E-communications & Netiquette:

Establishing Guidelines Beyond Email

This article was first published on-line in three installments in the New York-based Imaging and Document Solutions magazine from April to June 2000. © Rick Barry 2000.



by Rick Barry,


Barry Associates.


Is yours an organization that makes considerable use of email, intranet, extranet, Internet and EDMS systems?  Are you an early adopter of new information technology?  Are you in an industry that is regulated or litigious in nature?  Do you deal with the public primarily electronically?


Do you routinely communicate outside of your organization?  Do you have more than a few staff members who have access to email and/or the Internet?  Does your staff use corporate information technology from their homes or other off-site locations?


If the answer to any of these questions is yes, you should set up an electronic communications policy.  If it is yes to half or more, you need one immediately. 


Most employees don't consider the consequences of incriminating email.  When questioned about email practices, their three typical responses are as follows: "I didn't know," "I thought email was my own private domain" and "this was a personal not a business communication."


However, most organizations have come to realize the importance of having a well-understood employee electronic mail policy.  Organizations with clear, established ground rules for the use of email for business and personal purposes are less likely to have to defend themselves in court.  They're more likely to receive sympathetic hearings if they are tried in court.  Consider the distinctions between email, e-communications and netiquette to help you set up guidelines for employees. 


1.  Email policy covers mandatory principles for the use of organizational  email services.  Anyone using a corporate email server or email address, whether they use those services from their office, home or other location, is using a corporate asset.  Like it or not, the organization is responsible for any misuse of its email facilities.  If an employee distributes copyrighted materials without permission, or sends harassing email, the organization shares in these illegal activities and is subject to suit.  If an employee sends personal views to a distribution list without appropriate disclaimers, his/her remarks may be taken as representing the parent organization, often obvious from the email address. 


2.  Electronic communications (EC) policy goes a step further.  It recognizes that there are many ways in which employees use the communication facilities of the organization to carry out business and personal tasks: telephones, voice mail, faxes, pagers, personal assistants etc.  It recognizes that digital technologies are increasingly becoming integrated.  Email can easily be converted to voice mail and vice versa.  Word processing, email and enterprise document management (EDMS) and recordkeeping systems are becoming more integrated, some with intranets, extranets and the Web. 


3.  Netiquette is something else.  It provides useful, though mostly voluntary, guidelines for good communication practices to improve on the efficiency, effectiveness and clarity of business communications.  Sometimes it is included as an annex to Email or electronic communications policy. 


The Purpose and Structure of New Policy

With a more comprehensive electronic communications policy, including email, mobile phones, handheld computers and other communications devices, you can keep up with converging technologies that support intranets, extranets and the Web. 


How urgent is your need for e-communications policy? Below is a simple rating system that will determine if you have an inconsequential, marginal or compelling need to revise current organizational policy.  Rate each of the following from 1 - 3 (1=low rating, 3=high). 


1) We rely on email, voice mail, mobile phones, handheld computers and other electronic communication devices. 


2) We have a heavily regulated (legal) environment, a national operation or a strong Web presence. 


3) Recordkeeping or maintaining a historical legacy is important to our organization.


4) We depend on outsourced/external strategic partners. 


5) We are vulnerable to internal/external computer and communication security attacks. 


6) Our organization can quickly respond to court discovery judgments (including email). 


Add up your total score.  If your score is 6-9 (inconsequential), you needn’t worry.  If it’s 10-14 (marginal), you should start worrying.  If your score is 15-18, you need an e-communications policy quick.  Include the following topics in your new policy:


1.  Legal: Discuss the legal ramifications of any recorded material in any communication device.  For example, explain how servers, email, home or other sites also affect the organization.  Forbid any user from participating in any illegal activities.  Explain the potential of all e-communication services to be subject to internal investigations.


2.  Organizational: Explain ownership of all recorded materials produced and the user’s access to internal/external systems, email, Web or signature lines.  Discuss responsibility for representing the organization externally.  Include any training and certification process in compliance with policy and any consequences to violations. 


3.  Recordkeeping: Define what constitutes a record and what doesn’t.

Make clear that it’s not defined by technology.  For example, you can’t say all emails are not records.  Records are defined by context, content and form.


4.  Privacy: Identify what types of personal information about the user are kept by the organization.  For example, what is the company policy if a system administrator accidentally stumbles on email messages? Explain what the company’s policy is for monitoring all content and state the policy for disclosure on all content. 


Advantages of establishing a comprehensive policy

By now, you should realize the advantages of establishing a more comprehensive policy that includes all communication devices and converging technologies used in your organization. 


Beyond email and e-communications policies is netiquette.  E-communications policy and netiquette guidelines are separate entities that should not be confused with one another.  However, they should be mutually supportive.


E-communications policies are mainly mandatory usage rules (e.g.  “do not harass,” “do not download viruses,” “do not do illegal things with corporate assets”).  Netiquette mainly sets out voluntary style and behavioral guidelines for employees to follow (e.g.  “do not forward messages to others without the author’s permission,” “do not mix multiple subjects in one communication”).  With netiquette guidelines, you can improve communication practices in today’s collaborative workplace environment. 


Often, the need for netiquette guidelines comes from employees who are tired of being on the receiving end of poor communications.  Perhaps they see others using unclear or inappropriate language and want written guidelines to fall back on.  Or they simply want to learn how to become better communicators themselves.  With netiquette guidelines, your organization can reinforce its culture, encourage good communication practices and behavioral expectations regarding the use of corporate communications facilities. 


1.  Carry out a review of how employees view the quality of communications in the organization.  You may discover that employees at the nerve ends of the organization have a different view on the quality of communications sent from above, compared to the opinions held in the boardroom.  Are employees receiving communications that leave them with more questions than answers?  Do they want or see the need for netiquette guidelines?


2.  Get your staff and managers involved in studying existing netiquette models.  There are many good examples and references available.  Some are online, and others are in published books.  As this subject has less to do with technology and more to do with human behavior, the age of these resources is not important.  Good communications polices can be applied to the latest technologies. 


3.  Establish your own corporate netiquette guidelines.  Publish them and use innovative methods to train people in netiquette and e-communications policy. Don’t forget to include these polices in your standard personnel training. Netiquette guidelines may be published separately or as an annex to the e-communications policy.  Either way, the two should be seen as different sides of the same coin.  Together they will ensure that all corporate communications to carry out the business aims of the organization in a manner that is effective, efficient and respectful of the law. 




Rick Barry is President of Barry Associates  and workshop leader in information management and records management practices.


© Rick Barry 2000