COMMUNICATION: E-fficient communication – E-mail changes the meaning of ‘in box’ for good. But how do you control employee misuse?

For those of us who use e-mail regularly, it’s hard to remember what we did before we had it at our fingertips.

According to a recent article published by Law Library Resource Xchange (www.llrx.com), an estimated 72 million employees currently use e-mail, generating approximately 4 trillion messages this year! With so much cybercommunication going on, it seems inevitable that e-mail will change how, even when, we do business.

Fast, convenient, free, and less formal than traditional business communications, electronic mail is likely here to stay. And that’s just fine for Jackie Wittbrodt, cost estimator for Grand Traverse Plastics Corp., who says, “We’d be lost without it.”

At Grand Traverse Plastics, approximately 25 in-office employees of the company’s 135 employees have PCs equipped with e-mail.

The company has been using e-mail for about three years now, for internal communications as well as for communications with customers and suppliers.

“We can go on line and request quotes from a component supplier, and we can have the quote returned via email. Or a customer sends us a project to quote on, and we return the answer by e-mail,” explained Wittbrodt.

On line or bust!

Going on line “was practically mandatory by our customers,” said Marty Palmer, vice president of sales. Some customers now require Grand Traverse Plastics to submit quotes via e-mail. The company also bids on projects that are put out by auction, and those are conducted by e-mail.

E-mail makes international communications easier for Grand Traverse Plastics, too.

“Having customers in Germany, you only have three hours a day where you can communicate by phone. Faxing can be complicated by international wires, but the Internet is automatic,” said Palmer.

Scott Stafford, sales engineer, appreciates making fewer phone calls and typing fewer letters.

“Maybe it’s not as official looking, but you can have the interaction a lot quicker. It’s a less formal way of doing business, and that’s important in sales.”

Positive Net effect

Sharon Bogucki, CPA, has used e-mail since 1995 and uses it primarily with clients to schedule appointments and “even more so, when I need additional information from clients. I send in detail what I need, and at their convenience, they can respond,” she says. “Then I have a written response to work from. I don’t have to be concerned with you-said-the-number-wrong or I-wrote-the-number-down-wrong, and it comes across clearer than a fax.”

Bogucki uses e-mail with about 25 to 50 percent of her client base, composed primarily of professionals and small business owners, and says it’s a tremendous time saver.

“I don’t have to play phone tag, and I get information more quickly so I can complete projects more promptly,” she explained.

Although busy professionals often find themselves downloading business messages late into the night, Bogucki finds that overall it has given her added flexibility.

“Since I do work late at night, I no longer work through until eight or nine o’clock. I have dinner with my family and go back to work from my home office later in the evening.”

And Bogucki likes the idea of being able to send questions to clients at 11 p.m. and not worrying about waking them up.

Practically a veteran e-mailer, Bogucki offers several tips for making the most of e-communications:

? Make the “subject” line relevant to the content of your message, and be sure it gives enough information in case the recipient has to go back and find it at a later date.

? If answering a list of questions, be sure the questions appear in the previous message or paste them into the reply, so the original sender can refer back to them.

? “Emoticons”–like the sideways smiley face–and abbreviations are fine for personal e-mail, but not for business. E-mail should look and read as though it’s a business letter.

? Keep in mind that e-mail you send may be printed out and saved in a paper file or forwarded to others.

? When forwarding a message to others, cut and paste the content so that the person you’re sending it to doesn’t have to scroll through the history of past recipients.

? Beware of breaching client confidentiality or disclosing names and the companies of your clients when forwarding messages. E-mail addresses can give away relatively private information.

? If attaching a file to an e-mail, make sure it’s not saved in the newest, hot-off-the-press software version. Otherwise, the recipient may not be able to open it.

E-asy to misuse

Elron Software, a Burlington, Mass., provider of Internet access and e-mail content filtering software, commissioned a study that found a large increase in the number of companies with Web and e-mail usage policies.

But despite these policies, the study found, employees’ personal use of corporate network resources is rising.

The study was conducted by NFO Interactive, a market research firm in Northwood, Ohio, that interviewed 576 employees who have Web and e-mail access at work.

Some 68 percent of the companies represented in the study have Web usage policies, up from 48.9 percent a year ago. Approximately 60 percent have corporate e-mail policies, an increase from 46.5 percent a year ago.

One of the study’s most alarming findings is a 170 percent increase in the number of employees who acknowledged receiving confidential information from employees at other companies.

Gary Kendra, a partner in the Detroit law firm of Jaffe Raitt Heuer & Weiss and founder of ProMarks, a Traverse City-based Internet software company, specializes in technology and Internet law. He says most employers are adopting policies on employee usage. “The typical policy authorizes the employer to monitor e-mail content,” he said.

Policies that include monitoring, Kendra says, “eliminate the privacy expectation on the part of the employee” and “ban non-work related issues, like using company e-mail for harassing someone or doing things unrelated to the job.”

But monitoring employee mail is not a perfect solution to potential misuse and abuse of company e-mail systems.

“Monitoring can create suspicion, morale problems, and can be used to selectively terminate someone the company wanted to get rid of,” said Kendra.

His advice? Employers should reserve the right to monitor e-mail in their Acceptable Use Policies, but should be careful to apply and act on the policy consistently across the board.

Another issue for employers to be cognizant of is the potential for e-mail to be used to create a contract or provide evidence of a contract.

Kendra cited an example of a software company whose tech support representative acknowledges defects in the product via numerous e-mails to a customer he’s assisting. When the customer requests a refund, the president of the company denies the defect exists. The customer produces the e-mail messages, and the company is held liable.

“E-mail is virtually indestructible. It’s in the cache, it’s in the in box, the out box. You can unerase files that have been erased,” said Kendra.

And it can be used in the discovery process in litigation.

His advice to employers is to educate and train employees on the fact that e-mail is indestructible and could come back to haunt the company.

“Let employees know what it has the potential to do.” BIZNEWS

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