If you are having trouble deciding whether or not to allow personal e-communication, you are not alone. According to the ‘‘2001 Electronic Policies and Practices Survey,’’ 40 percent of employers allow staff full and unrestricted personal use of office e-mail; 21 percent allow full personal use with prior management approval; 7 percent restrict personal e-mail to emergency situations; 4 percent allow communications with spouse and family only; and 23 percent totally ban all personal e-mail.
Employers also are divided on the issue of placing time restrictions on personal e-mail use. Twenty percent of organizations place some sort of time limit on personal e-mail, restricting when and for how long employees may use the business e-mail system. Of that 20 percent, half restrict personal e-mail use to nonbusiness hours only; 8 percent place specific time duration limits on employees; and 2 percent restrict personal use to specific times during business hours. 
In April 2002, six employees of the Washington State Department of Labor were fired for using state-provided computers to transmit an excessive amount of personal e-mail, including messages with a sexual content.
One terminated employee had sent 650 personal e-mail messages in less than thirty days. In the agency’s termination letter, this employee’s e-mail was described as ‘‘shockingly explicit, vulgar, and very offensive.’’ 
The erroneous assumption that an instant message vanishes when its window closes, coupled with the quick, abbreviated nature of IM may lead some employees to think that casual conversation, including off-color chat, is no big deal.
Stop this problem before it starts. Establish clear and comprehensive personal use policies and content rules to guide your employees’ IM use. Should a violation occur in spite of your IM rules and policies, follow the State of Washington’s lead. Terminate the offender(s) immediately, and be sure to let the rest of the staff know exactly why the IM policy violators were fired, and how remaining employees can steer clear of a similar fate by adhering strictly to the organization’s written IM rules and policies.
‘‘2001 AMA, US News, ePolicy Institute Survey: Electronic Policies and Practices,’’ conducted by the American Management Association, US News & World Report, and The ePolicy Institute. Survey findings available online at www.epolicyinstitute.com.
Andrew Garber, ‘‘L&I Cites ‘Excessive’ E-Mail Traffic of Fired Employees,’’ The Seattle Times (May 2, 2002), B2.