Could Your E-Mail Policy Use Some Pointers?
December, 2005

Eric Rosenberg, a former senior litigator for Merrill Lynch, is obsessed with e-mail these days. That's probably because he's seen employers get in bad legal trouble for their employees' abuse of the system. It's not enough to simply tell staffers that the system should be used primarily for business purposes and that you expect them to be responsible about the messages they send and the sites they visit. Reminding organizations that they own their e-mail systems and should control their use, he lists these "Seven Deadly Sins of Business E-Mail:"

1. Freely using e-mail for personal correspondence, especially betting pools, pornography, or chain letters.

2. Ignoring copyright laws, by wholesale cutting and pasting of any material that's been copyrighted.

3. Assuming that hitting the "delete" key effectively erases e-mail messages. It doesn't. Messages can virtually always be recovered, especially for use in court.

4. Ignoring how a message would look if it were published in a newspaper; if it's bad enough, it might actually be published.

5. Exaggerating, boasting, joking inappropriately, losing your temper, making promises you can't keep, leaking sensitive or proprietary information, spreading rumors, or arguing.

6. Failing to double check the intended recipient's address, Ccs, BCCs, and Reply, Send, or Forward options. It can be embarrassing to send a message to the wrong person, hit 'Reply-all' when you meant to reply only to the sender, or include a whole string of correspondence you didn't remember was attached. Says Rosenberg, "Addressing an e-mail without conscious thought is like driving your car while holding the cell phone." (Note how many people do exactly that.)

7. Ignoring e-mail messages that require action. E-mail has frequently now replaced paper business memos, phone calls from superiors to subordinates, and staff meetings to relay instructions. Claiming you never received a message won't serve as an excuse, because the sender can check his or her Sent file.

Most people exercise reasonable case in composing paper documents—such as using appropriate language and running the spell-check function. Somehow, though, we treat e-mail as if it were a series of phone conversations, where spelling doesn't count and messages are as impermanent as sound. Because e-mail lasts longer than paper documents, not to mention phone calls, it's crucial to put a detailed and specific e-mail policy in place to protect yourself and your employees.

© Business & Legal Reports, Inc. (NY 375)