The Age
Saving private e-mail


Saturday 4 March 2000

It is called Why beer is better than women. If you've got e-mail, you have probably read it yourself. For several workers at the Chevron Corporation in the United States, it was so funny they had to pass it on, the recipients' list growing longer and longer. But many staff felt the list of answers was offensive, and when some complained, it became the world's most expensive e-mail - Chevron paid $2.2 million in an out-of-court settlement.

E-mail is one of the most modern ways to communicate in the workplace - and one of the most dangerous. Senders and recipients, including Australians, are finding that even a simple message creates risks that could cost them their jobs, and their employer a hefty payout.

Yesterday six employees of a Centrelink call centre in Adelaide met lawyers after they were sacked because they either sent e-mails considered pornographic or used e-mail excessively.

At a Victorian call centre, a new employee was sacked after he sent clients a graphic showing two animals mating.

The sackings have exposed the problems of using private e-mail in the workplace in a country that has virtually no privacy laws covering employees.

There is no form of communication quite like the e-mail: rapid, almost instant, a message can be sent to hundreds of people at once with the click of a computer mouse.

A message can also be watched, traced and opened, even years later, without the permission or knowledge of the sender. And it's legal.

Australia's Privacy Commissioner, Malcolm Crompton, says an e-mail is about as private as a postcard. "We need to be careful," he warns.

He says that because the employer owns and controls the technology that workers use, and there is no common law right to privacy in Australia, employees have no legal right to e-mail privacy.

Crompton and others point out that e-mail is also easy to detect - even when a user believes they have deleted messages or that a message can only be seen with a special password.

Supposedly "deleted" messages are retained by the computer and e-mail server, says Professor Ron McCallum, of the University of Sydney, the author of Employer Controls Over Private Life. Employers and individuals with computer skills can track down a message long after it is sent.

Centrelink management in Canberra began secretly investigating the six Adelaide employees after they noticed a recurring pattern of large e-mail files. Since the government agency's 23,000 staff were given access to e-mail a few years ago, management has routinely monitored ingoing and outgoing e-mail traffic.

When they opened the files, sexually explicit jokes and cartoons were among the items discovered. Senior managers flew to Adelaide and sacked the employees.

Employers are taking swift action for good reason. Crompton explains that e-mails could breach sexual, racial and disability discrimination laws, as well as copyright and trade practices legislation. Not to mention the potential lawsuits.

"Whether we like it or not, employers cannot ignore online harassment. Employers must indicate to their employees that they have to behave responsibly and with respect to other people when using e-mail," says the equal opportunity consultant with the Victorian Employers' Economic Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Jacqui Boughton.

She says the chamber receives about five reports each week from employers of e-mail misuse in the workplace. Many relate to sexual harassment. "It might be a case of somebody standing by someone else's monitor and they see a sexually explicit graphic, or an unwelcome message," she says.

"Blue" jokes are not the only thing to cause concern. Bosses realise that sensitive or confidential in-house information can be sent by e-mail within seconds to a corporate rival. Big Australian companies such as ANZ, Colonial and Telstra monitor their staff's Internet and e-mail use. In most cases what they are looking for are large files, which usually indicate a text or video file is attached to the message that may be unrelated to work. An ANZ spokesman said staff were told their e-mail was monitored "for security reasons and to ensure our assets are not being used for inappropriate purposes".

A Colonial spokesman says the company has sacked staff who breached company policy by transmitting inappropriate material. Telstra's spokeswoman says the telecommunications giant also has dismissed staff for the same reason. Other companies use word-screening programs, which identify e-mails containing certain offensive words or images. These messages are "quarantined" by the company's IT section and altered before being allowed through.

These programs, which can be tailored to demand, act as an automatic bar to some words and images (although if asterisks or hyphens are placed between the letters of a word, it is usually not picked up).

If someone tries to send such an e-mail, they receive another e-mail from the firm, which reads in part: "Please amend and resend or contact the IT department... to have the e-mail released from quarantine."

The law firm SlaterGordon, for example, has banned about half-a-dozen words from incoming and outgoing e-mail. The firm's chief information officer, John Nerurker, says the aim is "not to be a big brother. Once we explained to staff that we weren't interfering with their freedom of speech, they accepted it. The idea is to ensure a hospitable workplace for staff and clients."

Nerurker says the firm does not monitor the content of individual e-mail. "The sheer volume that passes through the gateway means we just wouldn't have the time."

Dean of business at RMIT, Professor Margaret Jackson, said employers were morally obliged to tell employees they were monitoring staff e-mail, but they were not legally compelled to. "You cannot say your privacy was breached because we don't have privacy laws. But employees should be advised about the correct use of e-mail in their workplace."

UNLIKE conventional post, e-mail encourages a relaxed approach to writing, Jackson says. Messages are tapped out quickly, often ignoring honorifics and other formal letter-writing conventions. Lacking the conventional layout of a business letter, the messenger is more inclined to be flippant, she says. "E-mail seems to have brought down people's personal inhibitions about how they communicate."

Colleagues can easily slip into vernacular and joke-telling, she says. And, unlike the telephone, communication is not limited to a one-to-one exchange in which the sensibilities of the listener can be taken into account. E-mail has an audience that is often unknown and virtually unlimited.

Malcolm Crompton explains: "Sending a message via e-mail is a very different circumstance from talking to someone in your backyard and having a yarn."

But the branch secretary of the Community and Public Sector Union, Mark Gepp, who is working with the sacked Centrelink employees, says rules governing the use of e-mail in the workplace are unclear. He says call centre workers have little social interaction with colleagues because they are tied to their telephone headsets and rely on communicating with each other through e-mail.

Gepp claims that at Adelaide's Centrelink call centre, workers' phone calls and e-mails were closely monitored. "It creates a battery hen environment."

E-mail is the most practical means for staff to communicate and maintain morale, and employers need to set clear rules about what is acceptable, he says. "The standards are so loose and vague that people don't know where they stand."

Centrelink says it made staff aware of its policy on e-mail communication through an in-house Internet service, orientation programs and group meetings.

In his role as commissioner, Crompton is developing e-mail and Web-browsing guidelines to help employers unravel the "proper" use of e-mail in the workplace.

He says national privacy principles are a good reference point when trying to understand employers' obligations to employees. "The most important thing about those workplace e-mail guidelines is that the employer should be straight up with their employees."

The principles are designed to guide people whenever they collect, store, use or disclose personal information.

He urges employers to be positive about employees' personal use of e-mail. "If they know they can use the e-mail system to message home and organise babysitters, or check on problems, they are likely to feel more human in their work, which is good for staff morale and productivity. We need a commonsense approach."

Original article