Survey: employers filter e-mail to avoid legal action

Wary of legal liability, employers are increasingly taking action to clean up employees' e-mail and root out "smoking guns," according to a new survey released Tuesday by the American Management Association, U.S. News and World Report and The ePolicy Institute.

According to the 2001 Electronic Policies and Practices survey, 10 percent of respondents said that they have been subpoenaed to produce employee e-mails in lawsuits and 8 percent said that they had to fight sexual harassment or discrimination claims stemming from employee e-mail and Internet use.

In addition, over 68 percent of the 435 employers surveyed said that legal liability was the main reason they were monitoring employees' online activity.

In order to reduce the risks associated with employees' nefarious electronic trails, 85 percent of the respondents said they were restricting personal Internet use, whereas 81 percent said that they put an e-mail policy in place. Seventy-seven percent of those surveyed had an Internet policy, while 62 percent monitor e-mail and Internet use, the survey reported.

What was concerning, however, was that just 24 percent of those surveyed engaged in e-policy training, said Nancy Flynn, executive director of The ePolicy Institute.

"Employers can't expect employees to adhere to e-mail policies on their own," said Flynn. "They need to understand the risks that employers face."

Flynn recommends a three-step remedy to electronic "smoking guns" in the workplace. To begin with, companies should have written e-mail, Internet and software policies. They should also take advantage of software available to filter and report activity, she said. Additionally, employee training on online policies is crucial.

And even though the U.S. has a federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act that grants employers the right to monitor e-mail and Internet activity on company systems, the act doesn't prevent employees from filing invasion of privacy claims, Flynn warned. In some cases, state courts have sided with employees in their invasion of privacy claims. In order to protect themselves, companies should have employees sign off on corporate electronic policies, acknowledging that they have read, understood and will comply with all of the stipulations, Flynn suggested.

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