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The biggest messaging threat of all

Sep 23, 20042 mins
Enterprise ApplicationsMessaging Apps

* SurfControl study is scary for legal, HR and senior managers

A university in Northern Ireland was commissioned by SurfControl to conduct a study of business e-mail use. The study, which was released in early September, should scare corporate managers because it demonstrates how potentially vulnerable e-mail systems really are to the biggest messaging threat of all: lawsuits.

Here’s a sampling of what the study found:

* Twenty-eight percent of employees have used their corporate e-mail system to send sexually oriented content to a co-worker, while 31% have e-mailed this type of content to someone outside the organization. Three to four percent of workers do this every day.

* Fifty-one percent of corporate employees have been exposed to sexually explicit materials via a Web download from a co-worker, while 28% said they had downloaded this type of content.

The potential for disaster from this type of behavior is enormous. Chevron, for example, had to pay $2.2 million to several employees several years ago because co-workers had sent sexually explicit e-mail to them. Another source says that more than one-quarter of Fortune 500 companies have been accused of allowing sexual harassment in the workplace because of an abuse of e-mail or the Web.

In short, the potential liability for significant economic and other damage to an organization is quite real. For an organization that does nothing about controlling its employees’ e-mail and Web usage, the issue is less of “if” and more of “when” a lawsuit will be brought claiming damages of some kind.

For example, consider the following. Assume that 50% of workers in a 2,000-employee company have, at some point, been exposed to sexually explicit material on the job and that there is only a 1-in-1,000 chance that such an employee will sue as a result. Statistically, that means that there is a 63% chance that the company will be sued by at least one employee.

There is growing interest in e-mail content filtering systems to intercept a variety of threats, both for internal and external e-mail. While these systems are often implemented to prevent confidential data or other types of valuable content from being sent through e-mail, their value in reducing corporate liability from sexual harassment or hostile workplace claims cannot be underestimated.