OP Ed: Employer E-mail Policy Can Cost Jobs - Workers Must use Discretion, Follow Res

08.27.08

Guest Opinion

With the click of a mouse, a job is gone. Make that 12 jobs.

More and more employers, both public and private, are facing legal challenges presented by employees' misuse of electronic communication. From the highly publicized leak of justice department e-mails outlining the firings of several U.S. attorneys to e-mails fueling allegations that State Farm pressured insurers to alter damage reports following Hurricane Katrina to the Collier County principal who was removed from his position after sending and receiving pornographic e-mails at work, costly mistakes are making headlines across virtually every industry.

To this point, no organization seems to be immune to these legal challenges. Not even Florida's Department of Juvenile Justice.

From something as simple as exchanging a personal e-mail on company time to an act as brazen as perusing pornographic Web sites at work, the 12 people fired by the Department of Juvenile Justice made a wide variety of mistakes - but all with a common theme and consequence. In each instance, the employee was in the wrong. And each employee paid with his or her job.

The Department of Juvenile Justice was right to dismiss those employees whose poor judgment and whose utter disregard for workplace policies forced their employer into making this difficult decision. Though not all offenses may be viewed as equal, the action taken by the DJJ demonstrates the hardened stance organizations are taking against high-tech violations. Florida's Department of Juvenile Justice, however, is far from the only organization facing such problems.

Issues of e-mail and electronic communication liability are not limited to large organizations. Any company, large or small, can become involved in litigation resulting from employees' irresponsible and sometimes unlawful use of high-tech communications tools. The reality is that any employee can, at any time, be a single e-mail away from losing his or her job.

Employers must take the lead in curbing e-mail misuse within their organizations by providing comprehensive training and putting into effect comprehensive policies governing e-mail use.

Such policies should outline the kinds of messages that are appropriate to send from work. Are employees allowed to access the Internet for personal use, or is it for business use only? Is company computer use more tightly restricted during business hours than it is during breaks and/or after hours? If access during non-working hours is allowed, what qualifies as inappropriate content? It must be crystal clear in the employer's policies that employees have no expectation of privacy on company-issued computers, laptops, PDAs and cell phones. Instant messaging has also crept into the workforce and must be dealt with, too.

Because government e-mails in Florida are subject to the public records laws, the best policy is a proactive policy. Train your work force before the situation reaches the point of no return, as it did with the DJJ.

Employees must do their part by demonstrating adequate discretion and abiding by company e-mail policies.

If in doubt, send your personal e-mail from your personal computer.

If you don't, your personal computer may quickly become your only computer.

 
- Leonard Dietzen, partner at Rumberger, Kirk & Caldwell and co-author of an online e-mail training course found at www.EmailPitfalls.com, represents private and public sector employers in all aspects of labor and employment law.

This Op Ed piece ran in the August 27, 2008 edition of the Fort Myers News Press.
 
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