Information rage Featured

9:50am EDT July 22, 2002

Two years ago, Classic Auto Campus integrated Internet and e-mail into its massive Mentor car dealership with a stringent policy regarding employee abuse of the new technology. But despite the hard line stance, the company has, at times, been forced to flex its disciplinary muscles.

“People do things — maybe it’s the exuberance of youth — and they find out quickly the consequences,” says Robert Phillips, Classic Auto Campus’ personnel director. Although inappropriate jokes circulated through e-mail messages seem innocent, they can be the seeds of sexual harassment or hostile work environment lawsuits. Phillips says the company’s systems analyst pointed out the dangers, and the company instituted a strict policy.

Classic Auto Campus requires managers to make sure new employees know they can be fired if they send inappropriate e-mail messages or abuse the Internet, and the company has specific guidelines on reporting problems and the investigation of those claims. Then there are the disciplinary actions, which can range from a warning to termination.

“We try to act in a judicious manner,” says Phillips. “You don’t want to kill a fly with a sledgehammer.”

Attorney Lisa Kainec, of Millisor & Nobil Co., L.P.A., says a lot of companies do not have a plan to deal with improper use of e-mail or the Internet. Business owners who ignore the issue are often the ones writing checks for large sums to former employees who sue, especially if they knew there was a problem and turned a blind eye.

The Ohio Supreme Court has ruled there is no cap on punitive damages former employees can seek in a discrimination or harassment lawsuit. Worse, managers and business owners can be singled out in the suit, which can jeopardize their individual finances.

“That means their house, their boat, their retirement plan is potentially at risk,” says Kainec. “In Ohio, the stakes are a lot higher for any kind of employment claim.”

There are five simple steps business owners can follow, Kainec says, to help protect their companies from lawsuits tied to employee misuse of new workplace technology.

Put a policy in writing

The first step is making employees aware there are consequences for misuse of the company’s e-mail system or the Internet. It is a good idea to get the employees to sign off on the fact that the policy and the company’s disciplinary measures are understood.

“You want to get it right there in writing that there are clear guidelines,” says Kainec. “The best way to do this is have an employee handbook and put it in there. When new employees come in, they sign an acknowledgement of the handbook.”

Monitor your work force

Supervisors and managers should engage in some sort of employee monitoring to determine whether there is misuse of e-mail and the Internet. That can consist of routinely walking the floor of your business while employees are working or buying computer software that takes a snapshot of each computer screen at regular intervals, allowing employers to see what employees are doing.

Neither is a watertight method, Kainec says, but they will likely catch some offenders.

Create a reporting procedure

Employees should have a clearly defined procedure to follow if they receive inappropriate e-mail messages from a fellow worker. Companies many times create an open-door policy, in which employees can directly report problems to an owner or manager on a confidential basis.

“There needs to be a reporting mechanism in place, so if something inappropriate is going on, a report can be made and steps can be taken to make sure it is removed from the system,” says Kainec.

Enforce disciplinary measures

No matter how strict your policy may be, it’s worthless unless you set up appropriate discipline for when an employee violates the rules. It’s important to launch an investigation immediately when an employee reports trouble, then follow through with discipline.

“It’s difficult,” says Kainec. “These are your friends, these are your co-workers, and you don’t want to step on anybody’s toes. But you have to realize the risk associated with this stuff being out there.”

Set guidelines for expunging all back-up files

If you create guidelines for destroying stored information, follow them. If you have yet to draft one, create a policy now. You don’t want any surprises found in information that dates back several years. The farther your stored files go back, the more risk is involved.

One vital point in creating a system for expunging records is to follow it consistently.

“If you don’t have a policy to destroy stored information every two years or five years, for example, you could be looking at a boatload of stored e-mail messages,” says Kainec. “There have been cases turning up in the state and federal courts where there have been the smoking gun type e-mails.”

How to reach: Lisa Kainec, Millisor &Nobil, Co., L.P.A. (440) 838-8800

Jim Vickers (jvickers@sbnnet.com) is an associate editor at SBN