Like e-mailing dirty jokes? Don't try sending one to Texas Health Resources workers. This Southwest hospital chain uses special software to automatically track and detect unseemly electronic messages exchanged by 13,000 employees.
So much for free-flowing electronic communications. In a growing corporate backlash against inflammatory and potentially incriminating messages, companies are cracking down on e-mail with measures that go well beyond merely issuing bureaucratic warnings about abuse.
All in all, 20 percent of companies were regularly peeking at e-mails last year, up from 15 percent in 1997, the American Management Association says. Use of technology is exploding, reflected by a quadrupling in sales of monitoring software last year at Content Technologies Inc., a Kirkland, Wash., maker.
There's a good reason why: A recent string of legal cases has underscored e-mail's power as a key prosecution weapon, raising concern among employers that offensive messages could become a legal hot potato down the road.
Electronic messages helped Kenneth Starr corroborate Monica Lewinsky's grand jury testimony about her lurid affair with the president, dug out by prosecutors from Lewinsky's home desktop and government machines.
The Justice Department, in its antitrust case against Microsoft Corp., presented scores of e-mails written by chairman Bill Gates and other top executives to bolster claims that Microsoft unfairly squeezed rivals such as software maker Netscape Communications Corp.
Further dogging corporate legal departments, twin Supreme Court rulings last spring made it easier for employees to sue for sexual harassment in the workplace, lending libelous undertones to sexually explicit messages.
"You'll frequently have attorneys call e-mail the smoking gun of the 90s", says Michael Overly, a Los Angeles lawyer specializing in electronic communications in the workplace.
It's ready artillery: Unlike written correspondence, e-mail is difficult to ever really delete because of the many ways it's stored in computers.
Its immediacy encourages employees to freely express themselves, far less thoughtfully than in a printed letter that needs to be signed, sealed and delivered.
And e-mail's popularity is exploding: About 60 million Americans communicate electronically, double from two years ago, says the Forrester Research firm of Boston.
Lawsuits aren't just embarrassing; they're costly, even before going to trial. Defendants responding to subpoenas can spend many thousands of dollars retrieving old e-mails from all the places they are stored, including laptops, desktops and central company computers.
While most companies still rely on periodic reminders that e-mail users stick to business, stricter measures are spreading.
In the 1990s version of paper-shredding, Littel International Inc., a Chicago-area maker of factory equipment, plans to start this month to being routinely deleting employees' old e-mail messages from central computers "so it's no longer usable against us", says Steve Chowanski, Littel's director of management information services.
E-mails stored on workers' desktops won't be erased, but Littell plans to monitor electronic exchanges for extra reassurance.
More litigious industries such as insurance, however, may not have the option of deleting old messages because companies are not allowed to toss information that might be used in on-going lawsuits.
That's why the pre-emptive measures. In a high-profile dismissal last year, the Salomon Smith Barney Inc. investment firm sacked a respected Wall Street analyst, Dean Eberling, for allegedly sharing pornographic electronic messages. Eberling didn't return several phone calls; Salomon had no comment beyond a brief statement.
And the Chubb & Co. insurance firm last year fired an on-site consultant for transmitting proprietary information to prospective customers outside the company.
The explosion in e-mail use has forced companies to employ ever-more vigilant watchdogs.
Texas Health Resources three years ago licensed software from Content Technologies that matches taboo keywords in employees' outgoing and incoming e-mail against a stored list. Once alerted, technicians examine the message further to see if it iolates company policy.
AT&T Corp. wants to go one better than its current software, which weeds out incoming e-mails deemed offensive or part of junk mailings that could clog internal networks. The nation's largest telephone company says it is developing technology to "understand" taboo e-mail phrases -- not just single words -- and thereby become more accurate about the mail it vetos.
In addition to upgrading its e-mail monitoring, AT&T has installed software that blocks employees' access to a lengthy list of offensive Web sites, updated weekly.
"It's almost like smuggling at borders. You might suspect something is going on, but you have a feeling you will never wipe it out", AT&T spokesman Burke Stinson said.
It's a tricky task. Enforcers say they try to step lightly to avoid seeming like an electronic Big Brother who intrudes on perfectly innocent exchanges.
That's a particular challenge at AT&T, where about 3,500 employees are married to each other. Stinson recalls that a few years ago he was taken to task by AT&T investigators for exchanging affectionate e-mails with his wife, another AT&T public relations representative.
"My wife and I were questioned in separate rooms and reprimanded. Since I was the fella who instigated the e-mail, I have on my record a note that says I had done this", Stinson said.
Indeed, some privacy advocates say the clampdown may already have gone too far.
"We feel that when you enter a workplace you don't give up all your constitutional rights", said David Banistar of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington-based watchdog group that is pushing for federal legislation that would limit corporate prying.
"There are limitations as part of working there, but one shouldn't be subject to constant monitoring and surveillance."