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E-mail ethics: 'You've got pink slip'

By Paul Van SlambrouckStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 25, 2000


The lesson is getting ever clearer for working Americans: E-mail at your own risk.

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This week, some 40 Dow Chemical employees near Houston learned the hard way about the high-tech hazards of the 21st-century workplace, after the company announced plans to fire them for violating its e-mail policy.

Fair or not (a union official has protested the Dow firings), the incident points to an emerging conflict between workers and employers over how to monitor the use of online technologies at work. In the years ahead, many experts say, firings and disciplinary actions are likely to escalate as employee use of e-mail and the Internet rises - a development likely to produce unprecedented workplace friction.

"We're all struggling to adjust to the new norms of the workplace," says Jeremy Lipschultz, author of "Free Expression in the Age of the Internet."

Whether it's sexual harassment, hate mail, or just goofing off, these new technologies can make it easier for workers to commit misdeeds - and to amplify their effect. At the same time, technology enables employers to monitor workplace activity and be more aware of the violations.

Employer anxiety about the effects of technology in the workplace is already evident. Growth of electronic monitoring has been "explosive" over the past two years, according to a recent American Management Association survey. Nearly three-quarters of US firms now record and review employees' communications.

What's more, they're finding behavior they don't like. Nearly half the firms in the AMA survey have disciplined or fired workers for inappropriate use of telecommunications equipment. And more employees are dismissed on the basis of e-mail and Internet use than on violations involving the telephone - a sign of growing problems with newer technology. Dow, for instance, said the to-be-fired employees used company e-mail to circulate violent or sexually explicit material.

In turn, the increased monitoring of workers has kicked up concerns about privacy rights in the workplace.

"I have concerns about this Orwellian environment we're creating in the workplace," says Mr. Lipschultz.

The right to monitor e-mail

But employers' right to monitor employees has been pretty clearly established by the courts. "Private-sector employers are free to monitor employees, whether or not they've told employees they are doing so," says Kim Dayton, a law professor at the University of Kansas. "This is an issue of ethics, not really one of legality."

Says David Sobel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington: "We don't think there should be monitoring. But employers have been given wide latitude to do this, so realistically, we're pushing the need for advance notice."

Congress is considering legislation requiring employers to notify employees of what information they intend to monitor. If employers overstep their policy, employees would have the right to sue the company for up to $20,000 per incident.

The technology industry itself sees a growing market for surveillance software and is rapidly devising new products. Software offered by Surfcontrol, for instance, monitors Web surfing and limits employees' ability to do that to certain days and hours of the week. Others monitor e-mail.