We know what you're doing

Forget sex behind the filing cabinet - the real thrill-seekers do it on their desktop. Is this why employers want to ban e-mail?
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
A FEW weeks ago an old colleague sent me an e-mail. Click on this square, it instructed, if you want to see Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee Jones like you've never seen them before. Not the sort of decision you expect to face first thing on a Monday morning, and I can't say it was top of my viewing preferences. Any shred of curiosity was quickly eroded by deep anxiety. What if someone caught me gawping at some lurid visual of Pammy and Tommy entwined? Would it cover my entire screen? What if there was, horror, a noisy soundtrack? Reader, I pressed delete.

There is a growing number of e-mailers who seem entirely fearless about this sort of exchange. My old colleague would consider me a prude, no doubt, for not clicking on that square. And since these soft-porn snippets are doing the rounds in most large offices, normally liberal employers are beginning to take a puritanical view.

"The other day I had to ban someone from sending us e-mails," says Rhonda Wilson, director of the IT company Seeing The Light. "I picked it up when it was intended for someone else and it was, well, explicit. So I censored it."

The e-mail as an outlet for spontaneous, private and highly personal expression may well have had its day. Companies are considering ways of censoring mail they judge to be too intimate. Some are responding to worrying precedents: the Scottish housing association, Cairn, recently sacked two employees for exchanging sexually explicit e-mails and then had to pay them compensation for unfair dismissal. In another case, a man was disciplined for making derogatory comments about a colleague via e-mail to a friend.

So companies are rushing to introduce certain rules. Guinness and Lloyds are just two of the firms that have introduced guidelines for their employees, and PriceWaterhouseCoopers has issued rules to reduce idle e-mail chat. The civil rights group Liberty has warned that these new rules may infringe workers' privacy. What hasn't been made clear is whom these new guidelines would protect. While they may curtail a high volume of harmless electronic banter, it's unlikely they will tackle the real abusers.

A friend of mine regularly used to receive "flattering" electronic missives from a colleague in her office. A typical one would be "I really like the trousers you're wearing", or "I noticed you changed your perfume today". "It was really creepy because you couldn't tell where he was in the office or when he was looking at you. It was quite voyeuristic," she says.

When she explained to him it was inappropriate to make such personal comments on e-mail rather than in conversation, he reacted angrily. He stopped bothering her, though, and switched his attention to other female members of staff. What's worrying is that such electronic harassment would probably slip through the new guidelines. And how could any rules differentiate between the literal message and the meaning intended? This is where e- mails enter murky territory. As my friend said of her creepy admirer: "His compliment would have been fine in the course of a conversation, but on screen it was unnerving."

Since there's no formal etiquette, e-mailers can sound weirdly polite or worryingly intimate. It's all a matter of interpretation. Of course, these ambiguities are partly what makes e-mail such a compelling medium. "There is no personal code of practice around these communications," adds Rhonda Wilson."When people send very explicit e-mails there probably is that level of risk and excitement. It's like having sex at work in the cupboard - it's a very contemporary form of danger."

It is one that goes largely unchecked; people are really making up the rules as they go along, expressing themselves more openly at work than they would do on the phone or face to face. "Normal rules don't apply in an e-mail; you can get away with saying things and people won't be quite sure how to take them," says one friend, who often relies on e-mail for asking out potential boyfriends. "It leaves room for backing out if one of you gets cold feet and you can get to know someone over alonger period without committing yourself."

All this has begun to irritate employers, who can see that staff spend a good deal of time involved in this clandestine pastime (traditional time-wasting activities like personal calls and long lunches are far more conspicuous).

It's hard to imagine how employers will curb it; their threats that e-mails can be tapped into and retrieved are mostly unenforceable. For the time being, it will take more than workplace guidelines to silence cyber gossip, flirtation and romance. In the meantime, anyone seen that e-mail of Pammy and Tommy?