The problem, says Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, attorney Johanna Armstrong, is that e-mail instills a deceptive sense of privacy. An employee sits down at a computer terminal with no one watching, types a message and sends it with a click of the mouse. The recipient uses a password to access the system and reads the message in the seclusion of his or her cubicle. It feels a lot like reading a letter sent through the mail, a method protected by federal law from unauthorized tampering.
"What employees don't understand," Armstrong says, "is that e-mail is not at all like the U.S. mail but is more akin to posting a message on a public bulletin board for all to read." Messages intended for one co-worker can mistakenly be broadcast to everyone in the office. Messages people thought they deleted can be retrieved and used against the company in court.
For the protection of your employees as well as your business, establish a policy restricting your e-mail system to work-related matters. "A good e-mail policy not only confirms the corporate e-mail system is for business use only," Armstrong says, "but also dispels the deceptive aura of privacy."
While there's no harm in an occasional friendly note, office e-mail has often taken a nasty turn. Disgruntled employees have sent messages purportedly from corporate officers, announcing new company policies. Others have downloaded trade secrets and sent them to competitors or used e-mail to defame co-workers. The anonymity of e-mail allows employees to disseminate racial slurs, send sexually explicit messages, or even set up a distribution system for illegal drugs.
To avoid abuses and keep tabs on what's circulating through your office, you need to be able to monitor e-mail. This doesn't mean reading every message. In fact, says Kenneth R. Shear, general counsel for Electronic Evidence Discovery in Seattle, it's better not to be too thorough. "You don't want to take on the role of system monitor," Shear says, explaining that employees might then hold you responsible for not discovering such problems as sexual harassment conducted through e-mail. Shear advises asking employees to notify their supervisor if they see something offensive in an e-mail message. For general monitoring, available software can check, for instance, if there are a lot of graphics on your system when your company doesn't deal with graphics. You might also use key-word searches to check for inappropriate messages.