Monitor employees' email use, London law firm warns

A London-based law firm has put out a set of guidelines for corporations advising them to closely direct their employees' use of email in order to protect themselves from possible legal problems over 'rogue emails.' 'If you are not concerned about how your staff use the company email system, you could be making a very expensive mistake,' reads the document circulated to companies around London.

A London-based law firm has put out a set of guidelines for corporations advising them to closely direct their employees' use of email in order to protect themselves from possible legal problems over "rogue emails."

"If you are not concerned about how your staff use the company email system, you could be making a very expensive mistake," reads the document circulated to companies around London.

The law firm, Davies Arnold Cooper, has received several inquiries from concerned companies about two recent cases involving employees who used email to send inappropriate messages, says Catrin Turner, head of intellectual property at Davies Arnold Cooper. Since many companies don't seem to know what steps to take to protect themselves, the law firm decided to put out a set of guidelines.

One case, involving insurance company Norwich Union, ended in the company having to pay damages of 450,000 pounds sterling (US$742,500), Turner says. The case stemmed from an employee circulating a defamatory message around the company which spread false rumors about a rival insurance company, Western Provident Association.

Western Provident sued Norwich Union for libel and won the 450,000 pound settlement, according to Turner. The outcome of the case should make all corporations wary of how employees are using email since the company could be held liable for any content sent over its network, she says.

Companies should also make sure email is not being used for illegal activity and sexual harassment of other employees, since a court could decide that it is the company's responsibility to make sure such activity does not take place.

Recently, a London Research Centre (LRC) employee filed and lost a wrongful termination suit after being fired for allegedly ordering drugs from colleagues and sending sexually-explicit email to them. If a sexual harassment case is brought against the LRC, it could be held responsible for letting this activity go unchecked, Turner says.

In light of the Norwich Union and LRC cases, Davies Arnold Cooper has come out with a five-point plan that companies can adopt to make sure they are protected if employees use email inappropriately.

According to the plan, companies should ask employees to follow these common-sense guidelines when sending email:

-- Only write things in email which are true and based on fact, especially concerning other people or other companies.

-- When sending an email, especially externally, make sure information is presented clearly and comprehensively so that it cannot be misconstrued in any way.

-- Keep copies of important emails sent and received.

-- Do not accept any form of email harassment and report all such email to a senior member of staff.

-- Do not use the email system for any activity which is illegal or in breach of company policy.

While the report looks at email monitoring from the perspective of an employer's potential liability, engaging in the practice does raise issues about employees' rights to privacy. In the U.S., several high-profile cases have driven courts to begin establishing precedents involving rogue email cases, but in other countries, the boundaries remain foggy on what rights employers and employees have regarding monitoring.

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