Ten minute tutorial – e-mail policy

A
brief introduction to e-mail policy in the workplace by Matt Haig

What
is it?

An
e-mail policy provides a set of guidelines for staff to follow in order to
safeguard both themselves and the organisation from the risks inherent with e-mail
use. In most cases, such a policy will outline legal pitfalls, security and
privacy hazards, virus risks and any other foreseen threats. The action that
employees should take to reduce these threats is also made clear. Whether or
not the policy triggers disciplinary procedures is up to the organisation.

In
addition, successful policies include a guide to e-mail etiquette – or "netiquette"
– to ensure all external correspondence has the desired effect. Guidelines as
to when and if staff can send personal e-mails are also covered by many
policies.

The
story so far

Although
e-mail has been around for 30 years, it wasn’t until the mid-1990s that it
became widely used in the UK workplace. Initially heralded as a panacea for all
communications problems, the double-edged nature of e-mail soon became clear.

The
damage e-mail can cause a company has been evident in Britain since 1996 when
the Norwich Union insurance firm found itself at the centre of the UK’s first
high-profile e-libel case. It was revealed that staff from the firm had
circulated e-mails incorrectly suggesting a rival was in financial difficulty.

Following
this notorious case, there has been an increased crack-down on e-mail misuse by
courts and employers. For instance, at the start of 2001 another insurance firm
hit the headlines after the company sacked 10 employees for circulating
pornographic e-mails of Bart Simpson and other cartoon characters (according to
the company, the e-mails went "well beyond questionable adaptations of
cartoons").

E-mail
overload is another problem reaching epidemic levels. Research by medical and
life sciences products group Ferraris predicts that by the end of 2002, UK
workers will spend an average of four hours a day reading and responding to
e-mail messages. In light of this, it is perhaps unsurprising to discover that
the International Stress Management Association ranks e-mail among the top 20
causes of both personal and work related stress.

As
Nicholson McBride business consultant Sarah Sweetman observes, although e-mail
was considered a great opportunity in the early days it is actually becoming
"more and more a frustration or a burden to manage". E-mail is also
the number one channel for office indiscretions, with many UK workers
confessing that they spend over 40 minutes each day sending unnecessary
e-mails. This too can lead to problems, as well as a few red faces. In 2000,
Claire Swire sent an intimate message to her boyfriend – it reached an audience
of 10 million after he chivalrously circulated it among his friends, causing
considerable embarrassment to her and her employer, Norton Rose.

The
devastation caused by notorious viruses such as Melissa and The Love Bug, along
with the introduction of various legislation has further highlighted the need
for efficient e-mail policies.

The
promise

Employers
which have put e-mail policies into practice claim that the burden of e-mail
misuse has been lifted, leading to a more productive work environment.
Advocates claim successful e-mail policies help both employers and employees to
know where they stand, and enables them to get a closer grip on this relatively
new medium.

"E-mail
is the one form of business communication that we use all the time, but for
which very few have received guidance," says Paul Rutherford, chief
marketing officer of UK e-mail management specialist Clearswift. "E-mails
have the same legal implications and so formal guidelines are necessary."

Pros
and cons

Any
policy which helps reduce the problem of e-mail overload is surely beneficial,
given that 60 per cent of professionals feel overwhelmed by e-mail according to
ICM Research. Acknowledging the legal situation regarding e-mail as stated in
the Human Rights Act, the Data Protection Act, and the catchily titled
Telecommunications (Lawful Business Practice) (Interception of Communications)
Regulations is also important. However, problems can arise when employers try
to be too heavy-handed, punishing even the slightest misuse with a disciplinary
procedure. After all, although it’s possible to attempt to restrict the use of
business-related communication, in practice it is almost impossible to enforce.

Who’s
on board?

UK
organisations which have risen to the e-mail challenge successfully include
Virgin, British Airways, The Royal and Sun Alliance and Glasgow University. The
Western Provident Association, one of Britain’s leading health insurers,
arguably  has one of the most
comprehensive policies. First, the company got rid of its "transmit to
all" distribution lists. Also, rather than banning personal messages, the
company introduced a special category of e-mail – Social, Domestic and
Pleasure. The subject line of all personal messages sent by staff must now use
the prefix SDP in the subject line to distinguish between business and social
mail.

Verdict

The
evident abuse and overuse of e-mail in the workplace, means that an e-mail
policy should be seen as a business necessity rather than a luxury. The general
opinion of management experts is that a knowledge of e-mail etiquette helps to
make the lives of all staff members less stressful. However, there is little
doubt that some policies are as misguided as the actions they are designed to
stop.

"Many
companies are starting to have a policy that messages must be deleted after a
certain time period for legal reasons," says Kaitlin Sherwood, author of
Overcome E-mail Overload. "This is a really misguided policy – imagine if
you had to throw out the contents of your filing cabinet every month."
Likewise, policies banning the sending of personal e-mails are viewed as
equally counter-productive.

Key
players

There
are many organisations and individuals with expertise in the implementation of
e-mail policies. InTuition offers e-mail training and the Institute of
Management can provide general advice. Business psychology consultancy
Nicholson McBride also specialises in the way organisations use e-mail. British
Airways commissioned MCA (The Marketing Communications Agency) to help it put
together an effective policy.

The
HR contribution

The
consensus among communications experts is that HR departments should play a
crucial part in the creation and implementation of any e-mail policy. "The
majority of the risks of e-mail do not relate directly to IT – they are HR,
legal or general business risks," says Jonathan Whelan, a business systems
consultant and author of E-mail at Work. As a result, Whelan and Clearswift’s
Paul Rutherford believe that the HR department must have a very hands-on role
in the formulation of a company’s e-mail policy.

Although
there are obviously technological factors to consider, one of the e-mail
policy’s central aims should be to make working relationships healthier and
more productive. Such areas as the sending of personal e-mails and netiquette
certainly have a strong impact on HR.

Ultimately
the solution to the current e-mail related problems rests with people, not
technology. While it is understandable that a medium which has only become
widely used over the past few years is not always handled in the most efficient
way, the business and psychological costs can be great. For stress to be
reduced, and business productivity to be increased, those responsible for
staff, just as much as those responsible for technology, must therefore play an
active role in structuring e-mail use.

Essential
reading

E-mail
Essentials
(2001), by Matt Haig, Kogan Page
Overcome E-mail Overload (2001), by Kaitlin Sherwood, Webfoot Press
E-mail at Work (2000), by Jonathan Whelan, Pearson
Successful Use of E-mail in a Week (1999), by Naomi Langford-Wood and
Brian Slater, Hodder and Stoughton

Websites

The
Marketing and Communication Agency
www.mca-group.com

Nicholson
McBride
www.nicholson-mcbride.com

Data
Protection Act
www.dataprotection.gov.uk

Department
of Trade and Industry
www.dti.gov.uk

Clearswift
www.clearswift.co.uk

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