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Containing cyber-slacking - establishing a reasonable email policy for your workplacde

By Johns, Flaherty & Collins SC on Monday, October 24th 2011

The advent of the Internet and email in the workplace has been both a boon and a boondoggle to employers in the United States. With an estimated 2.8 billion e-mail messages reaching American workers each day, it's no wonder employers are increasingly finding productivity lost to personal Internet and email use on the job.

Recent studies indicate that e-mail alone consumes up to a quarter of the average worker's time on the job, and additional research has revealed that approximately 30-40 percent of the time employees spend on the Internet during work time is not business related.

If you'd like to contain cyber-slacking in your business, it's wise to establish an email policy for your employees. A thoughtfully developed, well-written policy can protect your business not only from lost productivity but also from some even more onerous problems such as sexual harassment/discrimination and the disclosure of proprietary information.

To develop an email policy for your workplace, you must consider how you are going to define limitations, monitor personal use and enforce the rules.

Define limitations. It's logical to assume that the same employees who don't use the telephone for personal uses also will not abuse e-mail. Considering your employees' needs and work habits, the nature of their work and the sort of supervision they receive, you should design a policy that fits your company. Some companies limit personal use altogether. Others allow employees to send and receive personal e-mails but only before and after work hours or during scheduled breaks.

At a minimum, employees need to understand that the employer owns the equipment and it is there for business purposes. Therefore, no employee should expect any of their computer activity to be private.

Monitoring. Again, the way you monitor e-mail use should depend on your workplace environment. In some settings, supervisors are constantly walking the floors; in others, employees work more autonomously.

For companies that have their own in-house information technology experts, monitoring incoming and outgoing data can be easy, but many small businesses don't have that luxury. In those cases, you may want to purchase software to do the job. The options range from programs that merely record times that employees pick up e-mail to programs that record the recipient, sender, number of words, time spent reading and composing e-mail, number of attachments and whether the e-mail is business- or non-business-related.

If you suspect that proprietary information is at risk or that offensive or explicit material may be passing through your computers, you may want to consider software that captures every key stroke from a computer. The software then sends you reports about the exact content, along with information about the parties involved and the amount of time spent on it.

Additionally, you may limit what can be deleted from the e-mail system and use software that automatically collects and backs up e-mails, even if an employee tries to delete them.

Enforcement. Once you have a system in place for monitoring e-mail use, you have the foundation for enforcing the policy. Be sure your policy also includes how the company will respond to infringement and what disciplinary measures may be imposed. Be specific, and include language about what happens with the first violation, second and so forth, up to termination.

Keep in mind there may be some instances where termination is appropriate for first offenses, such as disclosing proprietary information or sending objectionable material to a client or customer. Therefore, it would be wise also to provide that you may impose any penalty, up to and including termination, at your discretion.

Once you develop your policy, be sure to communicate it with employees the same way you would any other policy. It's always a good idea to date the policy and have the employee acknowledge receipt. Oftentimes, simply knowing the policy exists is all it takes to eliminate the slacking.

For more information on employee policies, contact Ellen Frantz at 608-784-5678.

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