Defining the use of personal e-mail and/or instant messaging at work

Answered by Debra Thompson, President, TG & Associates

I am a strong believer in the use of email and the Internet in our business operations, but do you have any thoughts on the use of personal e-mail and\or instant messaging by employees? I see instant messages pop up frequently on employee computers in the middle of the day. Obviously, this can be just as distracting and counter productive as personal phone calls.

Thanks for the question. You are correct that more and more businesses are going to the Internet and e-mail for communications and order processing. This increased use by companies means that the employees are being provided regular access to e-mail servers and the Internet. As a manager, you need to establish policies that govern these areas. You need to clearly define exactly what you will allow for personal use. I would suggest that you pattern it after your policies on personal use of the phone.

The Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM) suggests the following as a possible policy:

"The use of the Internet and electronic mail (e-mail) through the company network is for business purposes. Incidental personal use of the Internet and email is permitted as long as it does not interfere with company operations or cause any harm or embarrassment to the company. Personal use of the Internet and e-mail is expected to be on the employee's own time and not interfere with their job responsibilities.

"Employees are prohibited from using the Internet or e-mail through the company network for any other business or profit making activities. Employees may not download software without the Owner's/Manager's approval. Downloading of games from the internet is prohibited.

"The company reserves the right to inspect all files on company owned computers."

The key element of your policy has to do with the word "Incidental". The recommended SHRM approach is certainly vague on that point. Your younger employees probably view such communication as logical and necessary. They have grown up in an environment of point and click and instant response. But, from your question, I sense that you may be seeing more than you like. Whatever level you set must be consistent for all employees. You could permit incidental e-mail messages to the same degree you allow personal phone calls, but prohibit the instant messaging if it is truly distracting to operations. A gutsy approach might be to use an all hands meeting to discuss the issue and get inputs from your employees on what the "Incidental" standard should be. Once you decide on the acceptable level, you will want to have another all hands meeting to discuss and publish your policy. Then you need to enforce it.

Whatever standard you apply, make sure that it is fairly and equitably implemented.

Good luck,

Debra Thompson is President of TG & Associates, specializing in Human Resources for the Graphics Industries. She can be reached at 877-842-7762 (toll free) or Visit for FREE Tip Sheets on Managing and Motivating people. Debra is now offering individual HR Forms for printing industry personnel including the New Employee Orientation Checklist at
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