WMU News

E-mail privacy in the wake of firings at Dow

Aug. 2, 2000

KALAMAZOO -- Dow Chemical Co.'s termination last week of employees for their abuses of the company's e-mail system has sent ripples of concern through employees and companies alike. Many ask about the legalities and ramifications of Dow Chemical's actions as well as what this will mean for the future.

Three WMU faculty experts commented this week on e-mail privacy and the action by Dow Chemical.

Dr. Norman W. Hawker, associate professor of finance and commercial law, says that despite what some people think, Dow Chemical Co. "showed a great deal of restraint with regard to what they could have done."

Hawker says that the law gives the company "the right to fire all the employees instead of just reprimanding the majority and firing a handful." While he feels there's need for more legislation on this issue, he says "the law is pretty clear. Companies have an unfettered right to observe and monitor their employees e-mail habits."

Hawker is currently teaching a class in law and ethics in which the e-mail privacy issue has been discussed often.

Dr. Joseph M. Kayany, assistant professor of communication, says that the argument "ultimately is about the use of company time for personal purposes." He says while the courts have sided with companies, a larger question remains about the extent of the companies monitoring of employees' habits.

"If I make personal phone calls from work or write a letter using company materials, does that give the company the right to listen in on those calls and read those letters?"

What's driving this, Kayany says, is that companies are losing control of the workplace.

"Productivity is down and it's true that a lot of time is wasted by employees who send and receive personal e-mail or surf the Web." And while some have suggested developing ways to block employees' access to such resources, Kayany says that "unfortunately, I'm not aware of a software solution to this problem."

Dr. Peter M. Saunders, WMU associate professor of business information systems and director of the Center for Teaching and Learning, says Dow Chemical Co.'s crackdown on offensive e-mail and inappropriate use of the Internet by employees is another illustration of how society is grappling with the need for boundaries in cyberspace.

Saunders notes that the recent shakeup at Dow comes as a court battle over copyright infringement is unfolding between the recording industry and the Web site Napster. In both cases, guidelines governing use of the Internet are being tested or created.

"I think that we're watching the beginning of a defining of boundaries," Saunders says. "In this case, it's shaping itself around explicitly sexual material and it raises a number of issues that are very important." Perhaps the most important issue, Saunders says, is who creates and enforces guidelines.

"On one hand I applaud Dow for what they did," he says, "but we still have to wonder about who really is to police this -- is it left to the companies, is it left to individuals or is it the government that steps in?"

Saunders says the incident also raises questions about First Amendment rights, censorship and freedom of speech.

"I kind of take a middle ground and think that kind of censorship is a good thing in that it sends a message to employees as to what a company's standards are," Saunders says. He predicts more companies will restate or create policies governing use of the Internet and, in some cases, will fire or discipline employees who send offensive e-mail or engage in inappropriate use of the Internet.

Media contact: Marie Lee, 616 387-8400, marie.lee@wmich.edu

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