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Do you really need a technology policy for your employees?

September 12, 2012

Article courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner AdvanceHR

There are many reasons why lawyers encourage employers to establish policies governing employee use of company computers, e-mail systems, the Internet, social media and related technologies. But the fact is, you may already have a “policy” in place without even realizing it. If so, you could be at risk — depending on the specifics.

Who needs an employee technology policy? Only companies that want to be clear about the boundaries of acceptable behavior – including what constitutes theft – and desire some legal protection if employees step over the line.

But you may already have a policy in place by default, warns Lisa Guerin, J.D., employment attorney and author of Smart Policies for Workplace Technologies. “If everyone in a company… uses the company’s e-mail system for personal messages, that’s company policy, even if the company has no official written guidelines saying it’s okay to use e-mail in this way,” she warns.

It’s far better to take control of the situation by consciously creating a clear set of policies. Here are a just a few of the benefits of doing so:

Why Have a Policy?

  • To protect trade secrets: A clear policy leaves no doubt in employees’ minds about the ground rules with respect to customer lists and other proprietary information. But even if the threat of punishment doesn’t bother a determined thief, having a policy in place gives you a stronger legal foundation to recover damages should a theft occur.
  • To gain marketing benefits: Your company “lives” on the Internet, to some degree, and potential customers and employees form opinions about it through what they read online. Therefore, you should have policies that draw clear lines about what employees should and shouldn’t say online, whether in company-authorized content or in personal posts. That way, you can can help make sure that your company is being represented in the way you want.
  • To avoid misconceptions about employee privacy: It may be necessary for you to review employee communications. Employees who are aware of this prospect may therefore be deterred from using e-mail or Internet postings inappropriately, and won’t be able to accuse you of violating their privacy should you need to take action.
  • To reduce liability for employee misconduct: An example offered by Guerin is a ban on employees’ placing cell phone calls while driving. Should an employee violate the policy, have an accident and injure someone, the company is less likely to be held responsible.
  • To lay the groundwork for employee discipline and termination: Although you probably already have the right to terminate employees at will, a clear set of policies on technology issues — as with policies on any other expectation of employee behavior — eases the path to taking decisive action when appropriate.

Once you decide to take action, you will obviously need to choose which policies to adopt. Employers need policies to reflect their culture and human resources philosophy. Consult with your attorney and HR advisers about your situation.

Philosophical Foundation

The basic philosophical issue is how restrictive do you want to be — and how intrusive? That’s because sophisticated electronic monitoring tools give employers the opportunity to monitor employee communications assiduously. Here are two key questions employers need to address in setting a policy that illustrate the issue, according to Guerin. Will the company:

  • Actually read every employee e-mail — or just reserve its right to monitor e-mail if it needs to?
  • Block access to particular websites and monitor employee Internet use — or simply warn employees to avoid certain categories of sites?

After you lay out a policy that meets your company’s needs, there is one more critical step to take: that is, ensuring that employees know the policy exists. One way you can be sure they do is by handing out hard copies of the policy to employees at a meeting where you describe the policy, field any questions about it, and have employees sign forms acknowledging that they have received the policy and understand that the company expects them to abide by it.

While this step “may look like overkill,” writes Guerin, it represents a “vitally important part of your technology strategy.” Under state law, employers may be required to have employees consent to e-mail and web browsing monitoring.

Finally, with the policy in place, the next step is to enforce it. Ignoring employees who flout the policy may be tantamount to abandoning the policy you worked so hard to develop.

SBAM has many resources to help you in this area. 

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