Prevention beats cure

The recent scandal over pornographic e-mails at the Family Court highlighted the importance of having e-mail and Internet usage policies.

After one employee resigned and up to 10 were reportedly disciplined for sending or receiving “sexually graphic” e-mails, court staff had to sign documents saying they had seen and would abide by a tough new e-mail and Internet use policy.

If such usage has been something of a grey area up to now, some clarity and endorsement is on the cards following New South Wales’ announcement that it will be drafting an Act to cover e-mail monitoring in the workplace by the end of this year.

E-mail connections in today’s workplace have become a standard tool for communication, much the same as the telephone once was. It’s therefore totally unreasonable to expect that employees won’t use e-mail as a tool for personal communication.

While most employees don’t abuse their e-mail privileges, those who do cost companies dearly, not only in lost productivity, but also in potential security hazards and legal minefields. And, sending pornographic e-mails is just the tip of the iceberg.

Spam, chain e-mails and ‘letter bombs’ (extremely large or numerous e-mails designed to annoy, interfere with or deny e-mail use of another party) eat up both company time and bandwidth. E-mail is also notorious for spreading viruses, and misuse therefore also poses a security, and increasingly a legal, threat to companies.

Developing a preventative security capability is becoming increasingly important if companies hope to deal effectively with the realities of a new work place in which the telephone is not the only piece of technology that is open to misuse. This is at last being recognised by the legislators, and 2004 is set to play out as the year in which e-mail monitoring is endorsed as a legitimate and valuable way to protect business interests, while still protecting staff privacy.

Indeed, rather than playing out an Orwellian nightmare, the approach to e-mail monitoring should be managed with consideration for both employers and employees. It should be done in consultation with employees and reflected in a formal and detailed usage policy accessible to everyone in the organisation.

It’s been shown that if e-mail monitoring is done transparently, employees respond well and take a more responsible role in the management of the resource.

Jack Andrys is CEO of WebSpy

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