E-mails are company property
Yes you do. Many people view e-mail as a way of communicating with others with a degree of anonymity. Problems can start when the sentiment of the e-mail is unrequited, for example if the recipient is distressed about receiving such communication or if the content of the e-mail becomes derogatory or abusive.
It is important that all employees realise that e-mails, unlike private letters, may be regarded as published information and company property. Abuse of e-mail systems can lead to charges of sexual harassment or defamation.
Sexual harassment can cover a multitude of activities - what offends one person may not be seen in the same way by another. For example, repeated and unwanted requests for a date, sexual innuendoes or even persistent pestering on unrelated work matters have been considered sexual harassment by the courts. Even one incident can be sufficient to amount to sexual harassment in extreme circumstances.
It is important that you have an Internet and e-mail policy in place, which can include details of online monitoring, restrictions on Internet use for employees and guidelines on purchasing via the Internet. To be effective the policy must be well advertised to employees and enforced. It is also important to warn employees verbally of the dangers of e-mail.
You need to emphasise to staff that pressing the delete button may not be sufficient to erase evidence. E-mails may be stored on your company's central server and backed up by the company with the rest of the computer files. If an employee sends offensive e-mails during the course of their work (and this can be widely interpreted), as the employer you could potentially be liable.
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This was first published in June 2000