In today’s business world, online business communication can be a cause for concern. Rogue employees intentionally defame customers, malign managers and bully colleagues via email, social media and collaboration apps. Even a compliant employee can accidentally post confidential content that could embarrass co-workers and damage consumers. Employers cannot allow incivility — including bullying, harassment and discriminatory language — to go unchecked.

Ignore incivility today and tomorrow you may face hostile work environment claims, regulatory fines and lost revenue. To help ensure online civility, best practices call for the establishment and reinforcement of “netiquette” rules, designed to minimize legal risks and maximize respectful communication.

Let’s explore how training leaders can help make the online business world a more inclusive, and compliant, place for all.

Incorporate Netiquette Rules Into Electronic Policies

Reduce legal, regulatory and human resources (HR) risks by incorporating netiquette rules into e-policies governing email, texting, instant messaging, social media, blogs, mobile devices, the web, video conferencing and other communication and collaboration tools. Prohibit language that could be considered hostile, discriminatory, defamatory, harassing, obscene, libelous or otherwise offensive and illegal.

Forbid gossip, rumors, coarse jokes and other unprofessional content and behaviors. Use formal guidelines to prohibit the creating, posting, transmitting, acquiring or publishing of any type of content — text, photos, videos and/or art — that could trigger lawsuits, serve as smoking-gun evidence in litigation, violate regulatory rules, breach HR guidelines or otherwise create problems for your organization.

Netiquette Rules Help Stave Off Discrimination and Harassment Claims

Incorporate netiquette rules into e-policies to help ensure legal compliance. The Federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), for example, protects certain applicants and employees 40 years and older from age-based workplace discrimination. Minimize the likelihood of age-related discrimination or harassment claims by drafting netiquette rules that ban the use of “OK, Boomer!” and other dismissive, derogatory and disparaging comments about older workers.

Netiquette Rules Support Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits workplace discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, gender identity or sexual orientation. Ignoring employees’ preferred pronouns, especially those of employees’ identifying as LGBTQ+, is not only harmful but can also lead to discrimination claims. Take a proactive approach to promoting workplace gender expression, diversity and inclusion. Use netiquette rules to mandate use of non-discriminatory pronouns (alternatives to he/his and her/hers) to support respectful interactions with internal and external parties. Also, ensure that employees are respectful of different ethnicities and backgrounds and do not use hateful or derogatory speech toward a group of people.

Train Employees to Think Before Posting, Emailing or Chatting

Support netiquette rules with training. Instruct employees to consider the consequences of their words by asking:

  1. Would I say this in a formal business meeting, casual gathering of co-workers or luncheon with customers?
  2. Would I be embarrassed if my colleagues, customers or boss watched my YouTube video?
  3. Should I take time to cool off before posting this combative tweet?
  4. Does this post defy the organization’s e-policies, netiquette rules or harassment/discrimination policy?
  5. Does my content violate the law? Is it hostile, harassing, discriminatory, defamatory and/or obscene?
  6. Could my joke offend others? Might my funny comment be considered harassment or discriminatory?
  7. Am I willing to risk my job over this email?

Netiquette Rules:  Do’s and Don’ts For Employees

Enhance online civility by training employees to adhere to these netiquette do’s and don’ts.

Do:

  • Comply fully with mandatory netiquette rules and e-policies.
  • Focus on your expertise when posting. Share your know-how in a polished, professional manner.
  • Add value to online conversations: Answer questions, solve problems, show off your company’s brand.
  • Keep confidential information (business and personal) under wraps.
  • Be honest. If you have a vested interested in a topic, say so. When writing about the company, state your name, title and role.
  • Write as you speak. Be conversational yet professional.
  • Know that all content written, transmitted, accessed, acquired, published or stored on the company’s system is the property of management.

Don’t:

  • Share content that is fraudulent, harassing, discriminatory, hostile, bullying, defamatory, obscene or otherwise prohibited by law or policy.
  • Harass or discriminate against others based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, gender identity, sexual orientation or other status protected by law.
  • Gossip or complain about the company, customers and/or colleagues.
  • Share internal email or other eyes-only data intended solely for in-house readers.
  • Post “funny” content. The joke that strikes you as hilarious may offend others.
  • Be original. If you refer to outside content, cite the source.
  • Post copyright-protected material without permission from the copyright holder.
  • Expect privacy when using company resources. Management has the right to monitor content on the company system.
  • Violate netiquette rules and e-policies … unless you wish to seek employment elsewhere.

Enforce Netiquette Rules Consistently

The only way netiquette rules and e-policies can boost civility and reduce liability is through consistent compliance. Expect 100% policy compliance, 24/7/365 at the office and at home, on company-owned and personal systems, sites, accounts and devices. Treat policy violators equally, regardless of title, rank or popularity. From summer interns to chief executive officer, everyone must adhere to netiquette rules and e-policies — or face the consequences, up to and including dismissal.

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