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Office Life Tuesday, 10 November, 1998, 11:23 GMT
That joke isn't funny anymore
They go around offices quicker than colds - and they are frequently about as funny as a bout of the sniffles.

E-mailed humour is everywhere, with millions of jokes, graphics, photographs and and stories being exchanged between workplaces worldwide each day.

Sending unfunny jokes through cyberspace is now just one of many ways workers can appear to be getting down to their daily tasks - but are in fact doing nothing more than trying to have a laugh with their friends.

The themes are now all familiar to anyone with access to e-mail - lists of why it is great to be male or female, explicit humour, bizarre photographs, 'strange but true' stories, topical humour and personality quizzes.

They are sent worldwide - even though much of the humour in them is incomprensible to people outside the United States.

Sexist jokes most popular

One example of a seemingly bottomless pit of "humour"
A trawl through cyberspace last week uncovered a diverse selection of jokes and parodies - with the most popular being jokes at the expense of men or women, featuring demanding topics like "why are men such jerks?" and "reasons why it's great to be a male: flowers fix everything".

Straight - if unprintable - humour also scored highly, with "true stories" also being a favourite, such as the terrorist who sent himself a letter-bomb, and the strange things people put on insurance claim forms ("I didn't think the speed limit applied after midnight.")

Bizarre pictures and games are also standards: the dancing baby made popular by sitcom Ally McBeal is staple fare - as are personality quizzes and tales of office folklore, and the ubiquitous Bill Clinton jokes.

The fun could be over

But the fun could be over for e-mail pranksters forever exchanging jokes with their friends and colleagues.

Companies are clamping down on the way their e-mail systems are used, following a series of court cases involving their unauthorised use.

Last year, the Norwich Union was found to have libelled a competitor through its internal message system.

The e-mail wrongly suggested that Western Provident Association was close to insolvency. The court ruled Norwich Union was responsible for what had been written on its system, and it had to pay 450,000 damages, plus costs, and had to issue a public apology.

Office gossip can be dangerous

Even office gossip can land e-mail chatterers in hot water - an official at Scottish Borders council was hauled before a disciplinary committee after she compared a senior colleague with Peter Mandelson in an e-mail she thought was private.

And earlier this year two office workers having an affair won unfair dismissal claims against a housing association in Edinburgh, after they were caught exchanging raunchy e-mails during working hours.

But your friends' taste in humour could get you into trouble as well if they send you some choice examples of some of the seamier jokes going around the world.

Because all e-mail is recorded on the senders' and recipients' hard disks or on their network, there is a permanent record of what is sent in and out - and it could reflect badly on an innocent recipient.

US corporations sued

In 1997 three major US corporations were sued by black employees claiming discrimination over what appeared on their computer screens. They were offended by an e-mailed parody of African-American speech patterns.

Oil giant Chevron had to pay out $2.2m - at 1.3m, three times the amount Norwich Union paid for libel - after a female employee complained of sexual harassment when she found sexist jokes under the heading "why beer is better than women".

Now chatterers have to face up to the fact that there is a growing industry in software designed to monitor e-mails sent from company servers.

According to a survey by software distributor Peapod, 38% of British companies can already monitor the content of e-mails and 18% are able to track their destinations.

'E-mail is a growing concern'

Peapod director Peter Sibson said: "It is a growing concern in corporations that potentially damaging information can be sent via e-mail.

"A system of e-mail surveillance can use a key-word search to filter and monitor material being sent out or received.

"It is more a question of education rather than censorship. By using this software companies can educate their employees about e-mails and make them aware of receiving large files that may clog up servers and slow down systems."

In the future it is likely companies will warn employees they are being monitored, and their e-mails are not as private as they once thought.

This is now commonplace in the US. Federal government employees there are told each time they log on to their PCs that they are being monitored.

'You can't say what you'd say in the pub'

Information technology lawyer Robert Bond, from Hobson Audley, Hopkins and Wood said: "What we are advising companies to do, in an effort to show good will to employees, is to add additional terms to their contracts to show the PC they use is an asset of the company and that their e-mails and Internet access will be monitored.

"This year we have had more enquiries than ever from companies concerned about this sort of thing and what they can do about it.

"Basically, people must realise that e-mails are not a secure whisper, and you cannot say the same things that you would say to a mate down the pub."

Clear as Mud

Over the last few weeks, Office Life has been asking for your examples of tortuous English, incomprehensible management-speak and gobbledegook used in offices.

Some prime examples have been sent in, which will be published next Tuesday.

The winner will receive a guide to plain English to leave secretly on the desk of whoever uttered the words in the first place. There is still time to send in entries.

Click here to submit your entry.

Please include details of your name and country.

Links to more Office Life stories are at the foot of the page.

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