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Build a firewall against Internet, e-mail liabilities

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,Management Training

Whether you have a work force of three or 3,000, any time you let a worker use your e-mail or Internet service, you're putting your company at risk for lawsuits and lost productivity.

This is especially true today. Anthrax, war and terrorist threats are causing employees to spend a lot of time on the Internet and using e-mail, trying to stay informed and discuss events.

Most employers realize the need for written e-mail and Internet policies. But they're falling short in three other areas, according to Nancy Flynn, executive director of the ePolicy Institute (www.epolicyinstitute.com) and author of The ePolicy Handbook.

Flynn says many employers fail to:

  • Require workers to acknowledge, in writing, that they've read, understand and will adhere to the policies.
  • Train employees on what the policies mean, the potential risks to the company and the risk to their own jobs.
  • Develop and follow electronic document retention and deletion policies that can limit their liability.

Purge old files regularly

This isn't a theoretical threat. In a survey this year by the American Management Association (AMA), 9.4 percent of large companies said they'd received a subpoena for employee e-mail, and 2.5 percent had been ordered to turn over records of Internet connections. More than 8 percent had to defend against a claim of sexual harassment or discrimination based on e-mail or Internet use.

"E-mail is being used as strategic evidence," Flynn noted.

Expensive example: A court ordered a Fortune 500 company to turn over any e-mail messages that mentioned a former employee who was suing the company. Since it didn't have a policy on purging old e-mail, the company could be forced to search 20,000 backup tapes containing millions of messages. Cost: $1,000 per tape.

Just over 35 percent of the employers surveyed have document retention and deletion policies. Without such a policy, some of your employees may have every e-mail they've ever received. And the more material there is, the more likelihood of something damaging lurking there.

Even if you require that e-mail and other documents be purged every 10 days or every quarter, without training and monitoring you may have an employee who simply saves those items to disk. Define which items are critical business documents and how they should be stored, Flynn said.

Discipline violators

While employers are just catching on to the need for policies on purging, most have gotten the message about reining in employees' im-proper computer usage.

Half the employers surveyed told the AMA that they've disciplined employees for violating an e-policy. The most common offenses: sending sexually suggestive or explicit e-mail (46.3 percent); using office Internet connections for pornography (36.3 percent); connecting to unauthorized or nonbusiness Web sites (34.5 percent); and sending objectionable e-mail (28 percent).

Eliminate privacy claims

Current laws generally let you re-strict and monitor employee e-mail. Indeed, you may have a duty to monitor some activities.

Nearly a quarter of the employers in the AMA survey search e-mail or computer files for key words and phrases. Most (70 percent) check for sexual or scatological language, but less than 20 percent look for things like names of employees, clients, vendors and products.

Another hurdle: privacy complaints. You can head off almost any invasion of privacy claim by providing employees with a hard copy of your policy, having them sign and date an acknowledgment and putting it in your handbook. Some employers have gone further by programming notices to pop up every time a worker logs on, reminding them that their activities may be monitored.

Also, you'll be on safer legal ground when you review e-mail messages stored on your server rather than intercepting those in transmission.

Finally, it's important to head off problems by training workers about what's unacceptable in e-mail. Strip them of the illusion that e-mails are informal and don't matter.

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