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 September 1, 1999

Internet policy wise idea for employee handbook

BOULDER — Jurifax, a Canadian company that has studied American, Canadian and European companies’ policies regarding employee Internet and e-mail use, found that fewer than 10 percent of all companies surveyed had specific rules about workers’ electronic communications.

Locally, that 10 percent figure sounds “about right,” says Scott Allison, an attorney with Boulder law firm Chrisman Bynum & Johnson. Although many Fortune 500 corporations have had some sort of Internet or e-mail policy in place for the last three to five years, the same is frequently not true with smaller companies.

The problem, Allison says, is twofold: Many smaller companies don’t have employee manuals, where policies such as e-mail protocol are most often spelled out; and even those companies that have manuals may not yet have addressed Internet use because it’s a new, fast-moving phenomenon.

But increasingly, electronic communications are becoming a legal problem. For instance, e-mails can contain discriminatory language toward other employees, opening a company up to sexual harassment, race, age or other lawsuits. And during Microsoft’s antitrust trial, e-mails from company Chairman Bill Gates that discussed competitors and business strategies were used as evidence.

Another problem, points out Barry Weiss, a partner with Boulder law firm Cooley Godward, is that when employees post personal e-mails to chat rooms or message boards but use an address that contains the company’s domain name, it can appear that the opinions expressed in the e-mail have the blessing of the company.

“People don’t pay attention to their e-mail transmissions the same way they would with something that goes out on letterhead,” Weiss said.

Because of the informality of e-mail, there may be more danger of an employee disclosing confidential information about the company, a customer or a supplier. And because e-mail can be widely disseminated, that information can be posted all over cyberspace.

A published e-mail and Internet policy, signed by all employees, can help save a company from lawsuits.

“My guess is that for small companies (an Internet and e-mail policy) is not the top priority, but it’s critical that they have one,´ said Celia Rankin, a lawyer with the Boulder office of Davis Graham & Stubbs. “A policy gives you a defense. It shows that you acted in a commercially reasonable manner.”

Companies that want to set up electronic protocols for workers should start with a simple statement: Employees’ on-the-job e-mail and Internet surfing is not private. Various court cases have found that an employer may lawfully monitor e-mail if the employee has given consent or if there is a business-related reason for such monitoring.

“Make it clear that the primary purpose for this company-supplied resource is to serve the company’s interest,” Weiss said.

Rankin adds, “Company e-mail or the Internet is not a personal asset. It’s a privilege and not a right.”

If you decide to allow your employees personal e-mail and Internet use, it’s a good idea to require a disclaimer that the views expressed in the e-mail are the employee’s opinion and not the company’s.

Next, detail what the company considers inappropriate e-mail or Internet use. This should include downloading pornographic sites, sending racist or sexist jokes to co-workers, transmitting intellectual property via e-mail, soliciting or proselytizing for religious or political purposes, and downloading copyrighted material.

Allison suggests you tell employees you’ll be monitoring e-mail.

“Some companies say they’re going to do it just so employees are more reserved about what they say.”

Make sure to spell out the consequences for inappropriate e-mail or Internet use. For instance, the first time is a warning; the second time results in dismissal.

A corporate e-mail policy also should discuss how long messages will be retained on the company’s computer system. A good rule of thumb is six months, Allison says. Not only does this keep your computer system from becoming clogged, but if a policy is in place, it can show that you didn’t willfully delete problematic e-mails in case your company is ever sued.

“A record retention policy is part of what would be deemed a commercially reasonable practice,” Rankin said.

BOULDER — Jurifax, a Canadian company that has studied American, Canadian and European companies’ policies regarding employee Internet and e-mail use, found that fewer than 10 percent of all companies surveyed had specific rules about workers’ electronic communications.

Locally, that 10 percent figure sounds “about right,” says Scott Allison, an attorney with Boulder law firm Chrisman Bynum & Johnson. Although many Fortune 500 corporations have had some sort of Internet or e-mail policy in place for the last three to five years, the same is frequently not true with smaller companies.

The…

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