Did you get the e-mail purporting to be an electronic draft of Jamie Oliver's new book The Naked Chef 2? It was doing the rounds a while back, and contained the pages of what was supposed to be Oliver's latest publication, sent out ahead of time by someone at the publishing house who wanted to give his mate a sneak preview.
A call to the publisher later revealed the e-mail to be a spoof and the fictitious book simply a collection of Oliver's recipes put together by some cyber prankster. But according to Justin Ellis, a lawyer specialising in data protection and intellectual property at law firm DMH Stallard, should you have sent this e-mail on, you'd be in danger of infringing copyright law. "The recipes are Oliver's property, and by e-mailing them around you're distributing them illegally," he says.
And then there's the so-called Ketchupgate e-mail sent around the world earlier this summer. The e-mail originated from a secretary at a London law firm who was exposing her boss's petty request for a £4 dry cleaning bill after she'd spilt tomato sauce on his suit. The e-mail provided amusement up and down the country and caused the boss to resign his post in humiliation.
But, says Kevin Money, director of the school for reputation, relationships and responsibility at Henley Management College, it also caused untold damage to the reputation of the company involved. "A large part of a company's reputation is based on how it treats its people," he says. "E-mails like this provide an insight into the culture of an organisation."
According to Money, if leaked e-mails show a company in a bad light, this may lead to people not considering them as prospective employers or shunning them as consumers. "It's important that companies communicate to employees the damage that can be done by e-mails," he says.
These two examples demonstrate what a minefield electronic correspondence is for employers today. While in the modern workplace e-mail is a vital business tool, there are numerous pitfalls for companies if staff abuse it.
According to James Carmody, an employment lawyer at city law firm Sprecher Grier Halberstam, many e-mail problems stem from the fact that people tend to treat e-mail like a conversation, but in fact, he says, it's a permanent record. "And while it seems a fairly anonymous form of communication, it leaves an audit trail that can be traced back to an individual or organisation," he says.
Carmody works at the sharp end of e-mail abuse and has seen many cases of malpractice lead to accusations of harassment, bullying and discrimination in the workplace. In the worst cases, politically incorrect jokes, pornographic images, and snide remarks about colleagues can spread like wildfire around a company and create a general atmosphere of obscenity where offended members of staff feel they can no longer work there.
This can lead to charges of constructive dismissal and demands for compensation, regardless of whether the e-mails were sent with malicious intent, says Carmody.
At law firm Hamiltons Solicitors, founder Angus Hamilton says there are other concerns employers should have over their staff's use of e-mail. Libel, he says, is also a real issue, with cases stretching back to the early days of e-mail use. One of the most infamous cases of e-mail libel happened in 1999, when British Gas agreed to pay substantial libel damages to an ex-employee who had set up a competing gas company, Exoteric Gas Solutions. The libel allegation arose from an internal memorandum sent via e-mail by British Gas to its staff stating that they should have no dealings with Exoteric.
In the hospitality industry, companies are taking different approaches to controlling their employees' e-mail use. At pub and restaurant operator Mitchells & Butlers, IT programme manager Richard Nicholls says staff at the firm's 2,000 managed outlets are allowed to send e-mails only inside the company IT system. The company controls the global address book, and the retail network doesn't have an internet gateway. "We regard e-mail as a business tool, and there's no need for our employees to connect to anyone apart from our head office in Birmingham," he says. This approach has also been beneficial in avoiding the downloading of software viruses, he says.
At hotel company the Dorchester Group, head of IT Luke Mellors takes a less draconian approach to reducing e-mail abuse, although he admits productivity has probably declined since e-mail was introduced as employees take time out from their jobs to send and read personal e-mails. Mellors says the company doesn't pursue a zero-tolerance policy to personal e-mails and allows a discretionary amount of private e-mails to be sent in work time.
With the multinational make-up of the Dorchester's workforce, Mellors accepts that staff may need to send the odd e-mail home. This privilege was paramount in the wake of the recent London bombings as staff e-mailed family and friends worldwide to reassure them that they were unharmed. "It's difficult to totally clamp down on personal e-mails," he says. "We have to see limited personal use as a fringe benefit of being connected to the web."
However, employees have been dismissed for inappropriate use of e-mail in the past. Dorchester staff have their e-mails monitored by software, which detects unsuitable language, and everyone must sign an acceptable computer use policy document when they start with the company.
But simply holding a swift induction or making employees read an e-mail policy document is not enough, says Monica Seeley, founder of the Mesmo Consultancy, a provider of e-mail best-practice tuition. She says organisations must put a series of initiatives in place if e-mail abuse is to be truly controlled. "Most policy documents are too detailed," she says. "Companies should devise an e-mail behaviour charter, made up of three or four headlines that everyone will understand from receptionist to chief executive."
Seeley says this should be followed up by a questionnaire to ensure staff have understood what they have been told and recommends companies supplement induction training by drip-feeding hints and tips via e-mail from time to time.
Now there's one example of the positive contribution e-mail can make to a company.
Managing your e-mail Monica Seeley, author of the book Managing in the e-mail Office, has some handy tips to cope with the barrage of e-mails workers face today.
- Check your e-mails only a few times a day so it doesn't interfere with other work.
- Handle each e-mail once only.
- Print off e-mails and put them in a client folder if it's easier.
- Use e-mail folders to prioritise e-mails - label them "must do", "VIP", etc.
- Use anti-spam software to get rid of junk e-mails.
- Be your own gatekeeper - tell that person to stop sending you bad jokes.
- Use your Out of Office Assistant to manage expectations. An automatic response of "I've got your e-mail and I will get back to you ASAP" will buy you time.