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Monitoring Employee Use Of Company E-mail

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It seems that more and more companies are taking advantage of their right to monitor their employees' e-mail. In one survey, 55% of companies monitored workplace e-mail. Another survey of companies with 1,000 or more workers revealed that 63% either employ or plan to employ staff to read or otherwise analyze outbound e-mail.

And with good reason. Let us count the ways...

  1. The main motivation for monitoring in the latter survey was the desire to protect confidential information, such as trade secrets and intellectual property.
  2. Half of America's Fortune 500 companies have dealt with computer porn at least once in the past 12 months, said yet another survey. These incidents were serious enough to result in discipline, including termination, 85% of the time.
    Example: One company's investigation found that up to 75 of its employees exchanged computer pornography. It doled out discipline based on the level of abuse. One of the worst offenders argued that his termination was actually based on his sexual orientation, but a court didn't buy it.
  3. E-mail is being used to make (or break) legal claims against companies. Another survey found that one in five companies has had workplace e-mail subpoenaed by courts or regulators.
    Example: UBS Warburg was sanctioned by a court for destroying e-mails and failing to preserve other evidence in a $29 million sex discrimination lawsuit.

If your company monitors, or plans to monitor, employee e-mail, there is one thing you must be absolutely sure to communicate: Employees have no expectation of privacy. Courts generally agree that e-mail sent on company computers on company time is the company's property. But before you go snooping through staff members' messages, make sure that employees realize and understand that concept, and are aware of the company's right to monitor. Traditional mediums will do: handbook policy, department meeting, bulletin board memo. Also effective: Put the policy right on the computer, such as a window that pops up whenever the mail program is launched.

Warning: Beware of e-mail abuse on the other side of the monitoring coin. The monitors must be monitored, too. If your company monitors e-mail only when investigating potential wrongdoing, for example, those who have access to employee e-mails should not be going in and reading at their leisure.

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