November 2005: E-mail Ethics
- E-mail ethics in today's business world
- Tips for staying out of trouble - for managers and
- Resources (links, books, articles, the
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
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
- 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
- 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."
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
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
- 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
For all employees and contractors
- Understand the rules in your company or organization about e-mail and
- 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
- 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
- DO NOT use your company computer for your own person use! Personal
- Surfing the web for non-business activities.
- Sending or receiving e-mail to/from friends outside your workplace,
especially jokes and inappropriate non-business messages.
- Sending or receiving jokes, chain letters, cartoons or personal photos
- 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.
Most state governments and public agencies have similar websites to those
- The E-Policy Handbook: Designing and Implementing Effective E-Mail, Internet, and Software Policies,
Nancy Flynn. American Management Association, 2000. ISBN: 0814470912
Especially for company
- One-In-Five Companies Have Fired Workers Over Email Abuse, Survey Shows
- Dow Chemical fires 24 in email controversy http://news.com.com/2100-1017-245811.html?legacy=cnet
- E-mail can get you fired http://www.geek.com/news/geeknews/q22000/gee2000822002190.htm
- Cobb contract worker fired over racist email http://www.ajc.com/news/content/metro/cobb/0905/28metemail.html
- Email porn scandal rocks car plant
- The Next E-Mail You Open Could Get You Fired
- 23 Fired for Email Violations http://www.wired.com/news/politics/0,1283,32820,00.html?tw=wn_story_related
- Email Jokes at Work: Part 2
- Enron Offers an Unlikely Boost to E-Mail Surveillance
- Merck caught in scandal to bury Vioxx heart attack risks, intimidate scientists and keep pushing dangerous drugs; Vioxx lawsuits now forming
- Butterfly Meets Bazooka: An L.A. Times community news reporter is fired for e-mailing a congressman
- E-mail lifts lid on Shell scandal http://www.out-law.com/page-4466
- News: Seems A Lot Of Folk Get Fired Over Email http://loosewire.typepad.com/blog/2003/07/news_seems_a_lo.html
- Secretaries sacked after cyber brawl http://www.news.com.au/story/0,10117,16528158-1242,00.html
- 6 Ways Your Computer Can Get You Fired http://www.askmen.com/money/career_100/139_career.html
- Have a blog, lose your job? Workers with Web logs are everywhere, and they're starting to make corporate America very nervous.
- Boeing scandal highlights e-mail checks http://www.usatoday.com/money/companies/management/2005-03-11-email-usat_x.htm
- NZ policemen disciplined after email scandal http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2002/09/20/1032054949702.html
- Burton Harps On White House E-Mail "Scandal" - Again 03/30/00 http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0HDN/is_2000_March_30/ai_61032693
- Ketchup e-mail scandal lawyer quits his job
- Employees in Yucca Mountain e-mail scandal will not testify
- Tamihere Implicated In Email Scandal (video news) http://xtra.co.nz/streaming/0,,10979-4745759-300,00.html
About our resource
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