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Sun-Sentinel Interviews Leonard Dietzen about E-mail Liability

Sun-Sentinel Interviews Leonard Dietzen about E-mail Liability

As businesses everywhere try to ensure their employees use the Internet responsibly, incidents of e-mail and MySpace misuse are creeping up in a variety of industries.  In an interview with South Florida Sun-Sentinel reporter Marcia Pounds, RumbergerKirk partner and founder Leonard Dietzen addressed dangers employers face, offered advice for anyone using e-mail at work, and explained what some companies are doing to limit their liability.

The article ran in the October 18, 2007 edition of the Sun-Sentinel.

To read the article, simply click the above link or scroll down this page.


Internet, e-mail at work fraught with peril for employees

Marcia Heroux Pounds | Business Strategies
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
October 18, 2007

Inappropriate workplace e-mails took on intergalactic proportions this year. After intercepting an e-mail from a rival to her lover, astronaut Lisa Nowak went on a rampage and later was charged with attempted kidnapping and burglary with assault.

Rarely does e-mail at work have such dramatic effects, but e-mails, postings and other Internet snafus have resulted in firings, embarrassing situations and resignations.

The problem is rampant, says lawyer Leonard Dietzen, citing other examples in Florida. A deputy sheriff was fired for posting an inappropriate photo on A police chief was let go after referring to colleagues as "those jelly-bellies" in an e-mail.

In Broward County, a teacher was suspended earlier this year for using a school computer for a personal Web page on MySpace. The teacher allowed his students to access the site, which contained profanity, inappropriate photos, and mentions of his use of alcohol and drugs.

"Why do [employees] need access to the Internet?" Dietzen, a partner with RumbergerKirk in Tallahassee, asked HR managers to consider at their annual educational conference earlier this month in Orlando. "Fifty percent of positions don’t need access to the Internet."

Too often, workers go online to shop on eBay, he says, or they feel the need to respond to personal e-mails or postings on Yahoo, Hotmail or Facebook.

Take the Internet away from employees and most would have a fit. At the conference, some speakers suggested technology be used as discipline. Having trouble with a worker? Take away his or her work Internet, e-mail or cell phone for a period of time.

I’m not sure that’s realistic in today’s workplace, but e-mail and Internet activity can be a potential threat to a company computer system. Dietzen recalls a top executive (who should know better) whose company’s computer system crashed after she opened up items in a chat room.

For those who use e-mail and the Internet at work, here are some guidelines to stay out of trouble.

Don’t send confidential or sensitive e-mails. A good rule is: Don’t put anything in an e-mail that you wouldn’t want on a billboard outside your office.

Never share or forward an inappropriate e-mail. In one case, Dietzen says, workers who opened a pornographic e-mail at work were suspended while those who forwarded the e-mail were fired.

Never send e-mails when you’re angry. You might be tempted to reply to a nasty e-mail from a colleague or tell off a boss in an e-mail. Stop! You’re leaving a written record. Talk to the individual in person or by phone rather than shooting off an e-mail that could come back to haunt you.

Stick to the point and proofread. Sloppy e-mails with typos reflect badly on you and your employer. Use spell check and other tools before you hit send.

Never use your company’s e-mail address for personal reasons. It’s easy enough to get a free personal e-mail these days through Yahoo or Hotmail, for example.

Never open attachments from unknown senders. This is the classic invitation to computer viruses that could hurt your hard drive or even crash the whole system.

Avoid loss of productivity caused by responding immediately to every e-mail. Dietzen suggests setting aside two times a day to check e-mail.

Do not access personal e-mail accounts from your company computer. Personal e-mail is subject to monitoring on your company computer. Dietzen recalls one situation in which a worker called her boss an "idiot" in a personal e-mail. The e-mail was forwarded to her supervisor.

Dietzen says companies should have e-mail policies and employees should receive training on those policies. Be aware if your employer has a policy in its handbook and a statement appears on your computer when you log on that says, "the company reserves the right to monitor all electronic devices at any time for compliance with the policy."

Also know that that when you leave a job, your laptop, cell phone and other company-issued electronics will be repossessed and could be scrutinized for potential violations.

As a lawyer representing employers, Dietzen has found "smoking guns" in such e-mails. If it’s on a company computer, he says, it could eventually show up in a lawsuit — or a newspaper.