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Ethical Communications


In the modern workplace employees have the ability to communicate in a manner that would be unrecognisable twenty years ago. From an era when the majority of work related communications were completed on company letterhead, the professional world has embraced the technology of faxes, pagers, mobile phones, video conferencing, email and instant messaging. With so many different outlets, ensuring that employee communications adhere to a company’s ethical standards can be a daunting task for an HR director.

By far the most ubiquitous medium for professional communication is email. According to the Office of National Statistics, employees spend an average two hours emailing a day, equating to 11 working weeks of the year for every email user. Perhaps unsurprisingly then the most commonly cited instance of employee ‘miscommunication’ is found in emails.

The press is full of examples of email malpractice. Earlier this year, Laurence Williamson, Labour Councillor for Harper Green in Bolton, was suspended for a month after sending an email threatening to stuff a highways chief “through the mincer”. Similarly, Liberal Democrat Councillor, Julian Heather, representing the Streatham Wells ward, was forced to make a humiliating public apology after writing – days before Holocaust Memorial Day – that “Goebbels would be proud” of a document he had drafted.

It is clear that many employees do not regard corporate email as having the same official status as a note written on company letterhead. However, following the precedent of the Hutton enquiry where much of the evidence was email-based, corporate email now holds equal legal standing with that of paper based communication.

With employers being held accountable for unethical email usage, many organisations are empowering HR departments to monitor and deal with email communications through collaboration with the IT department. But in the so-called ‘big brother’ society, monitoring of staff’s emails can mean that employers themselves can face disciplinary action. A new ruling in 2007 said that a Carmarthenshire College in west Wales had breached the privacy of one its employees by secretly monitoring her emails. The European Court of Human Rights ruled that the surveillance without her knowledge “amounted to an interference with her right to a private life”.

Twin Valley Homes, a non-profit organisation, is one example of a company whose HR department has successfully managed a technology solution within the stringent legislative requirements. Since March 2007, Twin Valley Homes has been using a tool called ‘MailMeter’ from the email management company, Waterford Technologies.

The MailMeter tool allows the HR department to monitor emails but also provides them with the ability to retrieve archived or deleted emails quickly if legally obligated.

Ian Elwers, Head of Central Services at Twin Valley Homes commented that the most important aspect of the monitoring is transparency and the company’s IT Usage Policy: “The HR department and the IT department work very closely together to ensure that a transparent ethical email policy is put in place. You need a clear, signed and understood code of usage and it is essential that employees are kept in the loop.”

Twin Valley Homes reviews its IT Usage Policy on a regular basis in consultation with staff representatives, taking new legislation and legal precedents into account. Staff are informed of any changes via the monthly staff newsletter.

Unless there is suspicion of criminal activity, organisations are forbidden by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) from looking at individuals’ emails specifically. Elwers said: “We don’t actually read our employees’ emails; we simply monitor the amount of email sent in and out. It’s a bit like keeping a record of phone calls, the only difference being that if legally required, we have the ability to open up the individual conversations. If we were to notice an undue amount of traffic to particular addresses, HR could then voice their concerns to the relevant employees privately, removing the risk of any public embarrassment which can easily create a negative attitude in offices.”

The very fact that employees are informed that their emails are being monitored can have an effect on inappropriate communications. Since the implementation of the technology, though Elwers points out that that non-work related emails are not banned by company policy, there has been an estimated 50 per cent reduction in their traffic.

Malcolm Etchells, general manager, Europe, Waterford Technologies, concluded: “If HR departments have acceptable usage policies in place, they must monitor emails otherwise they are not upholding their duty of care in protecting employees from malicious emails, whether internal or external. The technology exists which can empower the HR department to legally protect their employees without intrusion into their privacy.”

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