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December 5, 2012

Email’s Indelible Print

Filed under: Communication6:00 am

In the last few weeks the news reports have been abuzz with the story of the CIA director, a retired general, who through an investigation had email discovered that exposed an affair with his biographer.  He is now the former CIA director after his prompt resignation.  Next, the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan has also had an email dress-down with a socialite from Florida.  Though the socialite and the military commander were not engaged in an affair, per se, they did exchange words that might be described by some as suggestive.  All this came about because the biographer sent what was perceived to be threatening and harassing emails to the socialite regarding the top U.S. military commander.  Since things like that are not taken lightly, the socialite felt the obligation to report this to her FBI friend, a lengthy investigation ensued, and the rest is history!

HRlaws.com carried an article from the Kansas Employment Law Letter by attorney, Boyd Byers, which gives us food for thought.  He began by quipping, “Don’t put anything in writing that you wouldn’t want to see published on the front page of the newspaper.”  He later stated, “If the CIA director and a four-star general – who should be keenly aware that email lasts forever and can be harvested by forensic experts – aren’t smart or disciplined enough to refrain from saying things in email that they don’t like seeing in the newspaper, how can you expect your organization’s employees to exercise such restraint?”

There are numerous things an employer can do to protect their company’s good name and keep their employees from abusing email privileges.  Frequent communication to employees, both verbal and written, is necessary to impress upon them the importance of proper email use, which translates into mentioning the subject regularly and often.  It would be wise to include the following in your communications policy:

  • Be specific when addressing proper and improper company email usage.
  • Remind employees that the email system is the property of the company and can be accessed or searched at any time.
  • Employees should have no expectation of privacy.
  • Employees are responsible for all communications they send over the company’s email system.
  • Prohibit harassment and other offensive behaviors.
  • Explain using examples, the proper use of the company email, including when to use it and when a conversation is better to be had in-person, especially when it is sensitive or confidential.
  • Clarify why email should be fact-based; it cannot convey emotion or tone and therefore, is easily misinterpreted.
  • Inform employees that improper use of the company’s email system may subject them to corrective action, up to and including termination.

This reminder and the policy tips will hopefully protect you and your employees from expensive court battles and embarrassing newspaper headlines.  And, always remember the adage, “Nothing lasts forever except email!”

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