E-mail ethics could cost business

Almost one in three of the UK's online workforce send racist, sexist, pornographic and discriminatory e-mails at work.

Almost one in three of the UK's online workforce send racist, sexist, pornographic and discriminatory e-mails at work.

That is the finding of UK's first national e-mail ethics survey, carried out by market researcher NOP for SurfControl, the e-mail and Internet content management group.

The issue has substantial business implications according to Stephen Ollerenshaw, an IT lawyer at Wragge & Co. "E-mail can be a real and substantial liability for business," he warned. "It is a form of communication that seems to tempt people into making informal and unguarded statements that they would not write in hard copy."

"They can create a trail of potentially damaging statements that are admissible in court in the same manner as a letter or a memo. A recent settlement of a case involving a defamatory e-mail ran into nearly half a million pounds."

NOP asked how 100 white-collar workers from each of the UK's largest cities - London, Edinburgh, Cardiff, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool & Newcastle - really use e-mail when left to their own devices.

The survey illustrates that while employees in London (36%) and Manchester (36%) are the worst offenders, the problem is endemic across the UK.

The survey also shows that e-mail is seen a potent weapon in the internal political battle. Some 38% of employees admitted using e-mail to create problems for colleagues as well as using e-mail to further their own careers.

This figure is further compounded by the discovery that a third of employees prefer to hide behind e-mail rather than deal with a sensitive situation face-to-face.

The survey results highlight the need for businesses to take care over managing employees' online productivity levels whilst taking steps to ensure that stress, illness or a high turnover in staff do not result from "e-moral" office tactics, SurfControl warned.

Commenting on the survey's findings, Steve Purdham, chief executive and founder of SurfControl said: "It is clear that there needs to be a real change in the e-mail culture within the UK - starting with businesses educating employees that e-mail is not a guise to get away with unacceptable behaviour nor a device for political purposes."

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