E-mails have emerged in the last decade as the most common “smoking gun” evidence in employment and other lawsuits. Sexual and other harassment is transmitted via e-mail. Departing employees are often e-mailing confidential business information (customer lists, business plans and manuals) to their private e-mail addresses. Employers can be held liable for not policing their e-mail traffic. Recently enacted federal court rules require employers to turn over e-mails and computer records at the start of any lawsuit. Despite this, a surprisingly large number of organizations do not have a policy instructing employees on acceptable e-mail uses.
Our attorneys have developed a model e-mail policy that explains acceptable and unacceptable uses of an employer’s e-mail system. For example, having a policy prohibiting harassing, threatening, and offensive e-mail messages and images should be part of your organization’s strategy for preventing sexual and other harassment liability. It is amazing how many employees would never imagine sending an off-color joke or cartoon around the office in a paper memo, but think nothing about sending it in an e-mail.
Another important topic to cover is protecting confidential business and personal information. It is all too easy for employees, whether intentionally or inadvertently, to access or send, confidential information to others inside and outside your organization who have no legitimate reason to and should not receive it. This includes things such as customer lists, marketing plans, medical information, pay rates, etc.
Not only is a policy important, but employees should be trained in what to do and not do when using e-mail and other electronic systems. In addition to explaining prohibitions on sending improper material and limitations on personal use, this should also include guidance and education on style and technique. It is too easy for sloppy e-mail practices to create a negative impression in your customers and contacts. How many times have you received e-mails written poorly (without spell checking), been spammed with personal replies sent to distribution lists, received the wrong attachment, or seen no or the wrong label regarding confidentiality or legal restrictions on use? Training on all these subjects, such as our attorneys conduct, pays big dividends. Allowing your employees access to your e-mail system and then implementing an e-mail policy without training employees on the policy is equivalent to giving your sixteen-year-old keys to your car, with a book in the glove compartment on traffic laws, but then neglecting to get in the car to instruct them how to drive. It is a recipe for problems. An informative training session, which we put on in clear non-lawyerly words and explanations (or guide you on what to cover), provides the “hands-on” knowledge that allows you to avoid potentially significant liability and expense later down the road.
For questions about an e-mail policy or another employment law topic, contact Craig M. Brooks.