Being Big Brother

CELL PHONES, WIRELESS PAGERS, e-mail, the Internet and personal data organizers are a blessing and a curse.

On one hand, these electronic aids can boost employee performance and productivity. On the other, they can cause distractions, contribute to lost time, waste resources, drain the capacity of the system and increase legal risk.

Waste industry firms, like businesses in other sectors, should develop an internal policy that establishes “rules of the information road” for all employees and other users of a company's electronic systems.

Whether a company labels them guidelines, rules, policies or standards, they must be clear, concise and easy to follow in order to protect the integrity of key data and information, promote efficiency and minimize potential liability. Management also must implement a system to monitor employee use of the company's electronic systems.

An effective communications and information systems policy often appears in an employee manual, which should be given to new hires upon their arrival. Through periodic updates of the manual, employees can learn about revisions and additions to company programs, including what is required, acceptable and forbidden concerning communication policies.

Certainly, no employer wants to permit or ignore workplace discrimination and harassment. Acceptable hiring, promotion and termination practices can help prevent these occurrences. Imposing controls on sending or receiving certain types of messages and browsing certain content also are beneficial. Meanwhile, a company's ability to protect confidential information and trade secrets may depend on whether employees are subject to confidentiality agreements and policies that prohibit or control electronic transmission of private material.

Of course, the finest electronic communications policy is worthless without consistent enforcement. Many managers agree that the most effective means of assuring compliance is to monitor employees, although many employers prefer to trust their employees' judgment and discretion. The type and degree of appropriate monitoring will vary among businesses. No matter what level of review and control is necessary, enforcement must be consistent, and employees must be notified that their system use may be monitored.

Employers can monitor electronic communications without violating the federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act if one party to the communication consents. An employee consents if the employer has an express monitoring policy that explains how and when the monitoring will occur and if the employee has acknowledged in writing his awareness of the policy. This policy should refer to the information and material handled by the company's electronic system as property that is not for personal convenience.

Some state laws also may cover electronic communications monitoring in the workplace and may be co-extensive with federal law or more restrictive.

Employers are advised to consult with legal counsel before developing and implementing an electronic communications policy and a system for monitoring employee compliance.