Protect yourself from e-mail lawsuits

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It used to be pretty simple. Wake up, brush your teeth, talk to your spouse and kids, go work, come back, watch TV, straighten up the house or play with the kids, and go to bed. The next day: repeat.

Now, of course, the lines are blurred. We're often emailing our kindergarten's teacher with an apology for not bringing this week's snack and then rushing off to a meeting with the boss. Or we'll be at home in bed, watching late night TV and answering email -- from a client at work.

All of this means that things get complicated when employers and their employees don't get along, since when lawsuits arrive, email leaves one of those paper trails that can help bolster or destroy someone's case.

According to the American Management Association, 24% of organizations have had employee email subpoenaed, and 15% of companies have gone to court to battle lawsuits triggered by employee email. Meanwhile, 26% of employers have fired employees for misusing email. Another 2% have canned workers for inappropriate instant messaging chat, and 2% of employers have have said good-bye to workers over offensive blog content--even if it's on an employee's personal home-based blog.

There's even a name for all of this sifting through emails, trying to build a legal case: eDiscovery.

So, anyway, I was talking to a spokesperson for Epiq Systems eDiscovery Solutions, which provides technology products and services for the legal profession, and he sent me their three main tips for any employers who don't have an email policy. I've condensed it a bit, but the gist is:

Step one. Get an email policy. Make it clear and to the point. Any ambiguity makes it completely ineffective.
Step two. Employees should sign a document that confirms the email policy was read, understood and agreed to.
Step three. Communicate the policy frequently with employees.

It all sounds very Draconian, but mainly employers don't want to get sued because, for instance, they've read someone's personal email that was on a company computer. Likewise, employees don't want to be sued or canned because they didn't realize that their boss wants to be able to read company email to make sure you're working and not sending jokes out throughout the day. In that sense, an email policy does probably make a lot of sense.

But I'm suddenly very glad I work for myself.

Geoff Williams is a freelance business journalist who uses email frequently. He is also the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale).
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