Protect Yourself From Skeletons Lurking in Your Email

It always takes a few big lawsuits before corporate America gets it. (Think discrimination, sexual harassment, second-hand smoke.

It always takes a few big lawsuits before corporate America gets it. (Think discrimination, sexual harassment, second-hand smoke.) Don't let your company become the blemished poster child for the next big workplace issue. Take a clue from the 'smoking memos' that Microsoft execs are sweating out in Judge Jackson's courtroom.

Without an effective email policy, damaging email in your digital archives could come back to haunt you. Yet many workplaces have woefully inadequate email policies:

Approximately 40% of large organizations still don't have a written policy or at least one that is adequate, according to Los Angeles attorney Michael Overly, who deals in IT issues.

Only 20% of some 1,000 organizations surveyed by the American Management Association International are involved in email store-and-review practices.

WHAT COMPANIES SHOULD DO

Here are steps you can take now to ensure you don't have skeletons lurking in your email closet:

Create a company-wide policy on the appropriate use and handling of email messages.

Make sure the policy clearly states which email messages should be kept, which should be thrown out.

Conduct training and awareness seminars at frequent intervals to ensure employees know and follow the email rules.

WHAT INDIVIDUALS SHOULD DO

There are dangers for individuals as well as companies. What you put in an email message could negatively impact your career. So keep in mind:

People other than your intended recipient might read your message -- or snoop through your email inbox. If you use company equipment, don't assume what's on it is private.

The power of the printed word. You can joke with a colleague that you'd like to wring so-and-so's neck. Put the same thing in email and it could take on a life of its own. (Just ask Monica Lewinsky about seeing her email published in Newsweek.)

Someone who is a friend and ally today could be enemy or competitor next month. Protect yourself from the litigious world we live in.