It is a commonly held misconception, due to the informal traditions of electronic communication, that e-mails carry less weight than letters on headed notepaper. But this is not the case. The law treats emails as ‘discoverable documents’ in exactly the same way as all other forms of written communication, and as such, just as much care and attention should be taken regarding the content of emails as with other forms of business communication.
An employee’s email address at work identifies not only the individual, but also the company. If an employee is using his work email to send inappropriate comment or material, there is always the potential for messages sent via the company address to impact negatively on the business. For instance, a company would never allow employees to use its letterhead to send out correspondence of a scandalous or personal nature – why then should it allow its email to be used in this way?
Unmonitored email leaves companies open to fraud, lawsuits, loss of confidential data, sexism, racism, pornography, not to mention reputation damage, loss of business, and decreased productivity. Quite simply, if a company does not have a clear and consistent email policy, it needs to get one.
From an internal point of view, an employer has a duty of care to protect its staff from email abuse and harassment. According to a recent DTI survey into communication practices in UK businesses, nearly a quarter of employees have suffered crossed-wires with colleagues or clients because their use of humour in an email has been misinterpreted. Given the fact that there were 115,000 employment tribunals last year based on work disputes, often on the grounds of racial or sexual harassment, these figures are no laughing matter.
However, an employer’s duty to educate staff on what constitutes acceptable online office banter is just the tip of the iceberg. Unwise or unguarded email use is almost always the source of blame when a security breach of the company network occurs. Many employees are still reckless in the type of email they open and respond to, and this is despite the extensive media coverage on the dangers of viruses and hacking programmes. Hackers and virus writers have become increasingly sophisticated, designing and targeting messages to people based on their interests or spoofing email addresses known to the recipient. As well as the cost in terms of productivity and downtime when a virus strikes, a hacker has the potential to access and steal confidential information and intellectual property.
Although it has not happened yet, it surely won’t be long before a test case for damages caused by virus transmission is brought against a business – already some security software vendors are being forced to sign SLAs in which they have to pay damages if their products fail to protect their customers. It is only another step before companies start to sue each other, for transmitting viruses via their emails.
The problem of how to control corporate email usage is compounded by the growing numbers of people who work remotely. Using a personal account or ‘unregistered’ mobile device to send or access work-related email are common yet unintentional methods of bypassing the security measures that companies put in place.