Is Workplace E-Snooping Worth It?

It wasn’t so long ago that e-mail belonged to a relatively small in-group who knew it as a fun, fast and cheap way to communicate. The technology made it possible to chat with co-workers while looking busy, to talk to people outside work without tying up the phones, and to communicate across time zones without waking anyone.

All that was possible because corporations had not yet caught on to the business value of electronic mail. How times have changed. All too soon, the fun is being sucked out of the greatest technological advance in a hundred years.

E-What?

Most of the e-mail evolution — from neat technology to essential business tool — has occurred within the past two years. In fact, as recently as a year ago, e-mail missives that I sent into the business world “cold” were rarely answered promptly. In fact, they were almost always ignored. I recall advising a fellow writer that as a rule of thumb, 10 outgoing e-mails would yield a single response.

What a difference a year makes. Today, it is almost always faster and easier to get a response via e-mail. The telephone? Please. Voicemail is waiting on the other end. But an e-mail to a CEO will often get a reply, sometimes within a few minutes.

My E-Mail

Also, you don’t tell too many jokes on the telephone — you might be taking up a person’s valuable time. An e-mail, though, can be read anytime — day or night, now or later. The latest anecdote circulating around the world might be just the ticket for a listless employee who needs a lift to make it to the end of the day.

But something happened during the e-mail evolution. Corporations became increasingly inquisitive about what their employees were sending and receiving over the Web. It’s not hard to understand why. “Melissa” and the “Love Bug” are painful examples of how wrong things can go when thousands of companies have millions of employees generating trillions of messages every day.

So corporations did what they always do when in doubt. They called their lawyers and had them write formal policies dictating strict guidelines about e-mail use. The attorneys racked up some billable hours by incorporating sexual harassment polices into the mix, making sending or receiving an off-color e-mail an offense punishable by firing, in many cases.

Busted

In fact, a recent Pew Internet & American Life survey found that more than 20 percent of Americans know someone who has been fired from a job for improper use of e-mail. Researcher Susannah Fox said it was one of the most surprising findings of the study, and one that underscores how quickly e-mails have become the domain of corporations. “It’s really a sea-change in how people use and perceive e-mail,” Fox said.

Indeed. And not necessarily for the better. Just recently, Dow Chemical Co. said it would fire about 40 employees following a review of 6,000 e-mail accounts that yielded some messages containing violent or sexual content.

Predictably, a union leader at the Dow plant labeled the search a “witch hunt.” Of course, Dow owns the hardware, the software, and the servers — not to mention its employees’ time and work product — so the company can do just about whatever it pleases with the e-mails. And I submit that any company of any size could scan its servers for “bad” e-mails — whether personal correspondence or dumb jokes — and justify firing a comparable number of employees in a heartbeat.

You’ve Got Trouble

But most of the stringent new policies ignore the benefits of e-mails, and fail to address the genuine danger of over-regulation. The tight labor market is spurring many high-tech companies to bend over backward to make their employees happy at work. Some firms even encourage online shopping from the office to keep workers at their desks a little longer.

E-mail can be a distraction, for sure, but so can the feeling of being constantly spied on by your boss, of being compressed into a mold, of becoming an expressionless corporate drone who comes to the office, puts in time, and starts living only when the work day is done.

Study after study shows that people who are happy with their jobs are more productive. Does anyone really think that scanning the e-mails of workers will make them feel good?

I am not advocating an anything-goes policy. Security is a critical issue, and companies have to protect themselves in a lawsuit-happy society where a misspoken word can cost millions of dollars (US$). But employees are entrusted with a great many weighty responsibilities, and if they are worth their paychecks at all, they can probably be educated to be sensible about e-mail.

The corporate executives behind the e-mail crackdown should lighten up a bit. If they insist on bringing their big feet down on one of the last bastions of freedom and fun in the workplace, they may end up with a whole lot of dull boys and girls sitting where the bright lights used to be.

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