With so many businesses still trying to figure out how to leverage social media in the workplace, email continues to be the primary method of communication among employees. Whether they are communicating with co-workers, managers, customers or distributors email still reigns supreme. In fact, 94 percent of all American Internet users send or read email every day according to the Pew Research Center. In the workplace it is estimated that workers spend 41 percent of their day handling email according to the Radicati Group.
While email is still a primary means of communication among people in the workplace, many businesses fail to put in place a policy that governs how employees use email while they are on the clock. Business owners or IT managers tend to overlook laws and regulations that dictate how email should be used and stored. In small-medium sized businesses there is less of a perceived need for a email policy because employers sometimes don’t see the need to regulate things such as email and Internet use. Unfortunately this can land them in legal trouble.
Current laws state that employers can be held legally liable for the content of email sent from computers owned by the company. Furthermore, failing to retain emails sent by employees can also put businesses out of compliance for Sarbanes-Oxley and other regulations.
To protect your business from legal troubles you can either abolish email altogether, or govern how your employees use this tool in the workplace with a documented policy on email usage.
Since the latter is much more practical, let’s look at five things that your email policy needs to address:
- Personal use of the email system. Some businesses allow employees to use company email for personal communication. Some strictly forbid it. Others take a hybrid approach, allowing personal use to take place during non-work hours granted the emails sent and received abide by other policies. Whichever route you take, make sure that it is clearly spelled out in your policy in a way that cannot be misconstrued.
- Rules governing what can and cannot be sent over the company email system. Email can be used to share files, multimedia, pictures, etc. While any IT department would most certainly want to keep large attachments to a minimum to conserve bandwidth and storage space, this usually isn’t what causes most of the problems. Obviously it is necessary for your email policy should explain what is inappropriate to send using the company email system. Make sure to cover the distribution of any offensive, or disruptive messages, including messages containing offensive comments about race, gender, age, sexual orientation, pornography, religious or political beliefs, national origin or disability.
- Email retention policies. If your company is required to comply with Sarbanes-Oxley then you have an obligation to make sure that records, including emails, are retained for a certain period of time. You also have an obligation to inform employees that emails will be archived and how long they will be retained for. Even if you are not required by law, keeping an archive of emails can help your company fight a lawsuit or investigate issues dealing with employees. Make sure this is a part of your email policy and follow up with your IT staff with a records audit from time to time.
- Email monitoring. As the owner of your email system you have the right to monitor employee email messages at any time but you do need to inform your employees of this. Explain to them that any messages sent, or received, using company equipment are subject to being viewed even if the employee considers them to be of personal nature. Having this policy in place protects you should a situation ever arise where you need to monitor an employee’s email and it helps curb inappropriate use of the email system but it is rather sensitive so you should check with your company’s lawyer on how to word this properly.
- Best practices for email usage. You should also use this section to explain expectations for email protocol when it comes to writing and addressing messages. An email sent out can be the first impression a potential client or partner gets of your company and you want it to look professional. For example, some basic email etiquette rules include not writing emails in all capitals, enabling spell checking, including a signature that conforms to your company format, using proper grammar and punctuation.
Once you have drafted your email policy it is important to understand that if a policy is put in place but then not enforced cannot be later relied upon to discipline an employee who violates the policy. So while creating a reasonable email policy is important, enforcing it is necessary as well. Don’t put anything in writing that you do not plan on enforcing later.