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Email usage -- is there a need for hard rules?

With email an essential corporate and personal communication tool, these two needs not surprisingly, overlap on a regular basis. The result? Questions of privacy and responsibility crop up ...

Robert Tan may not be an avid PC user, but he is positively hooked on email. Ever since electronic mail became the norm a few years ago, Tan has virtually stopped writing letters the old-fashoned way and only uses the fax and makes phone calls only when he needs to.

"With the Internet, I find it so convenient to send emails to friends and colleagues," says Tan. "Even my company encourages this since it's easy to keep track of our correspondence especially when we're working on a project as a team. And it costs us practically nothing."

Tan is a database engineer with a local Internet applications development company is just a tiny dot in the sea of people in Malaysia who cannot live their personal and professional lives without email. It would not be wrong to say that email is one of the most useful inventions ever. And with more than 1.5 million active Internet users in the country, it's no surprise that email has become an indispensable communications tool. But while email is a must-have today, there are also concerns about the manner in which the power of email is being harnessed by certain quarters.

A few years ago, during the economic crisis, several users were hauled up by the authorities on charges of spreading rumors via email of an impending riot in Kuala Lumpur. And just recently, Jaring warned its Internet account users that they would be suspended if any of them were found distributing pornographic material via the ISP's email facilities. Private or public?

Burning issue
Clearly, these turn of events has brought one important issue to the forefront--the subject of the users' privacy versus the need to curb the abuse of email facilities. While users might assert that their email accounts are private communications tools, companies (read employers) argue that it's within their rights to screen emails filtering through its networks and email servers.

While most local companies believe they have the right to take a peek into their employees' corporate email accounts, none of these firms actually have a proper email usage policy written in the employment contract or company guidelines. Some companies say such guidelines are being worked out now while others concede such endeavours wouldn't be easy to enforce.

"It's generally accepted in our company that email facilities are strictly for business," says Tan. "However, it would be impossible for the management to stop employees from emailing a note or a joke to another colleague or friend in another company."

He adds that while companies may be able to filter emails travelling across the internal network, the end result of doing so may be more damaging than not doing it at all.

"Employees could feel that there's no sense of trust between the employers and themselves, and once this feeling sets in it's going to be difficult trying to maintain a conducive environment for open communications," explains Tan.

The need for guidelines
Although Tan has a point, some employers still maintain that there should be some form of email usage policy and a sense of responsibility among users. For instance, JL Kong, an MIS manager at an international freight company based in KLIA, argues that an internal email usage policy need not be too restrictive for it to work.

"The policy mustn't be shrouded in secrecy. As long as users are made aware of their rights and employers clearly define the limits of their power to vet emails, both parties should be able to work within these boundaries," Kong adds

Kong subscribes to the view that if there's nothing to hide, then employees should not worry about their emails being read by a third party. He says paranoia exists because users tend to believe that employers will hold it against them if the content of the email displeases the bosses.

"I admit it's difficult to draw the line when it comes to certain issues regarding what's public information and what's not," says Kong. "But users must also realize that they are using resources provided by the company and that what users deem to be public knowledge may not necessarily be so in some circumstances." Get feedback from staff

Serious consequences
Julia Yeoh, who used to work for an international advertising agency, agrees. She related an incident at her former company where an account executive shared his experience with a counterpart from a rival agency--via e-mail--about his dealings with a "difficult" client. That seemingly innocuous e-mail got the hapless account executive fired because word got around that his agency was contemplating terminating the deal with that so-called tough client.

"It was openly discussed among us in the office that our company might have to stop doing work for this client," adds Yeoh. "People in the industry also knew about this as well, so it was a surprise that the bosses took it so seriously and blamed the poor fellow for all this and fired him."

So, how can a company begin to work out a workable e-mail usage policy which is acceptable to all parties? Kong suggests some sort of feedback from employees is a solid way to begin.

He also says a company should clearly list out its main purpose of providing e-mail facilities to employees. Steer away from the "don'ts" of e-mail usage, he adds, because people tend to focus on the negative which then makes it difficult for them to understand the real objectives of having an e-mail usage policy in the first place.

Policy must be clearly outlined
Next, explain in simple, clear language that employees would be held responsable for the content of the e-mails they send out. Employers should also explain the process how e-mails would be vetted and also allow employees to be active partners in this exercise.

"For example, the CTO or email server administrator should advise employees when an e-mail audit is due," he says. "And if the content of a certain e-mail is questionable, an employee should be given the opportunity to explain his or her actions," Kong stresses.

Tan meanwhile says, there should be a group or a special ad-hoc committee within the company made up of both management and staff to oversee the development of an e-mail usage policy. This committee should review the policy on a regular basis to ensure that it is relevant and fair to all parties. But leeway needed

It's not all business you know
"It would be naive on the part of the employers to think that employees don't use e-mail for anything other than a business tool," Yeoh says. "So, some leeway should also be accorded in this respect. Of course, employees must also realize that it's unfair to clog up the network and the e-mail server with irrelevant stuff like jokes, spam and especially big image file attachments."

Kong admits that implementing an e-mail usage policy could entail a lot of resources but if companies are really concerned about what travels in and out via their e-mail servers, then they really don't have a choice.

"An e-mail audit itself would be a nightmare," he adds. "Imagine if hundreds of e-mails are exchanged on a daily basis, and the audit is done once every week. A company might have to hire new staff just to handle the audits."

Random checks simpler
Most companies however, would just conduct cursory random checks.The important thing is to ensure a proper corporate policy regarding e-mail exists which would be invaluable if there was ever a contention regarding the proper usage of corporate e-mail resources.

However e-mail users are bound to be aware by now that virtually no electronic communications are free from the prying eyes of anyone determined to take a peek into their mailboxes. So it would not be inaccurate to say that the majority of users use their e-mail privileges judiciously.

If you really have something private to share with a friend or colleague, then it would be wiser to make use of any Web-based e-mail like Yahoo! Mail or Hotmail. Otherwise, just do it the old-fashioned way--pick up the telephone!