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Careful with Those Joke E-Mails - They Could Get You the Sack

December 9, 2000

Everyone sends funny e-mails at work, but HOWARD DAVIS finds out how they could end up getting you fired

Last week six Cable and Wireless employees were sacked and two more resigned - all because they sent smutty e-mails at work.

Anybody who has ever worked in an office has done it. Forwarded a funny e-mail - be it a frog in a blender or a list of the ten stupidest FBI cases - to like-minded people. But in this instance one e-mail went astray, landing in the in-box of somebody who did not find it so funny. As always happens with the morally righteous, they complained.

And eight people lost their jobs.

Seems a bit much, really. But, from October 24 the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) bill became law, giving employers carte blanche to monitor business e-mails and phone calls. This is contrary to guidelines already published by the government.

As usual, New Labour's commendable intentions are compromised by the needs of big business.

On October 10 the Data Protection Commissioner, Elizabeth France, issued a code of conduct detailing strict guidelines as to where and when a company would be justified in snooping on its workers.

However, in the very same week the e-commerce minister, Patricia Hewitt, said that firms should be allowed "routine access" to staff's e-mails, a totally contradictory stance.

James Davies, head of the Employment Lawyers' Association privacy and e-mail working group has described the current situation as "extremely confusing for employees and employers alike."

Nevertheless, there has been a string of sackings over mis-use of company e-mail systems. Human Rights groups and Trade Unions are now becoming concerned with the Big Brother tactics of some employees.

The TUC's worry is that "at the moment the regulations encourage employers to think blanket monitoring of all e-mails is allowed without thinking how that will affect the workforce" and the RIP bill not only contradicts Elizabeth France's, but also Article 8 of the Human Rights Act.

Yet, for all the protestations about privacy and the need for trust, the fact of the matter is that e-mails sent on company time are the company's property. It might gall you to think that your boss can read your e-mails, but an employer does not pay staff to forward e-mails all day, nor to send anything that could be construed as offensive.

It is just the same as skiving off, wandering down to the other end of the office for a ten-minute chat. It's just that the exact manner in which you skive is recorded electronically.

So getting censured for what you send may be annoying and embarrassing. But it is also, I think, rather stupid. You're at work, for God's sake. What do you expect? Yes, everybody's doing it, but somebody's going to get caught for it. Make sure it isn't you.

If you do get sent a comedy e-mail, the best course of action is to print it out and then delete it. Forwarding e-mails makes you complicit. In America more than 40 per cent of companies regularly monitor staff e-mails, and where America leads, we follow.

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