Gossip, no longer restricted to the coffee machine in the hallway, could land companies in court according to Robin Bynoe, a partner at Charles Russell Solicitors, who believes British companies need to adopt the same level of caution with electronic communication as their American counterparts.
Citing the recent case where £450,000 was awarded to Western Provident after a court ruled that internal mail at Norwich Union contained 'false and defamatory allegations' against its competitor, Bynoe warns that the libel laws in the UK 'are much harsher than in America'. He adds: "Email is a publication and there are very real risks. In the US it's not unusual for an organisation to issue a contract with, say 10 pages dedicated to warning employees about the potential dangers of using email."
Although the Internet and its associated fledgling technologies remain a curiosity for some, British companies need to ensure they understand the law, even the grey bits. "Of course the law isn't as clear as it could be but I believe we will see an increase in the number of cases dealing with this sort of issue," says Bynoe.
Employers may be legally responsible for the communications their employees make, as the Norwich Union case illustrated. To avoid potential legal action Bynoe advises employers to:
Issue rules making clear what constitutes unacceptable behaviour made clear in employment contracts or staff handbooks.
Treat emails circumspectly, keep copies and lay down rules and penalties for misuse.
Set up systems that track email traffic.
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