Smart policies for e-mail messages

You’d better be careful–your company’s e-mail messages could get back to haunt you in court.

In the event that you thought the "e" in e-mail stood for "electronic," wise up. Nowadays, classic e-mail may very well be "evidence" in the event that you, your company or all of your employees may be the target of a legal attack.

That is the lesson being hammered home in the united states over the past couple of years, you start with Bill Gates’ televised failures to recall embarrassing e-mail dredged up during Microsoft’s antitrust hearings. Gates and Microsoft escaped that incident without serious damage, however the costs of failure to police e-mail ‘re going up. Last fall, for example, a manager at a Wall Street investment firm was sentenced to 1 to 3 years in jail, fined $400,000, and barred from the securities industry forever for destroying e-mail sought by prosecutors in a trading scandal.

Your likelihood of being caught in an identical trap ‘re going up, too. In a 2001 survey conducted by the ePolicy Institute, an education and research organization, 9 percent of U.S. companies reported being ordered by a court or a regulator to cough up e-mail. In 2003, the same survey found the quantity had increased to 14 percent. "E-mail has turned into a real target of nearly every kind of business litigation," says Michael R. Overly, a lawyer with Foley & Lardner in LA and writer of E-Policy: How exactly to Develop Computer, E-mail and Internet Guidelines to safeguard Your Company and its own Assets (AMACOM).

Unfortunately, e-mail presents a daunting challenge for entrepreneurs. The problem starts using its image. Many people treat e-mail as though it were casual and informal, when it’s anything but. It could not carry a company letterhead or a signature, but e-mail gets the same legal weight as any memo, letter, report or other written document your company prepares. "It’s when people forget they have the same responsibilities as if they were negotiating a contract that they come across trouble," says Stephen Northcutt, director of training and certification for The SANS Institute, a Bethesda, Maryland, computer security organization.

E-mail also seems less permanent than other written communication, but e-mail could be more permanent than printed documents, warns Rick Edvalson, president of IntegriNet Solutions LLC, a Boise, Idaho, computer services firm. Copies of e-mail are manufactured on your pc and recipients’ computers aswell as on any mail-server computers that relay the mail. Some copies will be supported to tape and stored indefinitely. "They acquire an eternal life of their own," says Edvalson.

Some of those e-mail messages could become key evidence in civil or criminal litigation involving your firm. How to proceed? Experts recommend three steps:

1. Have a written e-mail policy. It will govern what could be said in e-mail along with how long e-mail is usually to be kept. SANS Institute guidelines suggest keeping e-mail on administrative and financial matters for four years and general correspondence for just one year. "Ephemeral correspondence" such as for example personal messages and status reports could be destroyed after reading. Visit a sample policy at www.sans.org.

2. Train employees in the usage of the policy. For example, teach them to categorize e-mail as administrative, financial or other styles with a line near the top of the message, rendering it better to sort and get rid of e-mail as appropriate. Explain the objective of the policy along with penalties for failure to check out it.

3. Enforce those penalties. Twenty-two percent of companies surveyed by the ePolicy Institute said that they had fired people for failing woefully to follow company e-mail policy. That sort of enforcement may convince a judge or jury that you tried to regulate your e-mail in good faith and save embarrassment or worse.

Whatever you do, remember that e-mail could be evidence. "E-mail is a document like any other," says Edvalson. "These files aren’t benign and innocuous. They carry meaning and importance that may affect the well-being of the business."

Mark Henricks writes on business and technology for leading publications and is writer of Not really a Living.

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