A Weekly ComputorEdge Column by Douglas E. Welch




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Keeping it separate

by Douglas E. Welch

June 18, 1999

In today's increasingly litigious society it is becoming more and more important to keep your private life separate from your work life. If you fail to do this you just might find your email on display the next time your company is taken to court. While it may seem like an over-reaction, recent history has shown the importance of email in legal proceedings is growing every day. Lawyers are learning to love email since it produces such a clear audit trail of information. Below are a few simple guidelines to help keep both you and your company out of the courtroom.

Separate but equal

Your first step is to establish a separate email address. When email was just beginning to grow we often used our company email address for everything. After all, it was the only one we had. Today, there is no excuse not to have your own email address. Whether it is through your own ISP or using one of the many free web-based email services. Once this address is set up, make sure that only the appropriate people have each email address. If your company is a partner with Intel you may not want to have your personal friend at Motorola emailing you at your work address.

A separate email address ensures that you won't be using the company email system for personal correspondence, a no-no under most company's policies. More importantly, your personal email won't be archived or backed-up along with all the other corporate data that could be subpoenaed in a court proceeding. This doesn't mean lawyers couldn't also request your private email records but it makes it less likely. Your company may have a log of you accessing your external mailbox but they probably won't have access to the actual content of those messages.

Everyone is listening

I make a point of only writing in email those comments I would say to someone's face. You would be well advised to take the same tack. You must assume that somewhere down the line the person you refer to may see your comments, whether this is through some intentional meddling of a third party or merely a slip of the mouse. There should be no presumption that your email is private.

Email security is lax, at best. Passwords can be guessed. Messages can easily be printed or forwarded to others without considering the content of messages. Do yourself a large favor and reserve your most critical comments for your journal.

Web links

Another casualty of recent litigation is the linking of one web site to another. There have been several recent cases in which employees were reprimanded or fired because they linked their company web site to their personal web site. Their web sites contained information which some people considered offensive. These people then complained to the company for supporting such information, even remotely.

The best advice is to never link your personal and professional web sites. Again, litigation has caused us to throw out the electronic "baby with the bath water" but it is only through such isolation that you can protect yourself.

You must also be careful if you are part of your company's web design or management team. You should get written approval for every external link you place on the web site to insure that you don't accidentally violate agreements with business partners or violate company policy regarding content.

Take it all home

Most companies will not object to editing/printing personal documents at work so long as it does not take a large amount of your time or company resources. Even so, it is best to remember to clean up after yourself once you have completed your work. Make sure that you don't leave personal documents on your work machine where they might be automatically backed up or archived. If you don't, your documents could become part of company information that might be subpoenaed.

In the days before inexpensive removable disk drives I actually carried a hard disk to and from work every day. My personal data resided there and it also allowed me to take work home or bring files into work, if necessary. Today you have the ability to carry around Zip or other removable disks easily.

The Bit Trail

Finally, remember to regularly purge downloaded files, bookmarks, history files and cookies from your web browser. It has been proven that merely browsing the web can create quite a trail of information. Similarly, temporary files from word processors and other programs can create the same kind of paper trail. While you don't have to be paranoid about such information, cleaning out these items on a regular basis could save you trouble in the future.

It is disappointing that increasing litigation and distrust has caused the work environment to become so unfriendly to technology, but it is up to you to protect yourself and your company by keeping personal and professional information separate.

Douglas E. Welch is a freelance writer and computer consultant in Van Nuys, California. Readers can discuss career issues with other readers by joining the Career Opportunities Discussion on Douglas' web page at: http://www.welchwrite.com/

He can reached via email at douglas@welchwrite.com

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