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Monday, May 24, 1999 Published at 07:49 GMT 08:49 UK

Business: The Economy

Firms warned over e-mail 'minefield'

E-mail harassment, pornography and hacking are particular problems

The growing use of the Internet at work has caused a "minefield" of new legal hazards for employers, companies have been warned.

Steve Gibbons of IDS: "Freedom that e-mail gives leads to particular problems in the workplace"
Research group Incomes Data Services (IDS) has urged employers to draw up clear "cyber-liability" policies, in the wake of several high-profile industrial tribunals on the use of electronic media at work.

IDS highlighted several issues on which employers needed to have a clear policy. These included:

  • E-mail harassment
  • Dismissal for unauthorised use of computers
  • Inadvertent formation of contracts by employees through e-mail correspondence
  • Libel resulting from carelessly worded e-mail
  • Legal consequences if employees download pornography or they are involved in hacking into computer systems
  • Privacy issues where employers monitor employees' e-mail correspondence and use of the Internet

    The report cited one tribunal ruling, in which a woman successfully claimed that she had been sexually harassed by male work colleagues who had downloaded pornography in the office, even though these activities were not directed at her personally.

    The tribunal held that the male employees had created a hostile working environment and that the employers were liable to pay damages.

    E-mail contracts

    In another case an e-mail agreement between a line manager and a subordinate employee over the payment of expenses was deemed to constitute a binding contract and the employers were legally obliged to pay the employee his expenses.

    In a third case, a complaint of unfair dismissal by a worker sacked for accessing pornography on the Internet was upheld because it was not clear that company policy was being breached.

    "Employers must take steps to deal with the problem of how to maximise the advantages which giving employees access to the Internet and e-mail can bring, whilst minimising the associated legal risks," said the report's author, Robert Pullen.

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