E-mail is the new route for harassment at work

e-mail can easily be abused in the workplace by management and workers
alike, which may lead to costly discrimination claims if policies are not
adhered to

A recent survey carried out by Reed.co.uk discovered that one in six of the
3,400 workers questioned complained of being bullied by e-mail in the
workplace. While e-mail is a fast and efficient work tool, it is also open to
abuse, and employers need to be increasingly aware of the potential damage this
can cause.

Workplace issues

E-mails written in a curt manner along with those containing capitals and
exclamation marks can often cause offence, as can e-mails where an
inappropriately familiar tone is used.

Workers can also feel bullied by a bombardment of e-mails containing demands
and deadlines, and it’s all too easy for managers to abuse their position of
power by having instant and constant access to all of their staff.

The growing use of e-mail can also create an office environment where people
rarely talk to each other, sometimes even where they share the same office. As
a result, employees are able to hide behind their e-mails, and often write
things in them that they would not say to another’s face – leading to a
breakdown in relationships.

Last year, for example, Liverpool City Council introduced an internal e-mail
ban for one day a week when it realised 6,000 computer-based staff sent each
other 40,000 messages a day. The idea was to reduce buck-passing and
time-wasting, and to encourage them to solve problems by actually speaking to
each other.

Similarly, e-mails of a sexual nature with lewd comments, pictures and jokes
are often sent by individuals who wouldn’t send such memos.

These e-mails can make staff unhappy and sometimes lead to problems of
absence due to stress. In the most extreme cases, they may feel compelled to
leave. Where staff (usually female) are sexually harassed by e-mail, they often
lack the confidence to speak out against the perpetrator, and may end up
resigning instead.

Potential claims

Employers could end up with claims for constructive dismissal and sex or
race discrimination. While compensation for unfair dismissal has a limit of
£53,500, discrimination damages are unlimited. These claims tend to be more
high profile and often concern obviously pornographic elements.

Discrimination can also take the form of harassment – particularly when an
office romance fails. In Reuters v Williams (EAT/0641/00) a subordinate agreed
to a social meeting with her manager. He subsequently sent e-mails saying he’d
like to see her outside work and that he cared for her, although she’d made it
clear she did not want a relationship.

The tribunal deemed these e-mails to be inappropriate and the EAT upheld the
finding of sex discrimination.

As for the effect on an employer, an unhappy workforce can lead to a fall in
productivity and a rise in staff turnover.


Have a clear written policy on e-mail use, including a section on e-mail
etiquette. A bit of thought and politeness is more effective than a barrage of
demanding or offensive e-mails.

Ensure policies are adhered to. Remind staff that sexist and discriminatory
e-mails will not be tolerated.

Consider requiring all employees to read and sign the e-mail use policy.
Reminding them that their e-mails are being monitored should encourage them to
think more carefully about what they write.

Make sure you have effective measures in place to allow employees to
complain of e-mail abuse, and to enable employers to discipline perpetrators.

By Harriet Bowtell, Employment lawyer, Stephenson Harwood

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