Employees use their e-mail as much as the telephone in today’s workplace, yet the amount of resources spent training them on how to use it responsibly are far outweighed by the time given to teaching phone etiquette and presentation skills. This is surprising, considering the number of legal problems that ungoverned e-mail use can lead to.
“People tend to treat e-mails like a conversation, but it’s a permanent record,” says James Carmody, an employment lawyer at city law firm Sprecher Grier Halberstam. “And while it seems a fairly anonymous form of communication, it leaves an audit trail that can be traced back to an individual or organisation.”
The most common legal pitfalls are accusations of harassment, bullying and discrimination in the workplace, Carmody says.
In the worst cases, politically incorrect jokes, pornographic images, and snide remarks about colleagues can spread like wildfire around a company, and create a general atmosphere of obscenity that makes offended members of staff feel that they can no longer work there.
This can lead to charges of constructive dismissal and demands for compensation, regardless of whether the e-mails were sent maliciously, says Carmody. And with discrimination law expanding to cover sexual orientation, such instances are on the rise.
At law firm Hammonds, employment partner Nick Jones says that staff use of e-mail also involves another area of concern for employers – libel.
Cases stretch back to the early days of e-mail use. For example, in 1995, police constable David Eggleton achieved an out-of-court settlement with supermarket chain Asda over a rude description of him that was circulated between its stores after he had complained about some meat he had purchased.
Asda employees had apparently sought to suggest over their internal e-mail system that the officer’s complaint was fraudulent.
This is a good example of liability being attached to an employer for remarks made by individual workers.
Jones says cases such as this are on the increase, and companies are constantly approaching him for advice after incidents involving e-mail misuse have led to disputes.
But this is a case of closing the outbox after the e-mail has bolted. Organisations, he says, should be more proactive in informing their employees about what is and what isn’t an acceptable use of e-mail. And both Jones and Carmody now run courses for companies aimed at preventing e-mail misuse in the first place.
Most organisations today are more aware of the issues, and many include a look at their e-mail policy during staff inductions. Cambridgeshire County Council, for example, has developed an online induction course with flexible learning specialist Balance Learning.
The online course provides two or three hours of tuition, which includes details of the organisation’s e-mail policy. According to project manager Cheryl Hickman: “A good induction helps new recruits ‘learn the ropes’.”
Flexible learning provider Video Arts has also produced a number of DVDs and videos that managers can show to their staff to “encourage e-mail best practice and get people into good habits”, according to the company’s director Martin Addison.
But simply running through a quick induction or making employees read an e-mail policy document is not enough, says Monica Seeley, founder of the Mesmo Consultancy, a provider of e-mail best practice training. She believes that to truly control the problem, organisations must treat the issue as a change management project, and put a series of initiatives in place.
“Most policy documents are too detailed,” she says. “Companies should devise an e-mail behaviour charter made up of three or four headlines that everyone will understand – from the receptionist, to the chief executive.”
Seeley says this should be followed up by a questionnaire to ensure staff have understood what they have been told and recommends companies supplement induction training by drip-feeding hints and tips via e-mail from time to time. “Eradicate, educate and enforce is my motto,” she says.
Mesmo Consultancy www.mesmo.co.uk
Schlecher Grier Halberstam www.sghlaw.com
Video Arts www.videoarts.com
Balance Learning www.balancelearning.co.uk
CASE STUDY : lessons from life
Nick Jones, an employment partner at law firm Hammonds, runs in-house courses for trainers and managers aimed at highlighting areas where e-mail misuse can lead to legal problems.
Rather than reeling off a list of do’s and don’ts, he takes real-life cases and adapts them to a company’s particular business situation. “This provides attendees with examples they can immediately relate to,” Jones explains.
Starting off with blatantly illegal e-mails, he slowly introduces copies of e-mails that demonstrate more subtle issues, highlighting how easily they can cause problems.
“Companies can have the best e-mail policy in the world,” he says. “But employees need to understand what it really means, and the implications if it is ignored.”