Why Your Business Needs An Internet Policy – A True Story

Computer, Internet and Email policies requiredA young woman comes to see the company HR Manager because she has received a message from a “Secret Admirer” on the company email system.  Most of the message was innocuous, but it concluded by saying, “I’ve been watching you.”

The person who received the message was a basket case.  This took place more than eight years ago, at a time when people were not used to receiving bizarre emails on a daily basis from people they don’t know (i.e., spam).

Still, the woman’s strong reaction was surprising — that is, until you heard the whole story.

It seems that the young woman’s sister had been stalked by “an admirer” and murdered.   So, receiving a message by a secret admirer who claimed to be watching her was taken as a major threat.  Could you blame her for reacting strongly?

The message contained a few details suggesting it was sent from someone inside the company (even though it displayed an external email address).  The head of IT was brought in.  His staff conducted some excellent forensic computer work.

They traced the email back to another employee.  It turns out that the message came from a co-worker using a company computer on company time.  The co-worker was another woman on the same team as the message recipient — someone who sat a few cubicles away.

After an investigation the company executives were satisfied that the email was a practical joke.  The sender had been bored and showed very poor judgment in how she decided to amuse herself.  She did not know about the history with the other woman’s sister because it had occurred in another state.

So how did this situation turn out?  The recipient of the message took several weeks off of work while seeking counseling.  The practical joker, who was a star performer otherwise, was required to apologize in writing and given a written warning. Shortly thereafter the practical joker left the company, no doubt realizing she had just committed a career-limiting move.

This is a true story.  I actually was involved in it.

Back in the day when I was a corporate executive, I did a stint as Vice President of Human Resources.  I was faced with the task of sorting out this situation and dealing with the aftermath.

What started out as a practical joke turned out to be a major incident — and a major diversion of company resources. Before all was said and done, we had a half-dozen employees working to investigate the mess and resolve it, and had brought in outside legal counsel.  And of course there was the loss of productivity of both the message recipient and the practical joker.

This whole scenario drove home to me the need for a written policy about usage of the company’s electronic resources, including email and the Internet.

At the time, email and Internet usage was not nearly as widespread as it is today.  In fact, one of the problems I faced in disciplining the practical joker was that our company policy barely mentioned email and the Internet.  Not to mention this important point:  it would have been helpful to have made employees aware of proper email and Internet usage up front.  We might have been able to “save” that star performer.

After that situation, however, we immediately re-wrote our policy.

I suspect many of you in your own businesses are in similar positions.  You have rudimentary or nonexistent policies for Internet and email usage.

But, trust me.  True life is stranger than fiction.  Situations like this are just around the next corner.


Anita Campbell Anita Campbell is the Founder, CEO and Publisher of Small Business Trends and has been following trends in small businesses since 2003. She is the owner of BizSugar, a social media site for small businesses.

8 Reactions
  1. Lucio Dias Ribeiro

    Hi Anita,
    Great subject.
    Policies and rules are really important to keep a legal and safe background for either employers and employees.
    This matter still causes confusion, having companies without a clear definition whether they review or not KPI’s based on online behaviour.
    Does the employer own the email content exchange by workers using companies software?
    Does the content (even personal) would be allowed to be tracked? Is it a privacy invasion?
    In a situation where someone uses the companies’ internet access to browse to illegal pages is it legal for the company hand over details to legal authorities?
    Good discussion,
    Lucio Dias Ribeiro

  2. I must say you are charmer.Very well told story with good message and case studies as well.

  3. It is also important that HR department fully understand any technical jargon before acting upon them. In a previous job we often had HR staff wanting to discipline staff without knowing the full story. At the same time it also the duty of the IT department to make sure HR understand fully any data given to them.

    Excellent example and good material to start the basis of your internet policy.


  4. Hi Anita,

    Excellent post about company internet policies…your post explained how a practical joke changed entire situation at work and it effect those women.

  5. Gosh, you would think someone who was in her position would have more common sense than this. It’s truly a bummer she basically killed her chance of promotion or furthering her career in the company. I think you handled it well. Things like these, practical jokes or not, should not be taken lightly. It reminds me of the story where this man in the 90s, college student, jokingly handed the flight attendant a note “I have a bomb!” as a practical joke. Everyone around him knew it was a joke, but the airline took it seriously and he was arrested for his joke. People really need to have a second thought in regards to the boundaries of workplace and how far the joke can escalate to an unpleasant situation.