Misuse of Email and Other Office Technology Can Lead to FiringMichelle V. Rafter
In Los Angeles last month, thirteen employees of UCLA Medical Center were nearly fired from their jobs after they were caught spying on computerized medical records of the pop star Britney Spears. The staff was in violation of the center’s workplace policies, as well as medical privacy laws. In the end, six people were suspended.
As this situation and others like it show, a simple click of a mouse or tap on the keyboard can lead to actions that could put your job in jeopardy. You may think of all this as innocuous stuff, but what your boss thinks is a whole different story.
As more business information is stored online and communications take place electronically, companies are forced to rewrite employee manuals to include do’s and don’ts for using email, the Internet and social media. But even when employers don’t have written policies, they’re within their legal rights to fire employees for tech-related offenses.
“You’re on shaky ground if you break the rules,” says Jim Cahill, chief blogger and communications manager at Emerson Process Management, a $4 billion industrial automation manufacturer in Austin, Texas.
According to a December 2007 survey of 304 U.S. companies conducted by ePolicy Institute and American Management Association, more companies are firing rule breakers. A quarter of employers in the survey had fired an employee for misusing email, and one third had fired workers for misusing the Internet.
Firings are up because more companies are monitoring employees’ use of computers and the Internet, says ePolicy Institute’s executive director Nancy Fuller, an author and consultant who works with companies on Internet and employee monitoring issues. “Employees need to know, Big Brother is reading over your electronic shoulder,” Fuller says.
Exactly what can get you fired? Here are some activities cited by companies in the ePolicy Institute/AMA report:
Email Offensive language; too much personal use; breaking confidentiality rules.
Internet Visiting pornographic, matchmaking, game, entertainment, shopping, auction, sports or other Web sites; too much personal use; breaking other company rules.
Other Misuse or personal use of office phones; loss or theft of electronic equipment.
Protecting Yourself at Work
So what can you do to protect yourself at work?
Use email carefully. When it comes to the written word, there’s still a double standard, which means employees can get into more trouble for what they write than what they say, according to Lewis Maltby, executive director for the National Workrights Institute, a Princeton, N.J. workers’ rights advocate.
Treat all forms of media equally. If a message or a joke is unacceptable in an email, it’ll be unacceptable in an IM, text message, blog post or on your Facebook page, Maltby says. Act accordingly.
When it comes to work, assume that nothing’s personal. Don’t think that you’re safe because you’re using a Web-based email account to check personal mail at work -- if they’ve got the right technology, companies can track it, ePolicy’s Fuller says. “Save your personal email for when you get home,” she says.
Be safe, not sorry. If you know your company has rules against doing something, don’t do it. Fifty-one percent of employees said they had copied confidential information to a USB memory stick even though 87 percent believed their company’s policy forbids it, according a December 2007 report by the Ponemon Institute, a privacy think tank. If you routinely travel with a company laptop, iPhone or memory stick, use encryption software to keep company information safe, security experts suggest.
Read the manual. Emerson regularly updates its employee manual to cover blogs and other new technology, and requires that employees read and sign the updates, says Cahill, the company’s communications manager. Ask your supervisor, IT department or HR team whether your company has a policy for proper use of computers and electronic communications. If there is one, read it. If classes are offered, sign up, Fuller and other sources suggest.
After reading the employee manual, make sure you then play by the rules.
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