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Compose yourself before you compose that e-mail

Published Sep. 9, 2005

Before you send a romantic e-mail to your betrothed, consider this real-life cyber disaster:

A woman in England sent her boyfriend an e-love note complimenting him on an evening of passion. It was so complimentary, he decided to forward it to a half-dozen friends working in law firms and banks with international offices.

That very personal e-mail message ended up traveling to 10 million computers in London, Australia, Hong Kong and the United States. The London tabloids got wind of it and pursued the woman relentlessly, sending her into hiding.

There is an important lesson here, but it extends far beyond love notes. Any electronic communication you send or engage in at work could be viewed by someone else, whether it's your boss, some unknown techie on the 19th floor, the person in the next cubicle, or an infinite numbers of strangers.

"It's just like any rumor. The potential for embarrassment is enormous," said Nancy Flynn, author of "The e-Policy Handbook" (Amacom, 2001, $19.95) and executive director of the e-Policy Institute, which helps companies reduce liability by developing effective e-policies.

If a red face is all you get out of a cyber slip-up, you could be one of the lucky ones. Increasingly, companies are firing and reprimanding employees for forwarding adult jokes and socially insensitive rhetoric, visiting inappropriate Web sites, and inadvertently sabotaging computer systems with personal e-junk.

For example, defense contractor Lockheed Martin fired an employee who caused its e-mail system to crash for six hours after sending thousands of co-workers a personal e-mail message that requested an electronic receipt.

"You can imagine how much money they lost in terms of productivity and inability to respond to customers," Flynn said. "They had to fly a Microsoft rescue squad in to repair the damage."

In recent years, employees have lost their jobs for any number of e-mail or Internet faux pas involving sexually explicit material, passing of trade secrets, loss of productivity and bad-mouthing of company officials.

Xerox Corp. fired more than 40 employees for wasting up to eight hours a day on pornographic Web sites. Last September, the U.S. Department of Defense fired more than 100 workers for circulating jokes with sexual content over its computer system.

One company subpoenaed Yahoo! to get the identities of employees participating in online chat rooms for its own stock. Guess what? They were fired.

Workers who are terminated for violating e-policies have little legal recourse. Most are at-will employees and they can be fired for any reason, said Gerald Maatman, an attorney for Baker & McKenzie in Chicago.

Companies take jokes very seriously, he warns.

"Employees may think they're innocently engaged in pranks and horseplay, but employers are worried about potential liability and will take action to stop the behavior," Maatman said.

Some companies cross-reference their sexual harassment and Internet policies, because sexually offensive material is admissible as evidence in sexual-harassment cases, he said.

It's important to note that even if your managers say they're not watching, assume they are.

In 1996, a Pennsylvania court dismissed a lawsuit filed against Pillsbury by Michael Smyth, a former operations manager. Contrary to assurances by the company that employee e-mail communications were private, Smyth was fired in January 1995 after management intercepted two e-mail messages. The company considered one message in reference to sales managers a threat. In another, he called an upcoming company party the "Jim Jones Kool-Aid affair," referring to the 1978 Jonestown massacre in Guyana where 913 cult members drank cyanide-poisoned punch.

"He said bad things about managers and he was fired," said Beth Givens of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse in San Diego. "I actually think that management needs a thicker skin in such situations. Electronic mail is a freeing-up communications medium. People tend to say things they wouldn't ordinarily put into a memo or letter. They use off-handed comments without realizing they are creating a permanent record."

Once a message goes out, hitting the delete key doesn't make it go away, Maatman warns. Many companies use forensic software that can retrieve deleted messages and monitor every keystroke.

Employees should also be aware of the potential for human error. In December, a lawyer in the UK intending to forward a joke to a colleague hit the wrong button, sending the message into cyberspace with the company's logo attached.

"I don't think it's an overreaction for companies to be concerned about employees forwarding inappropriate materials," Maatman said.

Flynn recommends that all companies adopt written policies and provide training for employees outlining what they should and shouldn't do at their computer terminals.

To be on the safe side, Flynn advises employees never to use company e-mail to send a really personal message.

"Do not write anything that you would feel uncomfortable saying in an elevator crowded with colleagues and competitors," she said. "Compose yourself before you compose your e-mail."

When it comes to privacy in the workplace, workers essentially have none regarding electronic devices. The federal government protects employers' rights to monitor all electronic communications in the workplace.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is planning to reintroduce a bill in Congress this year that would require companies to provide notification of monitoring and define notification in a way that is clear and relevant to employees.

More than 80 percent of companies that conduct electronic monitoring inform their employees of their policies, according to a 2000 survey by the American Management Association. But Lewis Maltby, president of the National Work Rights Institute, said many of them are extremely general.

"Most notices are reservation of rights written by lawyers," Maltby said. "One thing employees need to do is assume they're being monitored because they probably are."

Maltby said it's almost never your immediate supervisor who is doing the snooping. Most companies have corporate communications workers who conduct monitoring.

"No one knows what these little spies are up to because they're not telling," Maltby said. "It seems clear that companies are not reading each and every message. There aren't enough hours in the day."

Nearly 75 percent of U.S. companies do some form of electronic monitoring, including e-mail, Internet connections, phone and voice-mail monitoring and computer surveillance, according to the survey.

Even workers who weren't targeted have been known to get into trouble. In June, Hewitt Associates, a global benefits consulting and delivery firm in Lincolnshire, fired 35 employees for violating its harassment policy for forwarding offensive e-mails. Jennifer Frighetto, a spokeswoman, said managers came across them accidentally.

"An associate had left the firm and turned files over to his managers with project work to follow up on," she said.

In the digital age, communications sent from home are fair game, too. Maatman said he defended an employee trying to sell photos of women in various stages of undress who was fired for forwarding the photos to colleagues from his home computer.

Overall, the point that should be taken from all this is this: Stick to business when you're at work. If you receive an e-mail message you feel may be inappropriate, notify someone in human resources or tech support.