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July 05, 2001
Personal E-mail a Growing Concern
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nsylvania insurance agent Richard Fraser was fired by Columbus, Ohio-based Nationwide Mutual Insurance for using company e-mail to explore opportunities with a competitor.

Fraser sued, claiming that Nationwide violated his privacy by rooting through his inbox.

He lost, in a federal court ruling that anyone who works with e-mail should bear in mind, according to the Detroit News.

Judge Anita Brody of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ruled that employees working on company computers - even from home - are fair game for electronic monitoring.

Though laws differ from state to state, employers have the right to monitor e-mail and Internet use without having to inform their employees.

Employers cross the legal line only if they have created a clear expectation of privacy - something that is rare and hard to prove, the News reports.

Firms of all kinds are increasingly concerned about what their employees are saying in company e-mail and where they're wandering on the Internet while on company time. It's driving many to pry into their workers' electronic messages and even monitor their Internet surfing, via software capable of scanning for inappropriate words and phrases.

Already, about 45 percent of American companies now monitor their employees' electronic communications, including e-mail and Internet use, according to the American Management Association.

The Detroit News further reports that 55 percent of firms surveyed use some sort of blocking software to prevent unauthorized use of communications equipment, with 29 percent preventing access to what they consider to be inappropriate Internet sites.

Businesses say the need to monitor e-mail and other electronic communications stems from the technological and legal realities of the new wired workplace, according to the News.

"Inappropriate use of e-mail and the Internet is a serious problem,'' said Boston attorney Mark Schreiber, who helps companies draft e-mail and Internet use policies. "Companies are struggling hard to deal with it.''

According to the Labor Department, personal e-mail and recreational Web surfing are costing companies an estimated $3 million a year per 1,000 employees in lost productivity.

In a study released last year by Internet job consultants, 90 percent of workers surveyed admitted to surfing Web sites unrelated to their job, while 54 percent of employers said they've caught workers doing it. Only 10 percent of workers said they don't receive personal e- mail during the workday.

And then there are hostile workplace lawsuits filed in connection with inappropriate e-mail. Energy giant Chevron paid a $2.2 million settlement in 1999 to employees who claimed that unmonitored, sexually harassing e-mails created a threatening environment.

Some 60 percent of workers surveyed nationwide said they had received sexually explicit or otherwise inappropriate e-mail at work while 14 percent admitted to sending such messages.

In light of all this, employers have come to learn that establishing an explicit e-mail and Internet use policy and enforcing it with a monitoring system can go a long way in convincing judges they have taken good-faith steps to guard against harassment while also providing documentation in the event an employee needs to be fired.

To view the Detroit News article, click here.

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