One Offensive Email May Be All It Takes

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Years ago it was the memo, but in today's tech-centric society, email has long become one of the primary methods of communication companies use either internally or externally. Many employees use it throughout the work day as it is a quick and easy way to send messages.

Some employees use their work email address for non-work messages which is convenient, but can cause problems. It's a good idea for employees to watch what they say on company email because tasteless or inappropriate emails can result in problems with the boss – or in worst-case scenarios – fired. According to some statistics, 27 percent of companies say employees have been fired for misuse of email or Internet. [5]

So how exactly can sending and/or receiving electronic messages get people in trouble?

Violation of Company Policy

Companies are going to frown down upon employees who choose to spend their days exchanging personal messages, using company email to sign up for mailing lists (which often leads to spam) or web surfing instead of working.

To mitigate problems associated with employee use of equipment, the Internet/Technology policy was born.  Companies that use this type of document have their staff sign this agreement which states employees will not abuse or misuse any of the company's technology. This typically includes email.

Internet (or technology) use policies specifically outline the company's expectations of how employees use the organization's computers, equipment and network. The policy's intent is to help employers make certain that company equipment and networks are being used what is considered to be proper use. Essentially, this policy outlines the do's and don'ts of company technology use and the employee agrees to these stipulations. If broken, there can consequences. In some cases, a violation (or repeat violations) can lead to termination.

Employers typically establish such policies because over the years private and work lives have overlapped where Internet use is involved. As a result, many organizations deemed too many employees began to use the Internet for private use on company time or surf the web in an inappropriate fashion. Consider how many times a day notifications for social media, online sales or other links arrive in email. 

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Emails received throughout the work day can lead to distractions on other websites

All of these are tempting for people to click and get distracted from work. While not everyone abuses (and some surveys have shown these breaks improve productivity), there are cases where  people do spend the bulk of their days distracted and unproductive.

Unprofessional Content

Often colleagues who work together for long periods of time become comfortable with one another and may exchange friendly emails. Occasionally, someone may forward an off-color joke, photo, text content, attachment or a hyperlink leading to an inappropriate website.

If the content or image contained in these emails are deemed inappropriate or found tasteless by another person who happens to see it, this could result in a lawsuit against the company. In  a court of law, some types of emails can be found to be a form of sexual harassment, discrimination, threats, abuse, defamatory or violent.

Typically, employers will not tolerate these kinds of email exchanges which may eventually land them in court. Aside from the time and money involved in resolving this kind of issue, the legal liability can be high. A company will probably fire you if the content is offensive enough to lead to a potential lawsuit.

No employer wants to bear this burden or kind of lawsuit and will let you go before taking a chance of being sued. This kind of workplace behavior is likely to be outlined in the aforementioned technology policy.

Email Forwards

Forwards go hand in hand with the above mentioned unprofessional content, but deserve its own mention. This is because normally people don't find a problem with forwards to others they know will not find offense in the email sent, but forwards can cause significant problems for a company.

While employees may feel confident their colleagues won't raise their eyebrows, the problem with forwards, or any email content, is that it can be sent to others outside of the organization who may have a problem with the content. The forward tarnishes the company name because of the company email address attached to forwarding the inappropriate message.

Any messages transmitted from a company domain reflects on the reputation of a business and bosses are not likely to take kindly to their business' name being attached to content that may be perceived as offensive making its way beyond the company's virtual walls.

Email forward
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Always think twice before hitting that forward button in email.

Spam and Malware

Many people use their work email address and sign up for mailing lists, websites and other places which require an email address. People sometimes don't like to give out their home email so they'll add a company one instead.

This can cause a problem because if the email address is sold or put on other mailing lists, your company networks can get inundated with spam. Aside from clogging up the network, issues can arise with malware or clicked on hyperlinks that lead to inappropriate or tasteless websites that often will load unsolicited files onto company computers.

Visiting inappropriate websites are another company no-no that violates the technology policy. If the link wasn't received in email, the problem wouldn't have occurred.

These are a handful of ways emails can get you in trouble with the boss or even fired. To keep out of hot water where email at work is concerned, a general good rule to follow is only say or send things in messages that you would be able to say out loud in the office or open public space.

Most companies today employ strict technology policies to protect themselves and to ensure their computer resources are being used properly. If what's in the email isn't appropriate for customers or others to hear, then it is probably an unwise decision to hit the send or forward button. Always err on the side of caution when using email at work.