When in doubt, print it out. That's the message from a recent court decision regarding whether company policies sent via e-mail are valid.
Even though the 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: Stick to paper, not e-mail, when notifying employees of critical policies, especially policies involving key legal rights and obligations. Then require employees to sign an acknowledgment form.
Recent case: Roderick Campbell sued his employer for disability discrimination. But the company claimed Campbell wasn't allowed to sue; he was obligated to arbitrate his dispute out of court. Reason: The firm had sent a lengthy e-mail months earlier to all employees outlining its new mandatory arbitration policy. That e-mail, the company argued, amounted to a valid agreement.
Not so fast, the court said. Campbell claimed that he never saw that notice, so the court sided with him and let his case go to trial. Even though the company could verify that Campbell opened the e-mail, 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.
In some cases, the court said, 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.