E-mail and Harassment: How to Protect Your Company

Published: Mar 10, 2009

 Workplace Issues       
In this world of fast-paced technology, even though more work is being accomplished, personal interaction is often a casualty. As e-mail, faxes and the Internet take center stage, employees are relegated to the wings, shut off from colleagues and face-to-face communication. One issue that has come to the forefront is the misuse of e-mail and electronic communication.

Employees used to be able to interpret a face-to-face discussion through tone of voice, facial expressions and the like. But on e-mail, those clues are missing. The popularity of e-mail in the workplace has given rise to new kinds of harassment problems and created new challenges for employers.

For example, an employee who would never dream of telling a dirty joke to a female co-worker might not think twice about forwarding such a joke to her by e-mail. Similarly, an employee who wouldn't bring a pornographic magazine to the workplace might download pornographic pictures onto his computer and leave the computer screen visible to co-workers.

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a claim for sexual harassment can arise where one employee subjects another employee to unwelcome, offensive acts that are so severe or pervasive as to make a reasonable person feel that the work environment is intimidating, offensive, and hostile.

In order to protect your company against sexual harassment claims, you must monitor and control youremployee's use of the computer. Because e-mail is stored on a computer system that's owned and operatedby your company, the courts have generally found that employers have the right to review the e-mailtransmissions of your employees.

An effective way to help your employees understand how to use e-mail correctly is to draft and circulate aclearly written policy regarding employee computer and e-mail use. It should outline prohibited conductand advise employees that the company will be monitoring computer usage.

An effective policy should contain the following provisions:

  • No computer communications or documents shall contain profanity, obscenity or defamatory language.
  • All communications transmitted through the computer are governed by the company's anti- harassment and anti-discrimination policies.
  • The downloading, display, or transmission of sexually explicit pictures is strictly prohibited.
  • The company will perform periodic inspections of employee e-mails to ensure that all employees are complying with the company's computer use policy.

You also should encourage your employees to inform you immediately if they see an offensive e-mail. Once you are advised of a potential problem with an employee's use of e-mail you should immediately investigate the problem and sanction the employee who behaved inappropriately.

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