March 8, 2005 — -- 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."
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."
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.
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."
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."
"Once you hit the 'send' button, it's gone," said Flynn.
For effective -- and safe -- workplace e-mails, Flynn offers some of these tips:
Most employees (and some employers) operate under the assumption that it's OK to use the company's e-mail for personal messages -- much like using the office phone for personal calls. But since companies can be legally liable for the content in corporate e-mails, it's up to employers to lay down the ground rules on what is permissible.
"To an employee, acceptable use might be to spend six hours a day e-mailing the members of her softball team. But to an employer, it might be [just] 15 minutes a day on personal e-mails to family and spouses," said Flynn. "Employers need to spell it out and they cannot leave that particular rule out to individual interpretation."
Once the policy is set, employees of all levels must be trained to follow it. And any breach must be enforced equally -- no matter who violates the policy.
"Just because someone's sitting in the corner office doesn't mean they are knowledgeable about the policy. We've had many cases where the company CEO has gotten himself or the company in trouble because of what he e-mailed," said Flynn. "Whatever the disciplinary action is, it should apply to everyone, regardless of job title. [Boeing] is a case where the enforcement did apply."
There's software that can be installed on corporate e-mail systems that automatically "quarantines" e-mails based on the words in the message. Such technology can help companies and their employees from disclosing sensitive material -- trade secrets, confidential information or even illicit content.
While content filters can help, ultimately, safe e-mailing relies upon the creator of the message.
Flynn suggests that corporate e-mailers "compose themselves before they compose their message. What you want to do is make sure your e-mail is a reflection upon your individual professionalism and your company's credibility."
As a further guide, Flynn says e-mailers should use what she calls "the lesson of the three Cs."
"Imagine you're in an elevator with colleagues, clients and competitors," said Flynn. "Would what I'm about to write in this e-mail be something I would willingly say out loud if I was in the elevator with those three Cs?"
"What you want to do is make sure your e-mail is a reflection upon your individual professionalism and your company's credibility," said Flynn. "You want to make sure it's every bit the well-written and polished piece of prose as anything you would distribute in hard copy."
She says it's better to be slow and safe with a thoughtful e-mail than sorry about a swiftly sent memo.
"Once it's gone, it's gone," said Flynn. "Even if you send a follow-up message to say 'please ignore my last message,' you're at the mercy of the reader."
"As a manager, you don't want to use e-mail to the exclusion of personal contact like one-on-one meetings and phone calls," she said. "Co-workers, clients, customers -- they all crave human interaction."
"As a worker, you want to try and keep personal e-mail -- anything that involves medical information, finances -- out of the office system," Flynn said. "As a manager, you never want to use e-mail to discuss employee's performances -- good or bad."
Both workers and executives need to remember that putting such information in a corporate e-mail is akin to putting it on public record.
Keep messages no longer than a page on the computer screen. Flynn says it's OK to trim lengthy reply chains -- say, a progress report on a certain project -- as long as the information in the subject line isn't changed.
"As a sender, you only want to copy people in your message with a legitimate need to know," said Flynn. "And your 'cc' and 'bcc' recipients are under no obligation to reply to your e-mail, so don't expect one."
"Even though some e-mail systems give an option to automatically request a recipient to return a receipt, think twice before you do that," said Flynn. "Some readers are offended by that."
Another reason to turn off the automatic request: If you send the e-mail to a lot of recipients, the request for receipts clogs your inbox and produces more traffic on the network.
"Be as specific and compelling as possible when putting information in the subject field of an e-mail so they will open and read your message," said Flynn. "The most common mistake is to leave the subject field blank -- most will assume it's from a spammer and just delete it."