E-mail Use and Abuse

Communication in the workplace has changed dramatically over the past 10 years. Electronic communications such as e-mail now exceed traditional communication media. While e-mail provides many benefits, it has also brought many headaches to small-business owners and managers.

To protect your company from liability associated with inappropriate e-mail usage, it is important to establish a written policy and make sure all employees are aware of the policy, and the consequences that will occur if the policy is violated.

Here are four key benefits of a creating an e-mail policy:

1. Protect against legal liability for the content of e-mail messages that may be sexually harassing, violent, or discriminatory; that create a hostile work environment; or that involve illegal activity. In addition to employer responsibility for the content of employee e-mail messages, your business could be held liable for inappropriate employee use of the Internet in the workplace.

2. Improve productivity and efficiency by reducing time at work that employees use for personal business. Companies lose money when employees spend their time on the Internet shopping, sending and receiving excessive personal e-mails, downloading music, etc. With a "business-only" or a "limited personal use" e-mail and Internet policy, employees will be more productive.

3. Protect private company materials that are sent and received via e-mail. The e-mail policy should clearly state what may or may not pass through the company Internet system.

4. Avoid viruses from Internet downloading or personal e-mails with attachments that could cause company computers to crash. Also, excessive Internet use outside of company purposes, such as playing games, can use up valuable space on a company’s system.

Elizabeth Gaudio Senior Executive Counsel National Federation of Independent Business Legal Foundation Washington, D.C.