Do you know how to tackle staff email and internet misuse?
Research carried out last year by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development revealed that 64 per cent of organisations had experienced problems in the previous two years.
Although many have introduced policies to govern their use, the issue continues to be a thorny one.
Pauline Pembry, employment law services at FirstAssist, said: "Businesses are understandably sensitive about computer security, email and internet abuse.
"Some of the problems arise when trying to judge the appropriate level of response to a breach of the company's internet or email policy. However, it can be all too easy to see every breach as potentially gross misconduct.
"Deciding what is and what isn't gross misconduct is the real challenge for employers. In this respect, there are some basic elements that can form the basis of an effective internet and email policy."
Unauthorised use of passwords and reading emails that are clearly marked 'personal' are generally regarded as disciplinary offences at the minimum.
In a recent case, the Employment Appeal Tribunal - stressing the importance of preserving the integrity of a computer system - held that it is "normally reasonable to regard as gross misconduct an employee's deliberate use of an unauthorised password in order to gain access to information which they are not entitled to see".
Inappropriate use of " blogging" is also considered serious enough to warrant disciplinary action. A "blog" is a personal online diary that can be accessed by anyone. There have been a few publicised cases of employees being dismissed because of material contained in their blog.
Many employers may not even be aware of blogging, let alone make reference to it in their policy. However, concerns about the potential content of a blog can still be addressed. It may help to liken the situation to the publication of the same material in the press, highlighting that the company could be brought into disrepute if they are in any way linked to the material.
So when does all this constitute misuse?
Personal use of email and the internet is a major focus for employers because they don't want these activities to interfere with individual work responsibilities.
However, what is acceptable can vary a lot from one company to another. Whatever the policy, it's important for it to be clearly communicated to all employees. This is particularly important for new and also temporary staff who are often overlooked and should be required to sign that they have read and understood the policy.
The actual time spent on personal email traffic can also present a problem if it becomes excessive.
Limiting personal email time to breaks or at either end of the working day may be a solution; with the loss of that privilege being a possible disciplinary sanction for those who don't comply. Dismissal is only likely to be appropriate following warnings or if the level of personal use is extreme and amounts to a fundamental breach of the rules and contract.
Inappropriate use of the internet may also be an issue.
Again the seriousness of the offence will depend on a number of factors - it does not necessarily have to be gross misconduct. Factors to consider may include the nature of sites being accessed, whether material has been downloaded and if or how much work time was involved.
Companies nowadays use a variety of means to prevent undesirable emails getting into their systems.
However that doesn't mean that there is total control over the mail that arrives in an individual's inbox. Employees are generally required to delete immediately anything inappropriate - such as sexually explicit or offensive material.
The mailing of jokes is a widespread practice; employees may forward them without much thought, but if the content is inappropriate they risk disciplinary action which could include dismissal if the offence is regarded as gross misconduct.
Mr Pembry said: "It is essential that companies have a policy on email and internet use, as well as ensuring staff compliance.
"Employers are liable for issues such as their employees' defamatory remarks, breach of copyright or software license. Remember too that email messages can give rise to legal claims against the company, and are disclosable in any legal action, including defamation, breach of confidentiality or contract and employment tribunal claims.
"Once a policy has been created ensure all staff are aware of the issues and understand the rules - the first step to protecting the company and its employees."
The offences that are commonly regarded as gross misconduct are sending of inappropriate messages, for instance any that might cause offence or harassment on grounds of sex, race, disability, age or religion; deliberate accessing of offensive, obscene or indecent material from the internet, such as pornography, racist or sexist material, violent images, incitement to criminal behaviour; and downloading material from the internet in breach of licensing or copyright restrictions
The seriousness of other typical computer, internet or email offences can vary from employer to employer.
* For further press information please contact Madeleine Roles, Marie Woods or Justine Hoadley on 0208 977 9132 or email email@example.com