Sound Off: Taking Sides on Critical Issues

FRAMINGHAM (05/01/2000) - Employees of a payroll processing company in Norfolk, Virginia, owned by The New York Times Co., recently learned that jokes among friends can have serious consequences. Late last year, management fired 23 employees for e-mailing "inappropriate and offensive" material around the office. Rumor has it that employees were downloading graphic images from pornography sites and e-mailing them to their colleagues.

Days after the firings, Russell Lewis, the president and CEO of The New York Times, sent a memo to staffers across the company reminding them that management reserves the right to monitor e-mail and requesting that employees report violations to the HR department.

The New York Times isn't the only company that has grown nervous about employee e-mail abuse. A recent survey by the American Management Association found that the percentage of major U.S. companies that monitor employee e-mails has risen from 15 percent in 1997 to 27 percent in 1999 and that monitoring of all electronic activity (including surfing the web) has jumped from 35 percent to 45 percent.

Most corporate lawyers believe the trend is a good one. Since employers can be held liable both for the e-mails employees send to one another and for the outbound messages they send, they would be fools, the lawyers argue, not to have monitoring policies and procedures in place.

The lawyer business, however, is not undergoing the staffing crisis that plagues the IT industry. There are some 400,000 open IT positions out there, so organizations are doing their best to lure talented new workers with comfortable, trusting work environments along with high salaries and stock options. With the long hours often demanded of them, workers need to know that they can conduct some personal business, like refilling a prescription online or arranging to visit a marriage counselor, without letting their higher-ups in on their affairs. The condescending "we're watching you" memos that some companies send to their employees might be enough to push the most valued employees right out the door.

CIOs are in an especially tough spot. Not only are they attempting to provide their all-too-hirable employees with an affable, respectful work environment, they're often the people responsible for administering the company's surveillance policy. If they follow the advice of corporate counsel and treat their employees like potential criminals, they might find themselves sitting liability-free in a cavernous department that echoes with the sound of only two hands typing.

So what do you think: Should management read employee e-mail? This thread began Dec. 21, 1999, and here is a sampling of the responses that Web Writer Martha Heller received. You can respond to her at or via the web at

Why should e-mail be treated any different from telephone conversations? The law prohibits employers from taping private conversations without the knowledge of the parties involved, and the same should apply to e-mail and anything else private. Of course employers have done and will continue to do what they deem necessary, including peek into private e-mails--and there may be valid reasons like security, harassment and so on.

So what would help is making sure there is a clear and well-publicized policy so that there is no misunderstanding or misinterpretation about e-mail etiquette. It would also help to implement systems similar to what parents use to block access to offending websites and warn offenders that they are being watched if attempts to bypass the system are detected. Gerard Baena Senior Manager AllStar Consultants International San Ramon, California I have no problem with management reading associate e-mail. First, my company makes it clear that we have no expectation of privacy, so I should expect none.

Second, my company pays me to work, and that is what I should concentrate on.

With that said, I believe a certain amount of personal e-mail is acceptable and should probably be expected. E-mail that I send is typically very short, and it's one-way. If I make a phone call, it can turn into a longer conversation simply because it is two-way communication.

Bottom line is this: It's the company's system. I always assume that someone down the line (in addition to the person originally addressed) will be reading my e-mail. Jim Lavelle Project Leader Automatic Data Processing Roseland, New Jersey.

Management has the responsibility to ensure company resources are used appropriately. Personal use of company e-mail service, like the use of company telephone service, is an abuse. But more important, management is responsible for getting the job done in a healthy and safe work environment. Does management have the time or resources to monitor e-mail? I think not. Should management monitor e-mail? Only when a specific problem is known to exist. Carl M. Vigil Senior Security Analyst San Jose State University San Jose, California.

I am surprised that most of the responses advocate the monitoring of e-mail. Is this based on logic or a desire for control? To me, e-mail is just another instrument. It can be used productively or abused. If employees waste time with e-mail or web browsing, I believe you have a management problem--not a technology problem. Does the work keep your employees interested? Do they have enough work? Are they part of the team? My experience is that happy people with interesting work would rather work than waste time. Rick Russon Senior E-Business Analyst for Idea Integration Management Technology Group Englewood, Colorado.

The author's point in summary is that a hostile work environment, as defined by management reading employee's e-mail, may drive IT employees away. What about a hostile work environment, created by sexually explicit pictures and jokes, which may also drive employees away? I believe that the legal ramifications of allowing a hostile environment are the greater risk for the company. IT management can take the high road with a computer usage policy that stresses productivity and a safe workplace without being condescending. David Langston Director of IT Operations McLeodUSA Publishing Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

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