E-Mail Probe Triggers Firings

FRAMINGHAM (07/07/2000) - As part of an ongoing corporate crackdown, employees and contractors at pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co. this week faced discipline, including dismissal, for inappropriate e-mail and Internet usage.

While Merck spokeswoman Sharyn Bearse confirmed the most recent disciplinary measures, she wouldn't say how many employees had been terminated or otherwise disciplined. Bearse also declined to say how many employees had been subjected to e-mail and Internet monitoring or what, specifically, employees had communicated or downloaded to provoke the measures.

Shortly before a February announcement of employee terminations related to e-mail and Internet abuse, Whitehouse Station, New Jersey-based Merck instituted a companywide standards and values program, Bearse said. Within two years, all 65,000 Merck employees around the world will attend a training session on these standards, many of which refer to proper workplace communications.

Companies of all sizes are wrestling with the issue of employee privacy vs. their own liability for employees' online activity, experts said.

"I don't think Merck is alone in this," said Lauren Haywood, acting president and CEO of EMA, formerly the Electronic Messaging Association, in Arlington, Virginia. When developing a policy, Haywood said, companies should involve all levels of employees so that it's practical and manageable.

Jeff Uslan, manager of information protection at Hollywood-based Twentieth Century Fox, said he has to deal with thorny intellectual property issues that require close scrutiny of employee communications. In some circumstances, inappropriate language is difficult to monitor, he said.

For employees working on a film treatment, language that would otherwise be inappropriate is necessarily transmitted via e-mail, Uslan explained.

"We're not concerned about the employee who goes out on [his] lunch hour and goes on eBay or sends a dozen e-mails with baby photos to friends," Uslan said.

Dallas attorney B. J. Thomas, who specializes in computer law, said that, as counsel for the city of Cleveland, Texas, her rule of thumb is that e-mail is a tool like any other.

"Any policy can be violated by the use of another tool as well," Thomas said.

"In municipal law, [the idea is]: Don't have a policy unless you can enforce it, and if you enforce it, enforce it uniformly."

Thomas and Uslan both said red flags on improper e-mail and Internet use don't usually come up unless an employee isn't performing satisfactorily.

"People think it's a lot more private than it really is," Thomas said.

Haywood said she agreed. "Anybody should understand that they should never put anything in an e-mail that they don't want someone else to read," she said.

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