SAN FRANCISCO — The lesson is getting ever clearer for working Americans: E-mail at your own risk.
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.
"Cyberslacking is a huge concern right now with companies," says Jay Whitehead, chief executive officer of EmployeeService.com, which advises clients on appropriate personnel policies in the Internet age. While Mr. Whitehead recommends notification and monitoring, he counsels employees to understand the difference between privacy and confidentiality. Employees have few privacy guarantees, but they do have the right to expect certain things to remain confidential, such as medical records and other personal information.
While employers' right to monitor the workplace is virtually unchallenged, experts say the picture is much less clear when it comes to employees who telecommute - that is, work at least part of the time from their homes. Privacy of the household is firmly entrenched, and it's unclear what rights employers will have, if any, over e-mail and Internet use from home but on company time. "That's where we're on completely new ground," says Steve Jones, professor of communications at the University of Illinois in Chicago.
New technology has roiled the workplace for generations.
When telephones became a ubiquitous instrument on virtually every desk in the 1950s and '60s, many companies circulated phone bills and asked employees to circle and pay for personal calls. Some still do. Companies also have had the right to record or monitor phone use from workplace premises.
But computers, by being a silent means of communication as well as one with the power to reach an unlimited audience, have taken the workplace into a new realm.
The problem, say experts, is that e-mail and Web access have invaded and changed communications far faster than employees have come to understand these tools' inherent risks.
E-mail, for instance, exists somewhere between the typed memo and water-cooler chat. "It's more informal, almost a stream-of-consciousness type of communication," says Mark Dichter, a labor and employer lawyer in Philadelphia.
Perils of e-messaging
E-mail lends itself to the quick response, and all the risks that entails. Unlike a verbal outburst, e-mail becomes part of the company's property and is usually stored for weeks or months in the company's database. Its range can also create problems. The working world is now full of stories of employees inadvertently sending off-color jokes or offensive material to the entire workforce instead of to the trusted friend for whom it was intended.
Luminaries such as Lt. Col. Oliver North of the Iran-contra scandal and more recently Microsoft chairman Bill Gates have themselves paid the price of e-mail made public.
Yet even as employees learn to use e-mail, surf the Web, and use computers in accordance with law and corporate policies, employers too are learning more about the workforce. "It's fair to say," adds the University of Illinois's Mr. Jones, "that employers today know more about employees than ever before."
That could have a corrosive effect, some say, on employer-employee relations. One way to lessen resentment of monitoring, say some experts, is to tell employees up front that it is going on. The AMA, for example, recommends that employers state their policies on use of e-mail and the Internet and, if they monitor employees, to communicate that.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society