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Fall 2004-03 E-mail friend or foe

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Number 57
Fall 2004

E-mail: friend or foe?

Electronic mail has become an indispensable communication tool for businesses, both large and small. However, managers often fail to recognize the pitfalls associated with it.

Business uses e-mail to talk to customers, respond to questions, send documents and information, schedule events, follow-up on deliveries, and a myriad of other ways. Many employees have grown up with e-mail and cannot conceive of life without it. E-mail has become so central to our lives that wireless access points are springing up everywhere: airports, universities and coffee houses. Now that next-generation wireless services are becoming widespread, you can send and receive e-mail anytime, anyplace, 24/7. Nevertheless, communication via the Internet is often the source of liability, lost profits, angry customers and financially draining litigation discovery.

The question is how can something as innocuous as an e-mail wreak havoc on a company? Let us count the ways.

E-management

The Internet has brought about dramatic change in how we send, receive and access information, altering our approach as to how, when and where we communicate. The impact on business has been significant and, like its predecessors-the telegraph and the telephone-the Internet has ushered in a period of uncertainty while managers sort out the pluses and minuses. The awareness and management of those pluses and minuses is at the core of e-management. It is the process of embracing the positives and at the same time managing the negatives.

The unique nature of e-mail and instant messaging

nlike traditional forms of communication, e-mail, and its real-time progeny, instant messaging ("IM"), tend to spawn less thoughtful communication, since it takes minimal effort to type a note and hit the Send button. E-mail can easily be transmitted in error with a mis-click of the mouse, or without sufficient thought, due to the ease of drafting and transmission. Neither e-mail nor IM can be retrieved, and their often casual and shorthand style can often seem unprofessional or lead to misinterpretation. These factors can show the way to unintended results, such as lost customers, lost profits, or worse yet, a law suit.

E-mail policies

An e-mail policy is one facet of e-management, and is the focus of this article. Most companies, to the extent they have a policy on e-mail, created one as a result of complaints about e-mails containing sexual content, offensive jokes, or racial comments. Often, the policy was in recognition of the time lost to personal use of the Internet. The policy may or may not be in writing. But such a limited approach, particularly if it has not been reduced to writing, is unlikely to protect the business from the full range of pitfalls e-mail and IM represent. This approach to an e-mail policy is more like the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dike, holding back the flood.

An "e-mail policy" must be comprehensive, must reflect professional standards of conduct, be reduced to a written policy manual, be properly communicated, be acknowledged by the recipient, be implemented in fact and must be maintained.

An e-mail policy must be comprehensive

An e-mail policy must consider all aspect of the Internet communication, its different forms and its possible evolution.

Retention-E-mail may constitute a business record, a business asset, a business liability, or just plain junk. In any case, a clear policy needs to be established designating what to keep and what to delete.

Archiving-To the extent e-mail is retained, its volume and preservation may require special equipment, software and procedures for internal retention or, in some cases, external archiving. In any case, archived e-mails need to be treated with the same seriousness and preservation as any other business record.

Metadata-Much of the value of e-mail is lost if managers fail to recognize the value of all of the data contained in them. E-mail needs to be handled in such a way so as to preserve the "metadata" it contains. This data is a business record and asset to be used for enhancing business operations. Metadata is the who, when and where of electronic records.

Privacy-When an employee uses e-mail, it invariably raises the issue of whether or not the employee has an expectation of privacy. The e-mail policy should make clear that when using business computers, pagers, cellular telephones or PDAs, there is no right of privacy, that all e-mail is subject to scrutiny and, if the content or use is inappropriate, the employee will be subject to disciplinary action.

Classification-It is the responsibility of the employer, to the extent possible, to provide employees with a clear definition of what constitutes a business record. Without a definition, it is impossible to define what e-mail needs to be retained and archived.

Form-E-mail is not the only form of electronic communication. IM is rapidly being adopted by business; and video messaging is not far behind. Any form of electronic communication must be included in the policy.

Time management and access-Corporate America is divided on allowing employees access to the Internet from work, with approximately one-third providing full and unfettered access, one-third providing limited personal access, and one-third permitting no personal use, including e-mail.

Ownership-The e-mail policy must make clear that e-mail and instant messages sent from company computers, cell phones, pagers and PDAs, are the property of the business, not the sender or recipient.

Responsibility-Management needs to assign clearly responsibility for developing, communicating, implementing, maintaining and enforcing the policy. E-policies should be developed and managed by a team of senior managers from Human Resources, Legal, Information Services, Training and Security.

Maintenance-At regular intervals, e-mail accounts need to be culled of non-business mail. Accordingly, the definition of a business record is central to proper maintenance and to mitigate the possible loss of valuable records.

Federal, state and local regulations-Any policy should be developed in close collaboration with knowledgeable legal counsel to insure that the policy and its implementation reflect the specific requirements imposed by federal, state, or local government in the jurisdictions in which it conducts business. Also, certain businesses have mandatory retention requirements that must be followed. As this area of law is changing and evolving, there should be regular review of the e-mail policy with the advice of legal counsel.

