As mentioned earlier on, it is one of those things that when it becomes a problem it is very difficult to address retrospectively – by that stage it is probably too late.