Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Watch your e-mail

Betrayed by email
ND Batra
From The Statesman

E-mail seems so personal and private. After all there is nothing between you and the laptop screen; and when you press the key SEND, you have the illusion that nothing could be more confidential than the digital stream that you have let loose.

But nothing is beyond the reach of corporate lawyers and law enforcement authorities in this age of total awareness. Desperate housewives seeking fortunes in divorce have e-mail as their best bet after their husbands have begun to rejuvenate their libidos somewhere else. In early March, The Boeing Company fired its 68-year-old CEO, Harry Stonecipher, for having an extramarital sexual affair with a company employee. He had the brazen foolishness to be expressive about his carnal desires in sexually explicit manner in e-mail exchanges with the woman. None should have read the top dog’s e-mail but someone did.

Stonecipjer, ironically, was plucked from his retirement to rebuild the image of Boeing after the company had suffered a scandalous period under its previous CEO. Enron, the defunct energy conglomerate that put up a power plant in Dhabol, Maharshtra, was undone by its e-mail, which in hindsight you might say was good for the stakeholders and public at large. The company did not comprehend the liability issues in dealing with email, which makes me believe that every business should have its annual e-mail audit.

Employees should be given workplace and documentation training. Since most American office workers use the Internet and communicate via e-mail, bosses are watching closely how their employees use the company’s electronic resources. Several court decisions regarding workplace privacy indicate that in the United States employees have few privacy rights over their e-mail, if it is stored in the company’s system.

Employers no doubt have legitimate concerns about what their workers do in their cubicles, especially regarding the confidentiality of their trade secrets; on-going contractual negotiations; pornography and sexual messages exchanged among employees that might lead to legal liabilities for the company; and whistle-blowing and other activities that may affect the reputation of the company.

These concerns are not new but the speed with which transactions are done on the Internet has created paranoia. It has been widely reported that office workers do visit popular sports websites to check scores and also do online shopping and stock trading. Many of them keep a chatline or instant messaging service open while doing other work.

Some multi-tasking in the workplace has always been there but the Web has created new opportunities and now it is becoming a common occurrence. With continuous restructuring and layoffs, many working people keep looking for new job opportunities. One never knows where the axe might fall. American corporate culture has changed. Being loyal to the company has no meaning nowadays. You can’t be loyal to a company that might outsource your job to hmm… China!

Companies are watching who is applying for jobs and if anyone is trying to cross over to a competitor, he should not expect his boss to be merciful. That was the painful lesson Richard Fraser, a Pennsylvania independent insurance sales representative with Nationwide Mutual Insurance, learnt a few years ago when he offered his services to the company’s competitor via e-mail. Although he was not a salaried employee of the company and had an independent office, he was using the company’s e-mail system and his computer was networked with the company’s server. In his lawsuit against his employer that he filed after he was fired, Mr Fraser alleged that the company had violated his electronic privacy right under federal laws, the Wiretap Act and Stored Communication Act, but the judge saw no merit in the case. Sending or receiving an e-mail message leaves a copy on the company’s server, which is much like a filing cabinet, and the company has the right to scrutinize the content.

It is important to understand, therefore, that e-mail is the least safe method if an employee wants to keep his online transactions confidential. The delete key is the most deceptive piece of software technology ever invented. Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Michigan, a major health insurance company, fired seven employees in 1999 for violating the company’s policy and ignoring the written warning against e-mailing obscenities using the company’s computers. Discharging employees for sending pornographic pictures and sexual jokes to colleagues via e-mail is not something new.

When the bosses at First Union Corporation, one of the largest banks in the USA, wondered what was slowing down the company’s server, they discovered that some of the employees were e-mailing videos of people having sex and other lascivious material that strained the system’s capacity. The employees lost their jobs for violating the policy and no one shed tears for them. Employers cannot afford to ignore online lewd conduct of their employees, partly out of fear that some might perceive the company as tolerating a hostile work environment and accuse it of gross negligence. But more importantly, such conduct destroys the work ethic. I

ronically, as offline and online worlds collide and converge, workers do not regard the office as a place of work only. Nor is the home exclusively for the family. If a person is expected to carry his office on laptop to his home, why can’t he do his family chores in the office? The question can’t be ignored because the number of people who telecommute and have their home computers networked to their office server is increasing. So where does the right to privacy end for an employee when home and office commingle? Maybe privacy does not exist any longer – whether you are the boss or at the bottom of the barrel.

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