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When in doubt, print it out: Don’t change policy via e-mail

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,Human Resources

Issue: How to notify employees of new employment policies or changes to existing policies.

Risk: A new court ruling says that using solely e-mail notification can lead to unwanted legal trouble.

Action: Play it safe: Use paper memos to alert staff to policy changes. Solicit their written acknowledgment for critical policies.

Even though the U.S. Labor Department has given its blessing to electronic distribution of certain employee documents (such as benefit information), you'd still be wise to play it safe when it comes to notifying employees of policy changes: Stick to paper, not e-mail.

That's especially important when notifying employees of policy changes involving key legal rights and obligations. In such cases, you should also require employees to sign a paper acknowledgment form.

Recent case: Roderick Campbell sued his employer for disability discrimination. But the company claimed Campbell wasn't allowed to sue; he must arbitrate his dispute out of court. Why? The company had sent a lengthy e-mail months earlier to all employees outlining its new mandatory arbitration policy. That e-mail, the company argued, counted as a valid agreement.

Not so fast, the court said. Campbell claimed that he never saw that notice, so a district court sided with him and let his case go to trial. Even though the company could verify that Campbell opened the e-mail message, it couldn't prove he had actually read it.

The court, noting how difficult it is to distinguish between "frivolous" and "important" e-mail, criticized the company for presuming that employees read every word of every e-mail.

The court said that, in some cases, policy notifications sent via e-mail could be binding. But important policies in which employees surrender their rights, such as mandatory arbitration claims, should be held to a higher standard. (Campbell v. General Dynamics Government Systems Corp., No. 03-11848-NG, 2004)

Final point: If you do send less-vital policy information via e-mail, put a system in place to verify that messages are received and read. Add a "return receipt" request feature to e-mail messages and require an acknowledgment that employees have read and understood the message.

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