E-mail Etiquette for Employees and Execs

It's fast, convenient and accessible. But the wonders of electronic communications -- e-mail and instant messaging -- in the workplace can also bring woes to employees and executives. Just ask Harry Stonecipher, the recently deposed chief executive officer of aircraft maker Boeing.

On Monday, the 68-year-old CEO was ousted when the company's board of directors learned he was having a consensual affair with a female executive.

Who snitched? In part, it was Stonecipher himself. According to The Wall Street Journal, a "very graphic" e-mail sent by the CEO to his paramour was discovered by another employee -- who promptly tipped off the company's board.

Stonecipher's embarrassing exposure and expulsion is just the latest example of a well-known, but oft-neglected, workplace axiom: Business and pleasure don't mix -- especially in corporate e-mail systems.

"There certainly have been a lot of high-profile cases where someone's e-mail has gotten them in trouble at work," said Nancy Flynn, executive director of the ePolicy Institute, a corporate training and consulting firm in Columbus, Ohio. "You would think by now people would know that a corporate e-mail system is not a personal, secure way to communicate."

Personal and Professional Clash

Still, sending a personal e-mail or conducting a quick "instant message" chat while at the workplace is something millions of workers continue to do on a daily basis.

While most of these personal communiqués are hardly risqué, some workers do electronically pass along jokes and gossip and sexual or even pornographic content. Companies are wising up to ramifications and taking harder stances on illicit e-mail use.

"There's a principle called vicarious responsibility," said Flynn. "Employers can be held responsible for the wrongful acts of employees. So, if an employee sends an inappropriate message, it's most likely the employer that will be sued."

Points to Consider

Flynn says employees and executives can avoid e-mail scandals and potential legal problems if they remember some important key points about electronic office communications.

There is no privacy.

The Federal Electronic Communications Act of 1996 gives companies and government organizations the right to monitor their employees' use of corporate Internet and e-mail systems.

"When you're using your company's e-mail system, that belongs to the employer and they have a right to monitor messages and turn them over to investigative bodies," said Flynn.

And new laws such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 require companies to maintain e-mail records should questions of corporate financial disclosures arise.

"If your organization's retaining and archiving e-mail, that personal message could be archived for years and it can come back to haunt you," said Flynn. "Your personal e-mail messages could become part of the evidence pool in a case that's not even related to you."

There is no control.

As e-mail winds through the internal corporate computer system or over the vast Internet, it can be captured and copied by any computer along the way to its destination. "There's no way to know who's going to read your e-mail," said Flynn. "It can be forwarded, sent to the wrong address, intercepted by a hacker and/or automatically archived by a server somewhere."

There is no recall.

"Once you hit the 'send' button, it's gone," said Flynn.

What to Do

For effective -- and safe -- workplace e-mails, Flynn offers some of these tips:

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