E-mail consultant

People want clearer workplace e-mail and Internet usage guidelines, according to a new poll from Monster.ca, but they could be split down employer/employee lines on whether e-mail and Internet monitoring in the workplace is such a great idea.

The online poll, which had 3,457 respondents, asked whether employers should be allowed to monitor staff e-mail and Internet usage to support increased productivity.

Respondents weren’t keen on active monitoring—57 per cent rejected the idea of employee monitoring, but they did call out for clearer usage guidelines.

Nancy Flynn, executive director of the Columbus, Ohio-based ePolicy Institute, said that employers are increasingly in favour of managing e-mail and Internet activity. “They’re increasingly concerned about legal liabilities, regulatory risks, lost productivity, and security breaches.”

The Institute conducted a survey jointly with the American Management Association in 2005 on workplace monitoring and surveillance and found that 76 per cent of the 526 respondents (American companies from the combined 90,000-strong membership of both organizations) monitored their employees’ Internet usage, while 55 per cent kept track of e-mail activity.

Of the respondents to the Monster.ca survey, 14 per cent said they saw employee monitoring as a flat-out invasion of privacy and would never support it. This response is typical; employees often feel strongly about e-mail usage, according to Flynn.

“One the one side,” said Flynn, “employees are increasingly aware of the potential costly risks of unmanaged e-mail and Internet use. On the other side, employees are very resistant to monitoring.” The biggest problem here is the thinking around information ownership. Said Flynn: “Employees tend to mistakenly believe that they have the right to privacy when they’re using their employer’s computer system. They see it as an invasion of privacy and resent (monitoring attempts).”

“People continue to think that it’s none of their (employer’s) business,” agreed Marsha Egan, CEO of the Reading, Penn.-based e-mail consultancy EganEmailSolutions.com.

People must have it explained to them very plainly— they don’t own their e-mail.Marsha Egan>TextThere are ways to make an implementation of monitoring solutions go more smoothly, and with less resentment from employees. The key are having firm policies in place that are well-communicated, both explicitly and often. “Training can explain the risks to the company and individual and why monitoring is important,” she said. A 2006 survey on workplace e-mail, instant messaging, blog, and Internet usage conducted by the same organizations (and that had 380 respondents culled from the same memberships) found that less than half of the respondents had implemented any formal training around their monitoring policies and implementations.

“People must have it explained to them very plainly—(they) don’t own their e-mail,” said Egan. “And a lot of companies don’t have a clear policy. The biggest stumbling block is getting to it in the first place, and then communicating it more than once. If it’s stuck in a manual somewhere, [it’s] out of sight-out of mind.”

It’s “human nature” that many employees will continue to bend the rules around e-mail use and Internet activity, which is why it is important to communicate them—especially with the “growing number of businesses putting teeth in their discipline (over these offences),” said Flynn. (The 2006 survey found, for instance, that 26 per cent of the respondents had fired someone over e-mail misuse, and another 26 per cent had cited Internet usage violations as grounds for dismissal.)

The rules—including what is and isn’t forbidden and the punishment involved—need to be “sold” to employees; Egan suggests framing the new rules in such a way that shows how it has relevance to the individual and the company. “A single announcement or e-mail will have an adverse reaction,” she said. “You need to communicate it in a way that they will understand it.”

The faction in favour of monitoring came in with 29 per cent of respondents to the Monster.ca survey agreeing that monitoring was a helpful tool in productivity improvement, and that “people spend an excessive amount of time on personal e-mail and surfing the Internet.” Egan said that she suspects that the majority of the respondents who agreed with that statement were themselves employers or managers who find the issues more pressing than employees.

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