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Monitor employees’ e-mail, but notify them first

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in HR Management,Human Resources

Issue: Employees wrongly assume their e-mail musings are private, privileged communications.

Risk: If you don't eliminate that belief, you'll open your organization to disputes and lawsuits.

Action: Require employees to sign an e-mail-monitoring acknowledgement, then enforce your policy consistently.

Employees won't sue you for snooping in their e-mail if you make it clear, early and often, that it's not their e-mail. Legally, it's your organization's property, and you have the right to monitor it as you wish.

Your comprehensive electronic communication policy should explain that the organization owns all computer equipment, software and electronic communications. Erase any expectation of privacy by requiring employees to sign an acknowledgment form that gives you the authority to review all electronic communications, including instant messaging.

Some employers go further by displaying a monitoring policy reminder on employees' screens each time they log on. Employees must click "Yes" before continuing

Also, make sure you enforce your policy consistently among employees and without discrimination. By disciplining one person for accessing porn sites but ignoring such behavior by another, you open yourself to a bias lawsuit.

Recent case: Richard Fraser worked as an independent agent selling insurance for Nationwide. When Nationwide suspected Fraser was sharing confidential information with competitors in violation of a written agreement, the company searched its main file server. It found two e-mail messages that confirmed Fraser's disloyalty, and Nationwide terminated him immediately.

He sued, alleging that the company's search violated the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.

A federal appeals court threw out his lawsuit. Two reasons: While that law prohibits interception of e-mail, the company didn't intercept Fraser's e-mails; it reviewed them after their transmission. Plus, the law includes an exception that allows seizures made by the communication system "provider." And, clearly, Nationwide was the provider of the e-mail system. (Fraser v. Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co., No. 01-2921, 3rd Cir., 2003)

Free-E-visory report:

'Sample Policies on Computer Use'

For a sample Internet-usage policy, plus sample policies on software piracy and on other electronic media (voice mail, fax machines, etc.), access our free E-visory report, Sample Policies on Computer Use, at

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