Specific business use-E-mail policies should reflect the business use for the information and data contained in electronic communication. Absent a clear understanding of its value and use, the inherent value of the business data contained in e-mail and other electronic communication will never be fully realized. In larger companies, sophisticated software allows the "mining" of this data to the ultimate benefit of customers and shareholders alike. However, even small businesses can benefit from this information if they understand its hidden value.

Software tools-A thorough investigation of available software tools to implement your policy should be conducted. Software tools can help steam line the process and reduce the risk of lost data. Also, given the constantly increasing use of e-mails and IM, the possibility of attack by viruses and worms is an ever present reality. Current and comprehensive communication and firewall software is therefore indispensable.

An e-mail policy must reflect professional standards of conduct

How we communicate with our suppliers, our customers, and our employees reflect on the corporation's reputation and management. E-mail is a unique form of communication that is still evolving. Employees and management alike need to appreciate the more spontaneous nature of e-mail and IM. Spontaneity can lead to a timely and helpful response or one that is ill-considered. Here are a few suggested standards to consider for inclusion in an e-mail policy:

Generally, e-mail should be written with the same style and formality as a traditional business letter.

E-mail content should reflect the same consideration and thoughtfulness as formal business communications.

Business e-mail should not include cute icons, keystroke-generated smiley/frowning faces, musical jingles, or any other content that detracts from the professional business nature of the message. Remember, the form and content of every e-mail or IM reflects on the company.

Attachments should be considerate of the fact that not all recipients have high-speed broadband connections. Permission to send a large attachment is a thoughtful consideration.

Consider whether e-mail is the best or most appropriate manner to communicate the message. What do you want to convey in the message and how does the form alter or support that intent? Would a personal letter or telephone call be a more appropriate method?

Always read content carefully, checking for grammatical and spelling errors. Don't become overly dependent on spell-checkers.

Think first, then think again, then write, then review, then send. Always consider that the e-mail may ultimately be seen by persons other than the original recipient.

Use the subject line in your e-mail to convey clearly the purpose of the content. The description not only helps the recipient, but should also save the e-mail from unwanted deletion by anti-spam software.

Establish a set style for e-mail communications from the company, and monitor for adherence by all personnel. The style may incorporate your brand, logo, or tagline, and will help you maintain a consistent business identity.

Ask your legal counsel to assist you in adding headers and footers designed to protect or establish the business or confidential nature of the communication, and what action the recipient should take if they receive the e-mail in error.

Remember, standards should be developed to protect the image and integrity of the company.

An e-mail policy must be written and communicated

E-mail policies won't work unless they are committed to writing and clearly communicated to those expected to carry them out and abide by them. They must be consistent with other company policies. Communication of the e-mail policy should be part of the normal routine of the business, with periodic refreshers. If the policy is newly established, it should be communicated by training in which senior management participates. Participation by senior management conveys the importance of the policy to the organization. The e-mail policy should be reviewed thoroughly with new employees, along with other company policies. Give the employees time to review the policy properly and encourage them to ask questions if they are uncertain about any terms or processes. Finally, any changes to the policy need to be communicated in a timely manner, acknowledged by the employee, and if necessary, additional training provided.

An e-mail policy must be acknowledged

Once the policy has been properly communicated, all employees should sign a statement acknowledging that they have been given an opportunity to review the e-mail policy and have any questions answered, that they understand the content and purpose of the policy, and that they agree to comply with its terms or face possible disciplinary action.

An e-mail policy must be implemented

A policy will have little value in business or legal terms if it is not actually implemented, and implemented consistently. The rules and procedures must be followed and enforced if they are to be taken seriously. If the policy is implemented inconsistently it may be deemed unenforceable or the e-mail may lose its status as a business record.

An e-mail policy must be maintained

Few areas of the law are in greater flux than that of the Internet. Issues of privacy, ownership, discovery, regulation, and use of e-mail and IM are far from settled. Therefore, it would be unrealistic to assume that once written, the policy is settled. On the contrary, the management team responsible for development of the e-mail policy and their legal advisors should meet regularly to discuss how well the policy is working, are there implementation issues, and are there changes that need to be made to reflect a change in federal, state, or local law or regulations..

Conclusion

E-mail and IM are new forms of communication with significant benefits to business. Combined with wireless technologies, they offer businesses dramatic improvements in business communications and business operations. However, like any business tool, if used incorrectly or without sufficient training, they can pose a serious threat to the welfare and operation of the company. A business which fails to develop an e-mail policy to regulate proper use runs the risk of serious financial consequences. However, those businesses that make the effort to develop and implement an e-mail policy will reap the benefits of the technology and gain greater control of their business communications.


© 2004 Goldman Antonetti
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