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spike bullet November 2005: E-mail Ethics

E-mail ethics in today's business world
Tips for staying out of trouble - for managers and employees
Resources (links, books, articles, the lighter side)

color bulletE-mail ethics, risks and responsibilities

Recent news events in prompted a look at e-mail and the surrounding ethics for managers and employees.

E-mail is often seen as a workplace "right" not a tool provided solely for the purpose of conducting business.  Scandals surrounding public officials are common and e-mail is often cited as a source of news, background or evidence of wrong-doing.  In the private sector, companies continue to fire people regularly for misuse of company computers, including inappropriate e-mail and Internet usage.

Supervisors, managers and executives are held to a higher standard than employees since managers are supposed to know the rules, teach the rules, be leaders and set a good example.  Chances are that an employee who sends a few jokes might be disciplined and keep their job.  A supervisor or manager caught doing that is more likely to be fired.

When do a few jokes become grounds for "misuse" of company or public resources?  There is no magic number.  However, a pattern of sending many e-mail to friends or receiving many e-mails from friends is usually cited in news articles about mass firings.  When one person is investigated, all of their e-mails are scrutinized and everyone they sent e-mail to or received e-mail from in the company becomes caught in the web of the problem.  Even seemingly "innocent" jokes can become a problem if shared with someone who is offended or who complains.  Once the e-mail investigation begins, whatever e-mail is stored on anyone's computer is subject to being viewed, analyzed and even published if wrong-doing is found.  The results could be embarrassing at best and condemning at worst. 

Public sectors employees are held to an even higher standard than employees of private companies and may receive even stronger reprimands, including public disclosure of their offenses and their e-mail messages.  

How would you feel if your name was published as the headline in your local newspaper and broadcast by your local television news station, saying you had been fired for inappropriate use of computer resources?  Is one or a few inappropriate e-mails really worth that risk?  

It is not just public officials who get fired for misuse of e-mail or company computers.  In researching links for this article, we were surprised how many articles we found that mentioned firing employees for e-mail misuse.

A few examples (see Articles for more):

  • The mayor of a large city is being forced out of office due to misuse of his city computer to access inappropriate websites and send inappropriate e-mails.
  • Twenty-four (24) employees at a well-known company were fired; 235 were disciplined for misuse of e-mail.
  • An attorney resigned after an angry e-mail to his assistant was shared with others.
  • Two legal secretaries were fired after they engaged in an e-mail battle that eventually was shared with others.
  • E-mail at many companies and public agencies have revealed that insiders knew there was something wrong and tried to cover it up.
  • An employee of a well-known high-tech company was fired after only a month on the job after posting his personal observations about the company in a web blog.
  • Two long-term employees at a bank were fired for sharing jokes with co-workers. 
  • A Fortune 500 company was ordered by a court to turn over any e-mail that mentioned the name of a former employee who was suing the company for improper termination.  With no policy in place for purging e-mail, the company faced the prospect of searching more than 20,000 back-up tapes containing millions of messages at a cost of $1,000 per tape. Potential cost for that electronic search: $20 million.

The 2003 E-Mail Rules, Policies and Practices Survey by the American Management Association and The ePolicy Institute, revealed, "In 2003, more than half (52%) of U.S. companies engage in some form of e-mail monitoring of employees and enforce e-mail policies with discipline or other methods.  In fact, 22% of companies have terminated an employee for e-mail infractions.  Three-fourths (75%) of all those surveyed say their organization has written policies concerning e-mail, but fewer than half train their employees on them."

The survey also reports, "Increased regulatory and legal scrutiny of e-mail is reflected in the fact that 14% of companies have been ordered by a court or regulatory body to produce employee e-mail, a 5% increase over 2001.  What’s more, 1 in 20 companies has battled a workplace lawsuit triggered by e-mail."

CBS News quotes the ePolicy Institute’s advice to employees: "They need to think, ‘Would I be embarrassed if tomorrow morning this e-mail message were read on the CBS Early Show?’  And if you would be, don’t send it."  

Tips for staying out of trouble

For executives, managers and supervisors

  • Establish very clear rules and policies about use of e-mail and company computers.  Make sure the rules and  policies are easy to understand (with clear examples) and that the consequences of misuse are clearly defined.
  • Educate staff about your rules when they first start work.  Be sure to inform temporary employees and contractors about your computer use rules as soon as they start working. 
  • Do periodic reminders to everyone about your computer use policy, the risks of improper use and the penalties.
  • Be consistent in treatment of employees and managers.
  • Set a good example yourself by using your computer appropriately.  DO NOT send e-mail jokes, cartoons, political messages or items with inappropriate content.
  • Have your IT department check into enterprise proxy services that will block the ability of employees to visit inappropriate websites.  
  • Consider enterprise spam filters to prevent inappropriate or malicious e-mails from coming into your company's e-mail system. 
  • Remember that whatever you write in e-mail may be used against you some day so think about how it would be viewed by someone who doesn't know you.    

For all employees and contractors

  • Understand the rules in your company or organization about e-mail and computer use.
  • Ask your supervisor or manager for help with understanding what is appropriate if you are not sure.
  • Be careful with junk mail or spam mail that contain inappropriate business messages or that might contain viruses.  Talk to your IS Help Desk or IT technical support staff if you are not sure how to handle them.
  • Delete spam/junk mail and make sure your trash/deleted folders are emptied regularly.
  • If someone inside the company sends you an e-mail that is questionable or offensive, delete it without responding.  If it is a repeated occurrence, talk to your supervisor, manager, Human Resources department or your ethics advisor about how to deal with it.
  • DO NOT send e-mail that could be considered offensive, angry, derogatory or insulting to someone else either inside the company or outside the company.
  • DO NOT use your company computer for your own person use!  Personal use includes:
  1. Surfing the web for non-business activities.
  2. Sending or receiving e-mail to/from friends outside your workplace, especially jokes and inappropriate non-business messages.  
  3. Sending or receiving jokes, chain letters, cartoons or personal photos to/from co-workers.
  4. Mailing lists that should be sent to your personal e-mail address.  If you don't have e-mail at home, get a free e-mail account and use the library or a friend's computer, not your work computer. 

World Wide Web graphic  Internet Resources

Most state governments and public agencies have similar websites to those listed below:

book graphic  Books

  • The E-Policy Handbook: Designing and Implementing Effective E-Mail, Internet, and Software Policies, Nancy Flynn.  American Management Association, 2000.  ISBN: 0814470912

world wide web - articles  Articles

Especially for company executives/managers:

For everyone:

smiley graphic  The Lighter Side  

About our resource links:  We do not endorse or agree with all the beliefs in these links.   We do keep an open mind about different viewpoints and respect the ability of our readers to decide for themselves what is useful.

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Page updated: October 05, 2013      
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The 10th Need: Mischief    :)

| Home Page | Top of Page |

| Barbara Taylor | Books | Clients | FAQ | Feedback | Interesting Links | Mailing List |
| Michael Anthony | Michael Teachings | Newsletter | Personality Game |
| Products | Services | Speakers | Spirituality | Training | Travel | Translations

| Contact Us | Search the site | Site Map |

The 10th Need: Mischief    :)

© Copyright 1980  -  2015,  Barbara Taylor               Copyright Notice and Student Research Requests                 Privacy Policy and Legal Notice