Email is an invaluable business tool and many of us cannot remember how we operated professionally without its convenience, flexibility and immediacy. However the potential for misuse, abuse and breaches in confidentiality is enormous.

Stories regularly appear in the media highlighting the damage caused to the reputation of companies or individuals by a carelessly phrased or thoughtlessly sent email. It takes very little effort to forward an email to many recipients, which can cause huge knock-on problems as a consequence way beyond the original intention of the sender.

The key as always is to establish clear policies and ensure your employees understand your standards and expectations on email usage.

Generally speaking when your employees are actually ‘on the clock’ they are being paid to work so it is reasonable to expect them to send only work-related emails. ‘During the working day’ is a little more complicated as this will include times when your staff have time to themselves, such as during breaks or at lunch time.  As this is technically their free time you cannot dictate their actions, but you can restrict their use of company resources when it comes to personal email use. However as an employer, you may want to allow them some leeway to attend to personal matters via email during the working day if you feel there are goodwill benefits in doing so.

Your IT systems are a business tool and your IT policy should set out what your staff members can use the equipment for and the times at which they can do so.  Your first port of call, therefore, needs to be to review your policy and check what it says about email use. Your staff have an obligation to devote their time and energy at work to the needs of your business. If they sending personal emails when they should be working, then they are in breach of this duty and this is a disciplinary matter.

You cannot control what your staff write on their own personal emails outside of work time and normally any actions by your staff outside of work, you have no say in.  However, you can remind all staff that they have an obligation not to bring the company into disrepute.  Make it clear in your updated IT policy that any negative comments made in the public domain about the company will be subject to the disciplinary procedure.  You must be clear about your definition of “negative” and you cannot define this too broadly.  Inform your staff that in addition to disciplinary action, any derogatory comments which reach the public domain can be subject to libel action in the County Court.