One of the great challenges for employees in the early 20th century is the proper use of e-mail communication at work. E-mail is a key communication tool for businesses at every level. Employees and managers can gather information and contact other employees and colleagues on an instant and global level. Even as dynamic and helpful as e-mail communication can be, e-mail use can present serious ethical dilemmas.
Few employees and their managers, especially in small and mid-sized businesses, have thought through the proper and most ethical use of e-mail. E-mail presents new communication issues to a company or organization—and some profound ethical dilemmas that we only are beginning to comprehend.
There are four key ethical no-nos in the use of e-mail at work.
• Use of e-mail to avoid necessary personal contact. Introverts are eager to talk to the computer screen and present information, ideas, emotions, and choices by e-mail. They press “send” and go on to something else. HR consultant and speaker Joan Lloyd says that, while managers and workers may rationalize that e-mail makes them more productive to communicate 24/7, their team suffers. “There is an enormous value when the team can discuss issues and explore ideas together,” she notes.
• Use of e-mail to communicate confidential information. One manager e-mailed a manager-friend outside the company about looking for another job inside or outside the company, and how dissatisfied she was in her current position. She also described her exact salary, benefit package, and job description. Only, she somehow hit the “reply to all” list so that more than 100 people knew about her finances and her job. The same thing can happen with the communication of sales figures, orders, financial conditions, and personnel issues.
• Use of e-mail to communicate critical, hostile, or libelous information. Some people demonstrate sarcastic, rude, and nasty attitudes in e-mail—or just react negatively to something with which they disagree. Many of us have witnessed how these exchanges can escalate into tirades that can damage people and threaten businesses.
• Use of workplace e-mail systems for personal activity. One of the worst problems is the use of business e-mail systems to communicate with family and friends, conduct personal business, or, worst, to use e-mail for criminal or immoral behavior. The British data firm Cryoserver surveyed English employees from various industries about non-work email habits. The results: more than half of employees use work e-mail for a number of things besides work. No doubt the same thing is true in American workplaces at every level from frontline employee to executive.
The writers at Productivity Portfolio at the web site Timeatlas.com observe, “Some employees use the corporate account because of the faster speed. Others use their business account because they don’t know how to access their personal one remotely. And some people have never bothered to get a personal account since they don’t have a computer at home.” It’s as if e-mail is a public utility, like the telephone.
Misuse of e-mail also can be distracting. Productivity Portfolio says, “Email is a big distraction because of the frequency. No sooner have you finished reading one email, several more have arrived and you feel compelled to see who the message is from and the subject.”
There are three ethical guidelines and some clearly stated policies on e-mail that companies need to develop.
• E-mail is for work tasks. The corporate e-mail system is in place to transact business. That point must be stressed because, contrary to personal perspectives, e-mail isn’t a system of recreation. A clear policy needs to state that standard up front.
• E-mail is for business development and analysis. Good business practices will define when e-mail communication works best and when face-to-face meetings are the norm. Ethically, it’s wrong to communicate negative information or stoke the fires of conflict. As Joan Lloyd notes, “E-mail can be printed and saved. When I’m working with a client to repair a damaged relationship at work, both parties will often haul out their ‘documentation’ to prove how the other party has wronged them.” Ethically, conflict and criticism are to be resolved personally.
• Corporate e-mail must be different than personal e-mail. To the extent that a company will develop a policy on employee e-mail and Internet use, at the minimum, employees need to take personal matters to an online mailbox like Hotmail or Yahoo. Business is business, and personal communication must be handled within limits during the workday. IBI