Turn on the television after the nine o'clock watershed and there is a good chance of watching sex and hearing filthy language. Apart from Mary Whitehouse and a few others, nobody is offended because the watershed is there to protect the innocence of youth.

But if someone sends the modern day version of a saucy postcard to a select group of friends at work, all hell can break loose.

Companies seem to have little choice but to handle it with the same stern hand as the puritan teacher discovering pornography magazines in the classroom. It cannot be overlooked, there must be rules in place to protect the company's brand.

Two recent examples spring to mind. The first involves Royal & Sunalliance, who sacked three and disciplined a further 80 staff for electronically circulating a doctored picture of Bart Simpson. The second started life at 3.53pm on December 7, when Claire Swire sent two lewd jokes to ten friends, including Bradley Chait, a lawyer at City firm Norton Rose. Chait replied to her, sparking an explicit private email conversation in which Swire talked about oral sex.

Just 13 minutes after her last message, Chait forwarded their correspondence to six friends with the comment: “Now that's a nice compliment from a lass isn't it?”

Within minutes, thousands of copies of the email were circulating all over the world. When the story hit the tabloids, the email had been read by more than three million people around the world.

Following the controversy surrounding these x-rated emails, the need for employers and employees to be aware of their company's email and internet policy has never been greater.

Law firm Weightmans suggests an email and internet policy (below) that companies can adopt straight away.


Monitoring and discipline

The company reserves the right to monitor email/internet usage and to view activities. Monitoring will be for reasons relating to the business of the company including:

  • investigating or detecting the unauthorised use of the system
  • ensuring the effective operation of the system
  • monitoring standards of service to customers.

    Any messages or attachments that do not conform to this protocol will be reported to the head of human resources and appropriate disciplinary action will be taken.


    Private emails

    Any received emails can be opened by the head of human resources, even if the email is addressed to an individual, unless agreed otherwise with that specific individual.


    Security

    1 If you have access to the email system and/or the internet, you are responsible for your own security. You must not allow your computer to be used by an unauthorised person.

    2 Email is not secure – you must assume that any email that you send can be read by other people, as it can be forwarded or copied.


    Dos and donts

    1 Email and access to the internet is provided for legitimate business use only – any other usage may open you up to disciplinary action.

    2 Any of the company's policies towards any type of harassment or bullying also apply to any communications made electronically.

    3 Misuse of the email system by transmission of any of the following types of material may constitute gross misconduct:

  • defamatory
  • offensive, pornographic or obscene
  • untrue or malicious
  • sexist racist or blasphemous
  • in breach of copyright
  • offensive or injurious remarks about any client, competitor, member of the company or other party
  • material perceived as damaging, or likely to damage the company's reputation.

    4 You must not send an “all users” message without the permission of your senior manager or head of department (i.e. information technology, marketing, accounts, training and development, human resources).

    Your message must indicate who authorised you to send it.

    5 Do not open attachments that have the extension .exe or .bat or .reg. Do not download from the internet without prior permission from the head of IT.


    Best practice

    The following tips and hints are designed to help you to get the best out of our system.

    1 Think, is email the best medium for what you want to communicate – would face-to-face, or a telephone conversation be more beneficial?

    2 Email produces lazy writers – it shouldn't. Check all emails for spelling and grammatical errors. Avoid slang or abbreviations. Ensure the layout is professional.

    3 The written word is always open to interpretation – if you receive an email that annoys you, do not respond straight away. Consider the point of view/interpretation and then reply in a considered and calm manner.

    4 Do not keep your inbox open all day, otherwise it will disturb you every time a mail is sent to you. Open and check it on various occasions during the working day.

    5 Ensure that you target recipients correctly. Create (or ask IT to create) distribution lists so that only those who are required to see an email are sent it.

    6 Only “cc” those who require it.

    7 Do not write in capital letters – electronically, this behaviour is akin to shouting.

    8 Do not use a lot of attachments. They slow down the system, so only use them if it is essential.

    9 Only keep unactioned emails in your inbox. delete the rest or file them away in folders.

    10 Empty your deleted items box at least once per week.

    11 Emails are supposed to reduce paper usage, so do not print emails unless it is essential.

    12 Only accept appointments if the sender has stated the purpose for the meeting or the reason for your attendance.


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