Recap and IM Action Plan

Recap and IM Action Plan

  1. Use your written IM policy to establish rules for and set clear limits on employees’ use of IM for personal communication.

  2. Make sure your IM personal usage guidelines are clear and specific. Leave no room for interpretation by individual employees.

  3. Use your employee education program to let employees know that you are restricting personal IM use for the protection of the individual employee, as well for the protection of the organization.

  4. Be mindful of the fact that once you open the door to a little bit of personal IM use, some employees are likely to kick it wide open.

Part Four: Content Guidelines for Clean and Compliant Instant Messaging

Chapter List

Chapter 10: What Constitutes Appropriate (and Inappropriate) Instant Messaging Content?

Chapter 10: What Constitutes Appropriate (and Inappropriate) Instant Messaging Content?


One of the most effective ways for employers to reduce electronic risks is also one of the simplest. By requiring employees to use appropriate, businesslike language in instant messages (as well as e-mail and other electronic documents), employers can help limit their liability risks and improve the overall effectiveness of the organization’s IM system and other e-communications. [1]

Unfortunately, the speedy, real-time nature of IM—coupled with the fact that employees may be using it without management’s knowledge and outside the boundaries of written rules and policies—may tempt some employees to write messages that are just too chatty for comfort, and to engage in inappropriate and potentially risky behavior.

According to a Blue Coat Systems survey of instant messagers in the United Kingdom, employees use IM at the office to gossip (80 percent), share music and video files (40 percent), exchange pornography (20 percent), and flirt (33 percent). More troubling is the fact that half of the employees surveyed report using abusive language and insulting customers and colleagues in instant messages. [2]

This is precisely the type of inappropriate content (and potentially illegal content in the case of music and video file sharing) that can trigger lawsuits, drain employee productivity, and waste computer resources.

IM Rule # 20: The easiest way to control instant messaging risk is to control written content.

[1]Nancy Flynn, The ePolicy Handbook, New York, AMACOM, 2001.

[2] press release, ‘‘Flirting, Pornography, and Bad Language—How Staff Use IM’’ (September 15, 2003). Blue Coat Systems commissioned the survey of 200 workplace IM users in the UK.

Instant Messaging Content Must Be Monitored, Controlled, and Strategically Managed—Just Like E-Mail

Unfortunately, as the ‘‘2003 E-Mail Rules, Policies, and Practices Survey’’ reveals, many U.S.-based employers are still struggling to get a grip on employees’ e-mail content. For these employers, the management of IM language and subject matter will likely prove daunting.

Less than half (48 percent) of the 1,100 organizations surveyed educate employees about appropriate and inappropriate e-mail content. The majority of employers (51 percent) rely on untrained employees to differentiate electronic copy that is clean and compliant, from that which contains the type of potentially damaging language capable of triggering lawsuits and other e-disasters. [3]

Management’s failure to educate employees about e-mail and IM risks, rules, regulations, and policies is a shortsighted and potentially costly oversight. An educated workforce is more likely to comply with rules and policies, and more important, e-policy education can help form a defense against a sexual harassment lawsuit or a hostile work environment claim.

As previously noted, an organization may be held legally responsible for an employee’s misconduct including the transmission of offensive IM and e-mail content. However, the courts tend to take notice when an employer makes a reasonable effort to prevent a hostile work environment by establishing IM and e-mail policies and backing up those policies with comprehensive employee training.

Organizations that are eager to keep IM and e-mail content as clean, compliant, and risk-free as possible are advised to support policy and training programs with software tools. Unfortunately, many employers fail to take advantage of software to help control content-related risks.

[3]‘‘2003 E-Mail Rules, Policies, and Practices Survey,’’ conducted by American Management Association, The ePolicy Institute, and Clearswift. Survey findings available online at