Time to Own Up to E-mail Management

April 30, 1998

How many non-work related e-mails do you send and receive every day from your office e-mail address? Multiply that by the number of your fellow employees and you most likely have a figure that tells a story of e-mail misuse within your organisation on a rather grand scale. In fact, your firm may be wasting thousands of pounds a year on unnecessary telecommunications and IT costs and lost staff productivity, not to mention leaving itself open to lawsuits, all because you are unaware of, or have no means of tracking, the growing abuse of your corporate e-mail system.

How do we know this? Our latest research shows that at least 35% of all corporate e-mail sent and received today is non work-related, with four of the top ten domain names used by employees being free ISPs such as Hotmail, Yahoo and AOL rather than business addresses. Moreover, the top ‘chatting pairs’ of staff within companies typically exchange a staggering 61 potentially non work-related e-mails every day. In one case we discovered two members of staff exchanged an incredible 957 e-mails over four days – one every 1.5 minutes, with a noticeable break for lunch!

In addition, our survey reveals that, on average, 300 attachments per end-user are stored in Sent and Deleted folders. These attachments could be anything from offensive pictures to birthday cards, party invites or newsletters on personal hobbies – and they represent an expensive storage headache for your IT department. What’s more, it’s only going to get worse as next generation, all-singing, all-dancing 3G computer networks are poised to encourage the proliferation of bandwidth and disc-hungry multimedia files as yet more irresistible attachments.

Meanwhile, one third of all e-mails currently being sent to senior IT managers are deemed to be irrelevant and unnecessary, according to a December 2002 survey by the British Computer Society and Henley Management College.

So how have employers today let such abuse of corporate e-mail get so out of hand? The answer is that most employers remain blissfully unaware that they have a problem. They either believe that staff only send out the odd personal e-mail or two, or that the presence of an ‘Acceptable Usage Policy’ for e-mail is a sufficient deterrent.

Reality belies both misconceptions. E-mail is a wonderfully easy communications tool to use. As such it lures employees into sending trivial messages by the bucketload that they would never bother or dare to send by less accessible means. The vast majority of employees within any organisation routinely use office e-mail for personal use without thought to the fact that they are, effectively, stealing time from their employer.

While much of this personal use is fairly contained, there will always be a hard core who greatly abuse the system, disregarding the fact that every e-mail carries a cost to someone. Staff can communicate with thousands of people simultaneously in seconds if they wish, simply by pressing Send on a distribution list – and all whilst being sat at their desks, frantically typing away on their keyboards and creating the impression that they are busy.

As for most ‘Acceptable Usage Policies’ for e-mail, these are only as good as the methods of policing you enforce. Yet, most companies neglect policing because they lack the necessary resources or because no-one in senior management champions the cause.

And therein lies the rub. Within most organisations today there is a distinct unwillingness to take ownership of e-mail management. It is not perceived to be an area of great importance, with few companies being aware of the potential risks they run in not protecting themselves against potential e-mail misuse. These include not only a massive drain on corporate resources, but also situations that could leave employers and employees open to prosecution where, for example, e-mails offend, defame, breach confidentiality agreements or simply block up the receiver’s inbox.

The fallout from such events can be catastrophic – lawsuits, executive officers in the dock, unwelcome publicity, loss of shareholder and customer confidence, loss of corporate reputation: the list is endless.

The lack of ownership of e-mail management means that when companies fall foul of an event – maybe a complaint from an external party about an offensive e-mail originating from an internal source, or a massive increase in e-mail traffic around the time of a major sporting event such as the World Cup – they indulge in classic buck-passing.

The IT department argues that the e-mail misuse is a problem for Human Resources, who in turn says that it is an issue for the Board. The Board invariably delegates the problem back down to the IT department. Meanwhile, the misuse continues and time, money and resources are being wasted in ways that executive officers would never tolerate if it were paper post, telephone or Web access systems being similarly abused. The fundamental difference here is that it is now acceptable practice to openly monitor staff use of paper post, telephone and Web access systems, whereas managing the use of e-mail systems is a relatively new concept and managers are worried about infringing civil liberties.

What’s needed now is passive, non-invasive management of all e-mail that will effectively track employee usage without compromising privacy. Non-invasive e-mail reporting tools are more effective since they can report on trends, thresholds and usage patterns so that departmental managers can address such issues as employee productivity, privacy, legal liability, bandwidth consumption or non-compliance with the company’s e-mail usage policy, at a local level.

With the advent of such reporting tools that can empower departmental managers, the answer to the problem of corporate e-mail misuse is clear – foster a culture whereby everyone who uses or manages the corporate e-mail system knows that they are responsible for their own actions, at an individual and departmental level.

Human Resources departments should educate workers on the reasons why they should abide by good e-mail management practices. End-users should actively have to sign up to abide by a policy of honest use of the system. IT departments should put in place systems that manage and report on e-mail usage on a monthly basis, and that also periodically remind all end-users of such practices. All individual departmental heads should reinforce the message by ensuring employees are abiding by the rules during staff appraisals. And, crucially, executive officers need to champion e-mail management as an important corporate issue.

If driven from the top, with the responsibility for compliance shared by all, effective e-mail management mechanisms have the potential to save companies thousands of pounds, increase staff productivity, lessen the risk of legal threats, make the IT infrastructure more efficient, and in so doing add to the company’s bottom line. Just taking today’s minimum wage, if 100 employees can be dissuaded from spending 20 minutes a day on non work-related e-mail, the saving to the business would be £32,000 a year.

Why wait for an incident of e-mail misuse to raise the need for collective corporate responsibility for e-mail management in your firm? Act now and bar the door to incidents that could potentially fatally damage your business, and your career.