Email, whether you love it or hate it, you probably use it in your workplace.  Who hasn’t used their work email to send a personal email or two, or forwarded a few “funnies”?  How many of us have forgotten that emails are a form of written correspondence and sent comments in emails you probably wouldn’t send in a letter or even say over the phone?

Many workplaces allow some degree of personal use accepting that an outright ban may be too rigid a standard and impractical to enforce.  Emails which are sent from business email addresses usually contain an automatic signature with the business name and contact details.  This means that the business is associated with the content of those personal emails.  Personal emails have seen many an employee and employer in hot water.  Before you hit the SEND button consider the following handy hints for both employers and employees regarding email at work.

Some Tips for Employers

“Funnies” often contain offensive content (including racist, religious, sexist or pornographic themes to name a few), which is not something that you want associated with your business.  Furthermore, when reading and forwarding these “funnies” those employees are not working!  A case in the Employment Court related to an employee sending 451 inappropriate emails, 26 of which were deemed offensive, and that was only over a six month period!

Another potential minefield you should be aware of is many of these ‘funnies’ mock specific groups and this may create an unpleasant workplace environment for some employees.  This could lead to claims of harassment, and even a personal grievance against you as the employer.

Employees may also write personal emails with content that may undermine the business, show disregard for the employer and the business and demonstrate that the employee’s loyalties lie elsewhere.  This is obviously not desirable when your business logo is attached.  An employer’s decision to dismiss was upheld by the Court of Appeal after emails were sent containing improper remarks about English people, showing disdain for his office, and calling his boss a “d*#khead”.  The Court held those emails eroded the level of trust and confidence in the employee’s ability to carry out his duties.

So What Should You Do?

  • If you haven’t already, create clear policies and guidelines about what is and is not acceptable use of the email system.
    • In the Employment contracts or business policies set out that any personal email should not interfere with the employee’s duties or obligations, and the use meets the standards in the workplace and is not illegal or contrary to the interests of the employer.
    • State the employee is to use the email in compliance with the employer’s policies.
  • If policies are in place, check that all employees were (a) issued with, and received a copy of the policy; and (b) they understood the policy. Make it clear that misuse of the email system is a serious matter.
  • When dealing with misuse of business email, make sure that you follow the correct disciplinary procedures.  The procedural and good faith requirements for misconduct apply when dealing with misuse of email.  If unsure of what these requirements are – SEEK LEGAL ADVICE!

Some Tips for Employees

  • Check your employment contract and read any policies regarding email and internet use.  Make sure you understand what is and what is not acceptable.  If in doubt err on the side of caution.
  • Remember that email misuse can be misconduct, or even serious misconduct.  Your employer’s name is attached to the email hence their business is associated with the content.
  • Use common sense!  Every workplace is different in what is acceptable use but generally excessive personal use of the email system is unacceptable and ‘funnies’ containing racial, ethnic, religious, sexist and other offensive themes such as nudity, or pornographic material are unacceptable.
  • If in doubt consider the following:
    • One Judge suggested that you ask yourself, “Would I be embarrassed if my boss was reading this over my shoulder?”
    • An employer suggested the standard: “Would I be comfortable printing this and pinning it on the office notice board?
    • Is it likely to offend anyone in the workplace?
  • If you really must send those ‘funnies’ its best to do it on you own time, from your own personal email account.
  • When writing emails, take your time and proof-read.  Emails are a form of written correspondence! Being ‘instant’ does not change this!
    • Would you write the content in a letter, print it, sign it and put it in the post?
  • Because it is written, there is a record of it!  Hitting the delete button does not remove it from the system.  It only makes it a little harder to find.  “Out of sight, out of mind” does not apply to emails.