Unwanted email may lead to prosecution

EMAIL in the workplace is an area fraught with legal issues, says a Seek spokesperson.

Electronic information should be treated as any other printed document.

If a person does not want to see that information on paper, it should not be on their computer screen.

Anti-discrimination legislation throughout Australia prohibits sexual harassment, disability harassment, racial vilification and discrimination on various grounds.

However, research conducted in the workplace indicates that an alarming amount of email and web traffic involves accessing pornographic material.

While people accessing this material may find it entertaining, the material is often circulated throughout the workplace or to people outside the workplace, or may be visible or accessible to others in the workplace.

People may find sexually explicit material offensive in itself. Others may find it offensive because it is being circulated in the workplace.

If these people are exposed to pornographic material, they may have a claim for harassment against both the employee accessing the material and the employer who failed to take action to prevent this conduct.

Email may also contain defamatory or sexually harassing material. A well-publicised case in the US resulted in a US$2.2 million settlement in favour of the female employees of a company where a ‘joke’ email was circulated which set out “reasons why beer is better than women”.

When an email is sent, the address of the author, which usually includes the author’s employing company name, is included in the email.

If the person who receives the email finds it offensive or defamatory, they may have an action against both the employee who sent the email and the employing company.

The circulation of material can also be a problem. An email sent by one person is often forwarded again and again, reaching a very wide audience.

Where an employee is engaged in unlawful conduct, this may substantially expand the potential liability for that conduct.

Once detected, offensive material is difficult to destroy. While a person may delete an email from their computer, the message is preserved in the computer network and remains in the system.

Deleting a message does not mean that it is erased. It is merely stored somewhere other than on the desktop.

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