Risks and Disasters Will Rise as Instant Messaging Use Increases

Risks and Disasters Will Rise as Instant Messaging Use Increases

It’s not hard to understand why some employees tend to play fast and loose with IM content. Instant messaging conversations are instantaneous, and they take place in real time—the electronic equivalent of popping into a colleague’s cubicle for a quick, informal chat.

As an instant messager, you typically chat only with people you know, your buddies. You decide what names to add to your buddy (or contact) list. You determine whom to block from your buddy list. Consequently, some instant messagers may be tempted to be exceptionally free and easy with their language. After all, they reason, they are chatting with their buddies, their pals—trusted friends and family members who would never file a lawsuit claiming harassment, discrimination, or a hostile work environment—right?

Why Worry About Instant Messaging Content?

If you work in an unregulated industry, content concerns revolve around the use of inappropriate or abusive language that may trigger litigation, the intentional theft or accidental transmission of confidential data, and the unfortunate retention of personal and potentially embarrassing nonbusiness record messages.

Those working in regulated industries (financial services and health care, among others) face additional content-related risks, which are detailed in Part Seven.

Beware Hidden Readers

Instant messaging is equivalent to any other form of business correspondence and should be treated with equal care. Instant messages are business records subject to normal legal and regulatory rules for record retention and preservation. Consequently, the message you send today could return to haunt your organization in the form of evidence in a lawsuit or in headline-making news, to name two content-related risks.

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Real-Life E-Disaster Story:
Can Your Company or Industry Afford a High-Profile Instant Messaging Gaffe?

Ask yourself, ‘‘How would I feel if this message appeared on the front page of a newspaper?’’

Two senior executives of Merrill Lynch experienced the sting of negative publicity firsthand when an e-mail message in which they posed the question above to caution 50,000 employees to be mindful of e-mail content was covered by the national business media. [11]

When drafting instant messages, think not only about your intended reader, but also about unintended or hidden readers. You never know when a disgruntled employee or vengeful ex-employee will share a message intended for your reader’s eyes only with the media or other outsiders.

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[11]Nicholas Varchaver, ‘‘The Perils of E-Mail,’’ Fortune ( February 17, 2003), 96.

Would You Be Embarrassed If Management, the Media, or Mom Read Your Instant Messages?

Language that is obscene, racist, sexist, discriminatory, menacing, harassing, threatening, or in any way hostile or offensive has no place in the electronic office. Use your written IM policy to ban language that could negatively effect your organization’s business relationships, damage your corporate reputation, trigger a lawsuit, or be used against you as evidence in litigation or an investigation. [12]

Instant messages create written records that can be used as evidence for or against you during litigation or an investigation. If you would be embarrassed to have a comment uncovered by prosecutors or covered by the media, don’t put it in writing and transmit it via IM or e-mail.

Instruct employees to compose instant messages that are businesslike and adhere to the following guidelines:

  1. Jokes have no place in cyberspace. Typically jokes are told at the expense of an individual or group, and they may be perceived as harassing, menacing, or defamatory. Compounding the problem, IM is a cold medium that is devoid of intonation, facial expression, and body language. It is, therefore, easy for readers to misinterpret jokes.

    Use your IM training program to let employees know that the no-joke policy extends to instant messages and e-mail only. You’re not trying to create a somber, humorless work environment. You’re simply trying to limit unnecessary electronic risks.

    Let employees know that they are free to share clean, inoffensive jokes on the phone and face-to-face. But jokes of any kind, even those rated G, are banned from the computer system.

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    Real-Life E-Disaster Story:
    It Was No Laughing Matter When the Joke Triggered a Lawsuit

    In one high-profile case, Chevron Corporation in 1995 was ordered to pay female employees $2.2 million to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit stemming from inappropriate jokes e-mailed internally by male employees. Among other gems, the offending jokes included one titled ‘‘Twenty-Five Reasons Why Beer Is Better Than Women.’’ [13]

    Before instant messaging a joke to a buddy, consider if there is any possibility that the joke you find so funny might be offensive to someone else. If there is a chance that your intended recipient or a hidden reader will be offended by the language, tone, or content of the joke, don’t send it. Better to err on the side of caution than to trigger a workplace lawsuit.

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  2. Keep instant messages clean of rumors, gossip, negative comments, and disparaging or defamatory remarks. Use your written IM policy to notify employees that they are prohibited from transmitting messages that could in any way cause harm or embarrassment to an individual or the organization. Ban the use of IM to send or receive rumors, to gossip, or to make negative comments and disparaging or defamatory remarks about employees, executives, the organization, clients, or other third parties.

  3. Obscene language, harassing or menacing comments, and racial or ethnic slurs have no place in business instant messages. Remind employees that IM access is provided primarily for business use. Employees should therefore use businessappropriate language in all IM communications—personal as well as business record messages.

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

[13]Ann Carrns, ‘‘Prying Times: Those Bawdy E-MailsWere Good for a Laugh Until the Ax Fell,’’ TheWall Street Journal ( February 4, 2000).