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HR Doctor
Establish E-mail Policies to Prevent Abuse

Dear HR Doctor:

E-mail and use of the Internet are relatively new tools in my county. There have already been some improper e-mail messages involving personal business or religious opinions expressed.

What should the county government do to put reasonable e-mail controls in place?



Dear "Wired:"

You are right that e-mails are part of our lives personally and in our public administration roles. They are so powerful a tool for government communications that reasonable policies should be established to limit the possibility that they will be abused. The HR Doctor suggests these basic policy elements so that every employee can be made aware of what is expected by the organization and so that the county and individual liability from the misuse of e-mail can be minimized:

1. Clearly state that computer hardware and software purchased, leased or rented by the county are the property of the county and are to be used only for business purposes.

State whether the equipment is assigned to one employee or a group of employees, identify the equipment by type, and specify that the use of the hardware and software for personal business or non-governmental purposes is prohibited.

And state that violations subject a person to disciplinary action, including possible termination.

2. Include in the policy clear notice to employees not to expect privacy in the use of county e-mail and computer systems. As an employer, the county reserves the right to review e-mail transmissions and to inspect the contents of its computer property, such as disk drives, and to monitor systems. The county must ensure that the policy is being honored and disclose materials stored in the system for audit and review purposes.

3. Clearly point out that transmitting inappropriate messages by e-mail, fax or other electronic means is prohibited and that serious discipline, including possible termination, may result.

Such messages include those which involve racial, religious or gender epithets, as well as materials that are religious in nature, materials for the personal benefit of individuals and of course, obscene materials.

4. Depending on the public records laws in your state, it would be good to note in the policy that e-mail messages and other contents of a computer hard drive are public records and open to public inspection. E-mail users should be advised that the deletion of such materials from an e-mail file or hard drive may violate the state's public records law.

5. Suggest to your county's information technology director the possibility of implementing a "sign-on" screen, when the e-mail system is activated, with a message advising the user that the system is to be used for county business purposes only, and that personal correspondence or messages are not authorized.

6. Finally, the notice should also include the right of the county to access, audit or review messages entered into the system. That way, when signing on the user is acknowledging that he or she has read and understands the importance of the policy.

These basic elements of an e-mail policy should be amended to meet the needs of your county and relevant state law. The HR Doctor suggests that you share a draft of the policy with the county attorney and the information technology director for input on the draft prior to presenting it to the county administrator or elected officials.

Once a policy has been approved, the real work begins. Managers and supervisors need training about what the policy means and how it is to be implemented. A policy needs to be disseminated throughout the organization. Don't forget to include in your communication plan the use of e-mail distribution. Also, include the policy in the materials you give to new employees and the training you do for new supervisors. Once the policy is approved and disseminated, it is very important to ensure that it is applied consistently.

A critical function for any modern human resources staff is to help the organization apply its personnel policies consistently to make them more successful, and to reduce liability based on unlawful discrimination.

This is true not only of e-mail, but of all other HR policy areas. I hope this is helpful.

Best wishes,
The HR Doctor

(P.S.: Speaking of e-mail, the HR Doctor can be contacted directly at: <>.)

(The HR Doctor was written by Rosenberg, director of Human Resources, Broward County, Fla.)

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