Perils of the e-mail minefield

Perils of the e-mail minefield

should be careful about what they send," said Kavanagh.

This last point is particularly pertinent for employers, as Wayne pointed out.

"The thing that is really worrying employers, more than time wastage, is the content of e-mails and how that may expose them to litigation," he said.

And they are right to worry. Boodle Hatfield is seeing a growing number of cases involving inappropriate use of e-mail. Wayne cites examples of people sending derogatory statements about other employees or sexually explicit remarks or jokes which other employees may view as offensive. "There have been cases of sexual harassment brought by employees who have read statements or seen pornographic images downloaded from the Internet which they view as offensive," said Wayne.

He added that e-mail can be particularly dangerous because people tend to be more relaxed about what they say on the system.

They also forget that an e-mail can be retrieved even if it has been deleted. As a result it is becoming increasingly common for e-mails to be used as evidence in legal cases.

"E-mails are in effect letters that become evidence if there is ever a dispute," said Wayne.

Even where there are no legal repercussions, people should be very careful about what they write. Sending an e-mail to the wrong address is a very easy and potentially very embarrassingmistake.

"I have heard of a case of a woman who wrote an e-mail to her friend about boyfriend problems and how she was planning to dump him and accidentally sent it to the whole company," said Wayne.

The message is clear. Be careful what you send or you could find yourself in a very difficult situation. "Employees need to be reminded that what they are doing innocently can have serious repercussions," said Wayne.

ACCORDING to a recent Mori survey, e-mail now ranks as the third most-popular form of internal and external communication, only marginally less popular than face to face and paper.

However, while the speed and efficiency of e-mail have made our work lives easier, the medium is also causing headaches for employers.

The most obvious drawback is time wastage. Studies in the US show that staff waste up to 5hrs a week on non work-related e-mailing. The same thing is happening here and just as US firms have toughened their stance on e-mail usage, British firms are introducing policies to clamp down on employees who use their work PCs for personal matters.

"Companies take the view that it is their time and their resources that are being used and therefore try to curb usage," said Warren Wayne, an associate at law firm Boodle Hatfield.

According to Wayne some companies are restricting the number of personal messages employees are allowed to send. But some are going as far as to prohibit personal e-mails altogether.

One such company is Carlson Wagonlit which introduced a strict e-mail policy a year ago. "We have banned all personal e-mails because we don't want people wasting work time and we don't want personal e-mails clogging up the system," said human resources director Sue Kavanagh.

Carlson Wagonlit's policy also warns employees against using e-mail in anger. "People tend to react without thinking and make stupid comments. E-mail can't be deleted so people should be careful about what they send," said Kavanagh.

This last point is particularly pertinent for employers, as Wayne pointed out.

"The thing that is really worrying employers, more than time wastage, is the content of e-mails and how that may expose them to litigation," he said.

And they are right to worry. Boodle Hatfield is seeing a growing number of cases involving inappropriate use of e-mail. Wayne cites examples of people sending derogatory statements about other employees or sexually explicit remarks or jokes which other employees may view as offensive. "There have been cases of sexual harassment brought by employees who have read statements or seen pornographic images downloaded from the Internet which they view as offensive," said Wayne.

He added that e-mail can be particularly dangerous because people tend to be more relaxed about what they say on the system.

They also forget that an e-mail can be retrieved even if it has been deleted. As a result it is becoming increasingly common for e-mails to be used as evidence in legal cases.

"E-mails are in effect letters that become evidence if there is ever a dispute," said Wayne.

Even where there are no legal repercussions, people should be very careful about what they write. Sending an e-mail to the wrong address is a very easy and potentially very embarrassingmistake.

"I have heard of a case of a woman who wrote an e-mail to her friend about boyfriend problems and how she was planning to dump him and accidentally sent it to the whole company," said Wayne.

The message is clear. Be careful what you send or you could find yourself in a very difficult situation. "Employees need to be reminded that what they are doing innocently can have serious repercussions," said Wayne.

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