The message poking fun at a coworker’s haircut or speculating about an office romance looks fleeting enough. It pops up on the computer screen, and with a tap on the keyboard is gone.
Because computers can retain e-mail records for years, those jokes, snide remarks or harassing comments are anything but fleeting.
“People don’t realize how permanent e-mail is,” said Spokane attorney Jeffry Finer. “One of its problems is how extraordinarily honest people are in e-mail.
“It’s like people picking their nose in their cars. They think it’s totally private, but it isn’t.”
Many people treat electronic mail like a telephone call, short and private.
To others, it’s like regular mail, only in computers instead of envelopes.
With widespread use of electronic mail so new, the ownership and privacy of the messages are being hotly debated.
Lawyers now seek copies of company e-mail for use in civil lawsuits.
In a recent Spokane case, a former computer services technician is suing the company that fired her last year, claiming e-mail records show a pattern of sexual harassment from another worker.
Inland Northwest companies are struggling to define what they expect from employees who use corporate e-mail systems:
Is the boss liable if a worker’s misuse of e-mail leads to a lawsuit?
Do company managers have the right to look in employee computer files?
“It’s so new a format that no one’s developed good guidelines on all these changing areas,” said Jeff Lane, assistant attorney general in Washington state.
Computer firms and technology companies have been using e-mail for years. At Microsoft Corp., the world’s largest software firm, employees handle 200 million e-mail messages each month.
State and federal governments are using it to reduce waste and improve record-keeping. Washington’s Department of Corrections workers send 17,000 e-mail messages a day.
As a general rule, companies say, workers shouldn’t assume their e-mail won’t get checked.
Still, many workers use company computers for personal reasons, and most act like no one keeps track.
“We probably have the right to look, but we don’t look now,” said Tom Legel of Kootenai Medical Center in Coeur d’Alene. The hospital has about 125 workers linked by e-mail.
“But maybe we haven’t had to look yet because we’re in our infancy with this thing,” said Legel, the hospital’s information services vice president.
At Battelle Pacific Northwest Laboratory in the Tri-Cities, more than 4,000 workers use e-mail.
Managers have found workers selling Avon products, distributing chain letters and exchanging gossip through e-mail.
Supervisors there also see “about three episodes a year” of a Battelle employee harassing a former or would-be lover through e-mail, said Battelle Northwest’s information systems director Walt Discenza.
“The truth is: We know lots of people don’t follow that policy” of not using computers for personal e-mail.
Because much of its equipment was bought with federal money, Battelle has a random monitoring program in which supervisors review employees’ computer use. A supervisor can ask a worker to show the contents of any e-mail message that seems questionable, Discenza said.
Most e-mail offenses, he said, are innocent: exchanging cookie recipes or writing short notes to relatives on the other side of the country.
“That sort of thing is no different than water-cooler chat,” said attorney Finer. “I do it and so do a lot of people I know. It’s a kind of gossip - who’s getting a raise, the reason a colleague gave for arriving at work late or talk about someone’s weight and hairstyle.”
He and his partner, Robyn Pugsley, have every reason to think their firm’s workers do the same. But they won’t follow the advice of trade groups and others who suggest writing a list of e-mail rules.
The Electronic Messaging Association of Arlington, Va., advises companies to create careful policies to avoid lawsuits over e-mail misuse.
A law firm might be sued by a client because a paralegal sent e-mail that found its way into the hands of an opposing client’s attorney, said association spokeswoman Alison Graham.
The law firm could avoid liability if it told workers in explicit terms that such e-mail use is not allowed.
Some companies, however, are finding a stiff e-mail policy can be too restrictive.
Discenza said Battelle has redefined acceptable use, so workers now can send e-mail that deals with “the normal part of what goes on in the workplace.” Comments about a coworker’s medical condition, the birth of an employee’s child or requests to turn in United Way donations are allowed. Battelle workers have to zap them immediately so they don’t pile up in computer storage.
E-mail kept from nearly five years ago is a key part of a recent harassment lawsuit filed by Cheryl Degerness against Associated Industries of the Inland Northwest.
Degerness said company President Michael J. Murphy knew that a coworker had sent her e-mail messages suggesting a sexual relationship.
Degerness, who was the firm’s computer network coordinator, said she has copies of the messages.
The other worker has denied the allegations. Murphy said attorneys for Associated Industries are preparing a reply, and he would not comment on the lawsuit.
Jokes or not, e-mail messages leave workers open to consequences they might not expect, said Gonzaga University law professor David DeWolf.
“Some dumb ideas we may have written down (in e-mail) now don’t evaporate as easily as they would if we said them on the phone,” said DeWolf.
DeWolf, a frequent user of e-mail, said companies need to find a middle ground that provides the company protection from worker misuse but also gives employees some measure of privacy.
He suggested companies adopt a policy saying something like: “We won’t look at your e-mail if it’s kept in an area that is marked confidential.”
That’s consistent with typical company policies of respecting an employee’s private work space, he said.
“It’s like saying, `You have your desk with papers or staplers on it. If we need the stapler, we’ll go to your desk and look for it. Beyond that, anything else among your papers and such, we won’t touch,”’ DeWolf said.
Added Marc Rotenberg, director of the non-profit Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, “E-mail should be treated as private because people use it as if it’s private.”
The U.S. Supreme Court, he said, didn’t extend privacy to personal telephone calls until 1967. “Over time, that’s how it should be with e-mail. But we’re not there yet.”
Staff writer Tom Sowa can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
xxxx What is E-mail? How electronic mail works: Messages on computers are sent to others, either inside a building or across the world. The most common method is via telephone lines. Advantages: Reduces paper work, provides copies easily saved, and lets user forward messages to dozens of other recipients. Encryption systems let messages remain private, but only where companies allow for such protection. Disadvantages: Creates easy way of sending junk messages to multiple recipients. Never fully private; even with encryption, hackers have found ways to pry into others’ mail files. E-mail can remain on computers for years. Even when zapped, e-mail can be restored and read again later.