Think Personal E-Mails are No Big Deal? Think Again

We all do it. Using the company's e-mail system to send jokes, “talk” with friends or even comment on the boss–it's considered just a small part of an ordinary work day.

But consider this: How would you like those e-mails to be made public? An anti-spam software maker has done just that, posting 515,000 e-mail messages from Enron employees at EnronEmail.com. The e-mails were released to the public in 2003 by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which collected them during its Enron investigation.

The company, InBoxer Inc. of Concord, Massachusetts, set up the website to promote its new e-mail monitoring product, but it also shows workers who are casual about their e-mail use that it makes sense to be more careful.


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A random look at some of the e-mails revealed, for example, the first and last name of an employee's spouse and her Social Security number. One message said, "This week is not good. I have too large a pile of documents to shred. Next week is better." Lewd jokes, e-mailed en masse, are there too. A recent survey by Sharpe Partners shows that it's all too common to hit the forward button, with 89 percent of adult Internet users saying they share e-mail content with others.

InBoxer Inc. used its e-mail monitoring tool to show that 28 percent of the Enron messages were unrelated to business and 14 percent were potentially offensive or inappropriate, Roger Matus, chief executive of InBoxer, Inc., told MarketWatch.

While it's unlikely that many company e-mails would end up on a public website, workers should be aware that their e-mail conversations are most likely being monitored by their company. In fact, ABC News reported that up to 80 percent of employers keep track of workers' e-mail correspondence and the websites they visit. Also, e-mail can be subpoenaed and made public through court proceedings.

"You never know where [your e-mail message will] end up. If it ends up retained in an archive by your employer, it could wind up being part of the evidence pool in a lawsuit and it could go public just like all this Enron e-mail has," said Nancy Flynn, author of "E-mail Rules" and executive director of the ePolicy Institute.

ABC News listed some of the ways companies are trying to limit personal e-mail use on the clock. For example, some companies are using software that blocks access to job search sites and personal e-mail accounts. In some cases, companies suspend Internet privileges or even fine employees, starting at $1,000 per violation, for abuse or excessive use of Internet and personal e-mail.

Most companies allow some personal e-mail use, but observers urge employees to use restraint. Assume you're being watched. According to a survey in 2005 by the ePolicy Institute, 26 percent of firms said they've fired workers for misusing the Internet and another 25 percent have fired employees for e-mail abuse.

The posting of the Enron messages "is a good lesson to employees that you don't want to use the company system to send personal messages that come back to embarrass you or your family," Flynn said.

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