By Satyen K. Bordoloi
TMCnet Contributing Writer
The next time you think of sending an email from work, thinking it to be innocuous, think again. More and more people are losing their jobs for company email rules violations, according to a survey conducted of 300 companies.
One third of these companies have sacked staff in the last year because they violated e-mail policies of their respective work places. Last year a similar study found that one fourth of employers had sacked people for the same reason.
Keith Crosley, of the firm Proofpoint, which conducted the survey with Forrestter Consulting, said, “People don’t see a difference between phone conversations and email - but legally, there’s a really big difference.”
The type of companies surveyed included public companies, higher education, government and non-profit companies that had at least 1,000 employees. Of these, more than 40 percent said they had hired people to police others’ emails - and about half said they regularly police email content.
The irony of the situation was laid bare when the survey found that despite highly publicized corporate scandals, a high percentage of workers don’t even realize that they are being watched, and that their emails could get them into trouble.
One example was when prosecutors used emails to build their case against Ken Lay, Enron founder and ex-CEO. He is now facing a 165-year prison sentence.
Another example is that of Boeing CEO Harry Stonecipher - married for 50 years, but forced to resign after his alleged affair with a colleague came to light after sexually explicit emails sent via the company’s e-mail system were revealed.
Yet another example is that of Henry Blodget, an analyst with Merrill Lynch who praised stocks in public, but chided them as dogs in his emails. He was barred for life from the securities industry.
“Email lives on forever,” Crosley said. “Big companies archive their emails – they’re required to, for all kinds of regulatory reasons.”
According to Crosley, the companies most likely to fire workers on breaking email rules include retailers, wholesalers, telecom firms and utilities.
The survey also quizzed the companies regarding their policies on blogs and message boards. It found that 7 percent of the companies had fired staff in the last year for breaking their rules on blogs and message boards.
Though the survey didn’t question employers on the specific reasons for sacking staff, Crosley has heard interesting anecdotes involving firms that have rules against using company email for personal messages. Often, that is all it takes to fire people, he said.
One arguably legitimate reason for firing based on email use is sending messages with objectionable or unacceptable content - like racist or sexist jokes, smutty stories or lewd pictures. Many were fired because they used the office email system for criminal behavior, like stealing credit card and social security numbers.
Though on the face of it, it may seem that companies are firing people out of paranoia, most have good reasons for doing so since a quarter of those surveyed had been ordered by courts or regulators to hand over email records.
The survey also finds that some companies are not doing enough to prevent email misconduct - and though over 80 percent have written policies outlining acceptable email use, only half of those companies informed their employees of such policies.
Crosley hopes to sound a wake-up call for managers to educate their employees about acceptable email use.
And for employees, he has coined a rule of thumb: “At work, don’t put anything in an email you wouldn’t want the whole world to see.”
Satyen K. Bordoloi is a contributing writer for TMCnet.