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Article by Mohan Babu


E-mails: Use and misuse

For most of us, e-mails have almost replaced office memos, newsletters and other form of routine paper communications, however with the convenience comes an element of risk. MOHAN BABU focuses on corporate risks associated with the use of e-mails

If there was one technology that has really changed the way we do business in the digital age, it is e-mail. It is hard to believe that a technology that came into public domain a little over a decade ago could so completely overwhelm us. E-mail that is ubiquitous and convenient has made global communication really effortless. However, as the recent Wall Street Journal article, “In Andersen case, single e-mail lead to guilty verdict, jurors say,” proves e-mail is turning out to be a double-edged sword. In the story, the writers went on to say, “After doing business for 89 years and being indicted for destroying tons of documents, Arthur Andersen LLP’s death sentence may have been sealed by a single e-mail”. This story brings home the importance of corporate risks associated with the use of e-mails.

In the Andersen case, the jury, after debating over all the possibilities and poring over thousands of pages of documents, apparently centered on the e-mail sent by Nancy Temple, an in-house corporate lawyer based at the firm’s headquarters. To jurors, the e-mail showed that Temple tried to persuade senior partners of Anderson involved in the Enron case to make sure that they “protect ourselves”. That was the key to the case. Similarly, there have been a number of high-profile cases, including the investigation of Microsoft by the department of justice, where (supposedly) innocuous e-mails sent by members of the management team came back to bite them.

For most of us, e-mails have almost replaced office memos, newsletters and other form of routine paper communications. In many cases, it is even more convenient to send an e-mail to an individual or group than to call them individually. Chat and instant-messages are a natural extension of this concept. Back in the days when office memos were the standard, memos were generally well-drafted, proofread and created with corporate safeguards in mind. The advent of e-mails has made communication very convenient. However, with the convenience comes an element of risk. People using e-mails tend to forget that they are also a form of official documentation. Also, with the available technology, an e-mail that may seem to be “deleted” may be traceable and could be used as an evidence of a wrongdoing.

Most large companies in the West have an explicit e-mail usage policy documented along with the system usage policy. As the industry matures, and the usage of e-mail permeates to all the different functional areas of business, it is becoming clear that the consequences of exchanges that employees make over the Internet using corporate systems puts both the individuals and corporations at risk.

To most of us, e-mail has become second nature and we do not think twice before drafting a “private” mail with our thoughts and feelings clearly expressed. The fact remains, just as expressing “private” thoughts in a corporate meeting could get one fired, expressing the same “private” thoughts using company e-mail can also get one fired. News of, “Another six employees have lost their jobs for alleged “misuse” of e-mail as XYZ confirmed Tuesday it has dismissed six people from its New York office,” hardly raises eyebrows anymore. Even so, people succumb to the temptation to misuse corporate IT systems, get caught doing so, and are fired at an alarming rate.

What are the corporate risks associated with e-mails? There are many, and are well documented in most books and white papers on security. Some of the key risks include:n Public relations nightmare: Misuse of company email by an employee to send out sensitive information can translate to a PR nightmare for the company.

  • Confidentiality and secrecy: Corporate information can easily be passed out via e-mails. In an age where intellectual property is highly valued, such a leak can be prohibitively expensive.
  • Legal issues: There are scores of legal issues including copyright, intellectual property issues, contractual obligations, etc, that can arise from the use of a corporate e-mail. For instance, an e-mail sent using a company’s e-mail account could be construed to be a legally binding document, leading to cases where the company could be obligated to enter into a contract unwittingly.
  • Expensive network usage: Non-business related e-mails are increasing at an alarming rate. Such e-mails (with attachments, etc,) could clog the corporate network, leading to unnecessary bottlenecks.
  • Security and virus hazards: Distributing or receiving malicious software (including, Trojan horses, viruses and worms).
  • Employee relations’ nightmares: Sending of e-mail messages containing material that may be construed as being racially or sexually offensive could land the company in legal hot-water.

It is becoming increasingly clear that senior executives and management of companies need to ensure that a clear e-mail usage policy is designed and disseminated to all employees. The management also needs to ensure that the policies are followed to the tee. At the end of the day, management is responsible for the actions of its employees, including the use (or misuse) of e-mails.




About the Author

  • A Bio and profile of the author, Mohan Babu, can be found at his homepage
  • Mohan has authored a book on Offshoring and Outsourcing (Publisher McGraw Hill, India), a link to which can be found here
  • Mohan has also authored an Online book on "Life in the US," available for free download.
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    ©Mohan Babu: All Rights Reserved 2005

    Mohan Babu is an international consultant trying to find the ‘sweet spot’ where IT meets business. E-mail: mohan He is also the author of a recent book on "Offshoring IT Services"

    All rights are reserved. Mohan Babu ("Author") hereby grants permission to use, copy and distribute this document for any NON-PROFIT purpose, provided that the article is used in its complete, UNMODIFIED form including both the above Copyright notice and this permission notice. Reproducing this article by any means, including (but not limited to) printing, copying existing prints, or publishing by electronic or other means, implies full agreement to the above non-profit-use clause. Exceptions to the above, such as including the article in a compendium to be sold for profit, are permitted only by EXPLICIT PRIOR WRITTEN CONSENT of Mohan Babu. 

    Disclaimer: This document represents the personal opinions of the Author, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of the Author's employer, nor anyone other than the Author. This Article was originally published in Express Computers


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