Set Rules for Employee Use of Internet, Email
If you're like most owners and managers of assisted sites, you've brought Internet access into your offices to help you run your site and communicate with HUD, prospects, applicants, and residents. In fact, most of the business your site conducts with HUD probably takes place over the Internet. As a result, you can expect your site employees to spend a good deal of their time using the Internet and sending site-related email.
However, Internet access can also lead employees to spend time using the Internet and sending email unrelated to work. In addition, being able to send email at a keystroke may lead to their sending confidential or inappropriate materials to friends, prospects or residents, perhaps even to HUD staffers as well.
Permitting such abuses could expose your sites to enormous liability in actions for invasion of privacy, Fair Housing, employment, or sexual harassment laws, warns Steven M. McDonald, vice president and general manager of the Westlake Realty Group, and an expert in HUD rules.
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 will want to implement a set of rules by which they will abide. The rules your employees should follow:
State that the Internet and email are for business purposes only;
State that the Internet and email hardware and software are site property;
Prohibit the use of the Internet for personal business or religious, political, or other causes;
Prohibit the transmission of offensive or disruptive messages;
Prohibit the sending of confidential or disparaging site information over the Internet;
Prohibit employees from viewing other employees' Internet use and email messages;
State that email is a substitute for written, not oral, communication; and
State the consequences of violating these rules.
Eight Rules for Employees
McDonald leads us through the rules in the order indicated above:
1. State that the Internet and email are for business purposes only. Tell your employees up front that the office has Internet access and email for site- or company-related purposes, not as a fringe benefit for them.
2. State that the Internet and email hardware and software are property of the site. Tell your employees that the Internet and email hardware and software—and the messages they carry—are site property, and that you may inspect them and monitor them at any time. That way, employees can't claim that they thought they had a right to privacy when using the Internet at the office.
3. Prohibit the use of the Internet for personal business or religious, political, or other causes. Employees may be using email to solicit support for political causes, express their religious views, or make some money on the side. “Unauthorized solicitations like these are significant problems we've faced since bringing the Internet into our offices,” McDonald says. Such activities take employees away from their duties and may conflict with the site's business goals.
These solicitations may even be embarrassing or detrimental to the site owner or management company if the employee's personal use is inappropriate, such as soliciting support for a hate group or running a business scam. You must prohibit employees' use of the Internet for such purposes.
4. Prohibit the 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 from your site. This includes possible violation of Fair Housing laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, gender, 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. Employees who wouldn't otherwise engage in offensive conduct in person, by mail, or by telephone, may do so once they get Internet access.
5. Prohibit the sending of confidential or disparaging site information over the Internet. Unless employees are using one of HUD's secure systems (such as the Enterprise Verification Income (EIV) system) to transmit information, it's not a good idea to use the Internet to send confidential information. This includes resident information, personnel files, and financial records.
Generally, the Internet 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 site or personal information ends up in the wrong hands. Consequently, don't allow employees to do this unless they're sending information to HUD, as required under HUD rules, using HUD's secure systems.
6. Prohibit employees from viewing other employees' Internet use and email messages. Though senior management will have the right to monitor employees' use of the Internet, employees shouldn't be allowed to monitor each other's use.
7. State that email is a substitute for written, not oral, communication. Email has been replacing written letters—and even telephone calls—for some time as the preferred method of communication in the United States and Europe. But there are some situations in which a phone call is more appropriate and some where a written letter is appropriate. The question is: Should an email message be informal, like a phone call, or formal, like a letter?
“Email messages should use the formal tone of letters,” McDonald says. “No one has ever lost a prospect or offended a resident by being too formal.” By getting staff to follow this advice, your site's letters and email will be consistent in tone and style. And, as a result, you, as a site owner or manager, won't have concerns about not being formal enough.
8. State the consequences of violating these rules. To emphasize the seriousness of your Internet and email use policy, warn employees that violating it could lead to disciplinary action up to, and including, dismissal.
Remember that monitoring employees' Internet use can be a sticky issue. Some employees may argue that monitoring this particular aspect of their work performance is “micromanagement” or, even worse, an invasion of privacy. You may wish to consult your attorney about adapting our rules for your own use.
Steven M. McDonald, CPM: VP & General Mgr.–Residential Div.; Westlake Realty Group, Inc., AMO; 520 So. El Camino Real, 9th Fl., San Mateo, CA 94402; (650) 579-1010; Steven.mcDonald@west-lakerealty.com.