E-mail usage policy should consider ethics

There’s no question that e-mail is addicting for many and an unavoidable workplace necessity. For good or ill, e-mail prevails. But do privacy rights have to take a backseat for this convenience? Do we endure spams and scams as a tradeoff in a virtual world? What are the ethical issues related to e-mail?

Electronic mail has advanced from the simple text messaging between programmers to a sophisticated, practical tool for communication in the workplace and at home. Ease of use has increased dramatically. As our free time diminishes, e-mail has become the preferred way to talk to each other. Do I send personal e-mails at work? Sure, I’m human. Do I send work e-mails from home? Of course. Separating the two would be like creating two different personalities. In a wireless world, I can be constantly tethered to electronic mail for work and pleasure. This virtual window into the details of my business and private life creates an e-mail dilemma: what are the employee’s rights to privacy and what defines an employer’s right to peer into this window?

Most companies would argue that they have the right to monitor messages for improprieties, dispersal of confidential company information, etc. With heightened fears of terrorist attacks, e-mail threats are taken even more seriously. But where does the need for added security begin to trample on my personal rights and freedoms? Do I leave my personal rights at the doorway to my office? Even if it’s a company-provided computer and a company-provided wireless service?

E-mail is forever. Once sent, those e-mails can’t be recalled or shredded like paper documents. They are generally archived electronically, poised to show up years later as testimony in a courtroom or to appear on the front page of a national newspaper.

Do you have a policy on e-mail usage? If not, you should. Here are a few points to consider related to ethics and e-mail policies:

– What constitutes a fair workplace e-mail policy? Does it protect the employer and the employee?

– How do you define queasy qualifiers in your policy like “reasonable use”?

– What is your company’s policy on the transmittal of confidential or copyrighted material?

– How does your workplace control improper access to computers, such as mandated password changes on a regular basis?

– Is there a policy in place regarding improper access of company e-mail by system administrators? Who watches the watchdogs?

– Do you have a mechanism in place to communicate about viruses and hoaxes?

If your e-mail is going to be the written record of transactions, policy changes or new guidelines, etc., then protect yourself by keeping e-mails well written, in context and observant of company policies about workplace harassment.

Another obvious safeguard is to maintain adequate password protection. “Treat your password like your toothbrush. Don’t let anybody else use it, and get a new one every six months,” says Clifford Stoll, author of Silicon Snake Oil.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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