Opinion: E is for e-mail

I've been scammed, spammed and flamed, endured cutesy pet pictures and nasty pictures from people with names like Tammy Tushbottom. I've been offered thousands of dollars to assist Nigerian officials import goods. I've been told that someone loves me, just open the attached file. Every day I get dozens of e-mail messages relating to my work. Does this sound like your world?

How many days (hours?) can you go without checking your e-mail? Be honest. There's no question, e-mail is addicting for many and an unavoidable workplace necessity. I marvel at our ability to communicate around the world, the Internet cafes, the jokes, the breaking news stories and the hokey birthday e-cards. I cringe at chain letters. I suffer from e-mail overload, yet have trouble going more than a day without checking

Unfortunately, other people are checking in on me and pestering me, and that gets my Moral Compass spinning. Technologies are available to track every keystroke I've sent or deleted. I have no idea who gets a bcc (blind carbon copy) of e-mails I receive. My university e-mail account is spammed daily. (No, thank you, I don't need Viagra right now.) For good or ill, e-mail prevails. But do privacy rights have to take a backseat for this convenience? Do we endure spams and scams as a tradeoff in a virtual world? Is virtual sexual harassment more allowable than face-to-face harassment? What are the ethical issues related to e-mail?

The Ethics of E-Mail

Electronic mail has advanced from the simple text messaging between programmers to a sophisticated, practical tool for communication in the workplace and at home. Ease of use has increased dramatically. As our free time diminishes, e-mail has become the preferred way to talk to each other. As a communication scholar, it's amazing to me that I'll send an e-mail to someone who works right next door rather than get up and talk with him or her. I know I'm not alone in this peculiar practice, which, by the way, some companies have banned. Do I send personal e-mails at work? Sure, I'm human. Do I send work e-mails from home? Of course. Separating the two would be like creating two different personalities. In a wireless world, I can be constantly tethered to electronic mail for work and pleasure. This virtual window into the details of my business and private lives creates an e-mail dilemma: What are the employee's rights to privacy and what defines an employer's right to peer into this window?

I know my e-mail is being monitored. Company policies will tell you that e-mail is neither private nor protected and will be monitored in the workplace. Yet, based on my experience, many employees are quite naive about e-mail surveillance. I hear too many stories in the classroom from students who have been asked to monitor e-mail for problem employees. It's a creepy feeling to know your e-mail is being monitored, and from what I've heard, it's creepy to monitor others' e-mail as well.

Do companies really need to do this? What sinister threats lurk in e-mails that are not also transmitted by phone, Post-its or in person? Yet, with the possible exception of phone usage and voicemail, these other forms of communication are not normally monitored. Companies excuse themselves by claiming e-mail uses company resources, but that's also true of telephone lines and memo pads. It also makes sense to ask whether the cost of monitoring e-mail is actually recovered in practice, or is it a form of sanctioned voyeurism to spy on employees.

You Are What You Send

Remember e-mail is forever. Carelessly sent electronic carbon copies can reveal confidential information and employees' rights to privacy are impaired. Once sent, those e-mails can't be recalled or shredded like paper documents. They are generally archived electronically poised to show up years later as testimony in a courtroom or to appear on the front page of the paper. Therefore, it makes sense to re-read each e-mail before sending it, while imagining it as a headline on the 6 o'clock news.

Do you have a policy on e-mail usage? If not, you should. Does this policy contain phrases like "reasonable use" or "exercise good judgment"?

- Here are a few points to consider related to ethics and e-mail policies:

- What constitutes a fair workplace e-mail policy? Does it protect the employer and the employee?

- How do you define queasy qualifiers in your policy like "reasonable use"?

- What is your company's policy on the transmittal of confidential or copyrighted material?

- How does your workplace control improper access to computers, such as mandated password changes on a regular basis?

- Is there a policy in place regarding improper access of company e-mail by system administrators; i.e., who watches the watchdogs?

- Do you have a mechanism in place to communicate about viruses and hoaxes?

The ease of use and casual conversational quality of e-mail make it oh-so-tempting to send an emotion-laden message, usually at the end of a long day. Equally obnoxious are the e-mails copied to every top manager in the company wherein one recipient is skewered in a most public and permanent fashion. Keep in mind that your virtual message has ethical ramifications, else you may get a friendly visit from your local HR department.

Try A Little Common Sense

Not only is content important, but so is the context. In a post-Enron world, I'm a bit paranoid to e-mail my supervisor that I shredded documents without adding a few words to put things into context, i.e., these files were duplicates and no longer needed. I recall a recent e-mail incident where an employee casually referred to the destruction of electronic files by saying he "nuked 'em." Some took offense at the terminology and the writer e-mailed a virtual apology. Chalk it up to heightened post-9/11 sensitivities. "Kill that job... job aborted... nuke that file" are all common lexicon for IT. Taken out of context, such workplace vernacular can be misconstrued or even offensive. If your e-mail is going to be the written record of transactions, policy changes or new guidelines, etc., then protect yourself by keeping e-mails well written, in context and observant of company policies about workplace harassment.

I know it sounds trite, but another obvious safeguard is to maintain adequate password protection. Like flossing, we grudgingly know it should be done regularly. "Treat your password like your toothbrush. Don't let anybody else use it, and get a new one every six months," says Clifford Stoll, author of Silicon Snake Oil.

I'm sure you've met some employees who are banned completely from using company e-mail for personal use. A complete ban on personal e-mail seems a bit extreme, and yet, there may be justification from the employer's standpoint. Last August, Merrill Lynch announced a new policy that banned all employees from accessing outside mail services such as MSN. As a financial service provider, Merrill Lynch is following a trend to restrict access ostensibly to fight e-mail viruses and meet regulatory requirements. That seems sensible. The new policy also makes it easier for Merrill Lynch to monitor employee e-mail traffic and stop those pesky instant messages from less than ethical financial advisors.

Considering how closely e-mail can, and is, monitored, doesn't it seem surprising that employees would get sloppy with the contents of their e-mail? Remember the offensive e-mails exchanged by Merrill Lynch traders in 2000? Are people really that naïve, ignorant, just plain arrogant or what?

My Rights? Or Is That Wrong?

Most companies would argue that they have the right to monitor messages for improprieties, dispersal of confidential company information, etc. With heightened fears of terrorist attacks, e-mail threats are taken even more seriously. But where does the need for added security begin to trample on my personal rights and freedoms?

- Do I leave my personal rights at the doorway to my office? Even if it's a company-provided computer and a company-provided wireless service?

- Are bans on personal e-mail effective, ethical?

- What about other restrictions, such as bans on use of service providers such as AOL or Comcast?

- Does this solve the problem?

- Do you have a sound e-mail usage policy in place? What makes it work? Or, worse, is it not enforced effectively or enforced unfairly?

- Got any e-mail horror stories to share for our "lessons learned" department?

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