TEHCNOLOGY and the push for a paper-free office have given rise to some tricky questions about e-mail and Internet use in the workplace.

It’s not just a matter of developing a comprehensive

e-mail and Internet usage policy, the application of a policy is proving a far more unwieldy beast for businesses.

Employment Services & Solutions Australia director Jamie Williams said there were a number of different issues to consider regarding the formation of an online policy.

“Any time you have a policy you really have to induct people in the policy and use the policy properly,” he said.

“There are four points to consider when forming a policy. The first is outlining what is a waste of time … consistent treatment for breeches.”

The consistent treatment for a breech of policy will decrease the likelihood of costly and time-consuming litigation.

Part of the problem is that employees still think of the Internet and e-mail as a secure form of communication, not unlike a telephone call.

The reality is any breech of an e-mail or Internet policy can be easily traced by a company’s system administrator.

However, in companies where the Internet is used as a research tool, it’s difficult to regulate usage and issues like accessing offensive material is the responsibility of each individual.

When a breech occurs it’s a breech of trust as much as a breech of policy.

Employment and Industrial Relations Lawyer David Heldsinger said the Internet represented a phenomenal research tool for many organisations.

In these circumstances a business needs to clearly define the difference between work-related usage and non-work related usage, he said.

“Policies vary enormously. I’ve been involved in the drafting of some and they have to be tailored,” Mr Heldsinger said.

“What’s got to be asked is what breech has occurred, what were the activities and did they (the employee) know about the terms of the policy.

“And then fitting the punishment to the crime.

“You’ve got to be fair and consistent.”

For many small to medium sized businesses the Internet presents yet another costly compliance issue.

Organisations also need to ensure that the staff are aware of the policy and understand the ramifications of any breech.

“And a smart organisation is going to have ongoing training,” Mr Heldsinger said.

“The State Industrial Relations Commission has recently taken a long hard look at BankWest’s policy.”

The case in front of the Industrial Relations Commission referred to the dismissal of a staff member as a result of some offensive e-mails stored in a mail folder.

The employee admitted that he had breached the policy and, in line with the company policy, was dismissed.

In his conclusion, Commissioner J H Smith said: “… the breach of the policy by the applicant was in all the circumstances trivial and that the applicant was harshly dismissed”.

Mr Heldsinger said the BankWest case highlighted the difficulties in application, and that it was “a really tough question for a number of employers”.

To compound the situation, the new privacy legislation is threatening to further complicate matters for both employees and employers.

“If you were a smart organisation, what you’d do is have a policy on privacy and e-mail and dove tail the two to make sure it’s compliant with the law,” Mr Heldsinger said.

“The big isssue for business is the cost of it … to keep abreast of the legislation.”

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