Employers urged to adopt 'Big Brother' email policy

BIG Brother might be over, but businesses are being advised to tighten up their policies over monitoring staff emails as employment expert Croner warns that the humble office email is being silently used by employees to bully, harass and air prejudices against their colleagues.

Emails are binding documents which can be used as evidence against employers, in the same way as written letters or memorandums, in tribunal cases involving sex, race, religious and disability discrimination, sexual harassment and constructive dismissal claims.

Croner, part of Wolters Kluwer UK, says too many employers are unaware of this, too complacent that it won’t happen to them, and unsure over the ethics of monitoring employees’ emails.

With experts estimating that at least 35 per cent of all outbound office email is unrelated to work and with almost half of employees admitting to often using internal email for personal reasons, Croner, one of the UK’s leading providers of business information and advice, is issuing guidelines to help employers keep a watchful eye over email conduct and minimise the risk of potentially libellous content.

Richard Smith, HR expert at Croner, said: "In the past a controversial opinion might have been inappropriately voiced between colleagues over a drink in the pub, nowadays employees are also making these exchanges using office email.

"'But whereas verbal harassment is difficult to prove, convicting email evidence could be sitting in a recipient’s inbox, creating serious legal issues for the company.

"Employers can’t afford to be blasé and are best advised to adopt a more watchful Big Brother attitude over emails sent using their network."

Even a "harmless" joke between colleagues could be taken as offensive if accidentally discovered by the innocent party.

As business email systems are owned by the company, an employer can insist that all emails sent by employees are solely for business purposes and may, provided that employees are adequately warned, scrutinise email content and destination.

But Smith warned: "It might be thought that by using a company’s email system for personal exchange, an employee is completely forfeiting their right to any privacy of its content.

"However, although we are advising them to be more vigilant, they must also be careful when monitoring email use, which is in fact regulated by employment legislation and Data Protection rules.

"Employers need to take care not to encroach on employees’ privacy – although they can monitor email to an extent, they are limited in what they can do."

Smith added: "A sensible employer needn’t take email observance to the extreme, but should be taking email conduct very seriously and may think about looking into an email monitoring system which will alert them to potential bullying, harassment, discrimination or slander."

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