Set Rules on Employee Use of Internet, Email
This month, the manager of an affordable housing site in Texas reported how—as many managers have done—she had brought Internet access into the management office to help run the site and communicate with HUD, prospects, applicants, and residents. She expected site employees to spend a lot of time using the Internet and sending site-related email. What she did not expect was that Internet access would also lead employees to spend a good deal of time using the Internet for personal purposes.
Being able to send messages at a keystroke via email can lead to employees sending confidential or inappropriate material to friends, prospects, and residents—even to HUD. Disclosure of this type could expose your site to liability for violating privacy, Fair Housing, employment, or sexual harassment laws, says Cheryl McMillon, site manager of Rampart Apartments and a 25-year veteran of assisted housing management.
To help ensure that your employees don't use the Internet for anything other than legitimate business purposes, and to help them use it properly, you should set rules about use of the Internet and email systems, McMillon suggests.
How Employees’ Abuse of Internet/Email Can Harm You
Giving employees access to the Internet can cause the following four problems:
1. Lawsuits for sending harassing or offensive material. Inappropriate use of the Internet becomes a problem when employees use the Internet to download or send material or messages containing offensive text or images that violate federal, state, or local Fair Housing, sexual harassment, or equal employment opportunity laws. Your company could be liable for damages or fines if applicants, residents, employees, or others who get these kinds of messages from your employees sue you or complain to HUD.
2. Release of disparaging or confidential information. Employees at housing sites have been caught using the Internet at work to disparage the site, its employees, or its residents, or to disclose confidential information about the site or residents, says McMillon. Unlawful disclosure of confidential information can lead to lawsuits for violating the privacy rights of employees or residents, she adds. It can also put confidential information, such as financial information about the site, or residents’ addresses, into the wrong hands or make it vulnerable to computer hackers.
3. Injury to site's image due to poor email-writing skills. Employees who use email for business purposes, such as sending messages to HUD, residents, prospects, and vendors, may have poor email-writing skills, McMillon says. For example, they may not know what to put in the subject line of an email. They many not know proper etiquette for signing their messages. Or they may not know what type of correspondence tone to adopt, she adds.
All of this may sound minor, but as email becomes the communication medium of choice for many sites, poor email-writing skills will have an impact on your business in the same way that poor telephone or letter-writing skills do now.
Also, because many employees view email as an informal means of communication, their email messages often contain emotionally charged or colorful language, she notes. And email is easier to send than standard mail, so employees do not spend as much time thinking about their email before sending it. This can leave you vulnerable to complaints if employees use email to fire off quickly drafted and hastily sent tirades against residents, other employees, or HUD staffers.
4. Decreased productivity due to personal use. “Ninety percent of employees with Internet access admit that they surf the Web on company time, and 80 percent admit that they get and send personal email at work,” says McMillon. Occasional personal email is fine, just like a personal phone call from time to time. But the Internet is so convenient and such a great resource that many people get carried away, she maintains. Even if an employee is getting all his work done, he could probably do a better job if he spent more time focusing on the job and less time on the Internet.
Set Policy for Employee Internet/Email Use
To solve these problems, McMillon suggests setting forth rules at your site for employees’ use of the Internet. Your rules should accomplish the following eight things:
1. State that Internet and email are for business purposes only. Tell employees that the management office has Internet access and email for site-related or company-related purposes, not as a fringe benefit for them, McMillon advises.
2. State that Internet and email hardware, software are site property. Tell your employees that the Internet, email hardware and software— and the messages they carry—are site property, and that you may inspect them and monitor them at any time, McMillon advises. That way, employees cannot claim that they thought they had a right to privacy when using the Internet at the office.
3. Ban Internet use for nonsite-related business. Employees may be using email to solicit support for political causes, express their religious views, or make some money on the side. Such activities take employees away from their duties and may conflict with the site's business goals. These solicitations may even be embarrassing to the site if the employee's cause is inappropriate, such as soliciting support for a hate group, or running a business scam. You could run into trouble if you do not prohibit use of the Internet for such purposes, McMillon explains.
4. Prohibit transmission of offensive or disruptive messages. You could be held liable for an employee's sexual harassment or other offensive conduct committed over the Internet, McMillon warns. This includes possible violation of Fair Housing laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin, if an employee sends offensive material in an email to a prospect or resident.
The Internet presents a greater opportunity for such conduct than any other form of communication, she says. Employees who would not otherwise engage in offensive conduct in person, by mail, or by telephone may do so once they get Internet access.
5. Prohibit sending confidential or disparaging site information. Unless employees are using one of HUD's secure systems to transmit resident or site information to HUD, it is not a good idea to use the Internet to send confidential information, McMillon says. This includes resident information, employee files, and financial records.
The Internet generally is not a secure means of communication; savvy hackers can intercept email messages, and you could end up with big problems if confidential or disparaging information ends up in the wrong hands. Employees should not be permitted to do this unless they are sending information to HUD, as required under HUD rules, and are using HUD's secure systems.
6. Prohibit employees from viewing other employees’ Internet use, email messages. Though senior management will have the right to monitor employees’ use of the Internet, employees should not be allowed to monitor each other's use, McMillon says.
7. State that email should use formal tone. Email is rapidly replacing hard-copy letters and telephone calls as the preferred method of communication. But there are some situations where a phone call is appropriate and some where a letter is appropriate. It is preferable that email messages use the formal tone of letters, says McMillon. That way, emails will be consistent in style, and you will not have to worry about not being formal enough. Sites do not lose applicants or offend residents by being too formal, she adds.
8. State consequences of violating rules. To emphasize the seriousness of your rules regarding Internet and email use, warn employees that violating them could lead to discipline, up to and including dismissal.
Cheryl McMillon: Site Manager, Rampart Apartments; Port Arthur, TX