Email. Its one of those tools we have a love/hate relationship with. We know it’s something we have to have, yet its become such a regular part of our lives, we rarely think about all the implications it has on us both professionally and personally. So ignoring the potential impact often becomes the path of least resistance.

In the US, there are an estimated 130 million workers. Every day, they send around 3 billion emails. Yet studies consistently show that not all of those transmissions are business related; in fact, up to 40 percent of them are personal by nature.

There’s more. Studies also show that only 1 in 3 companies monitor their business email process on an ongoing basis. The very thing that could hurt them most, the easiest tool people have to release company information and cause irreparable damage, is also the one thing most companies spend little time thinking about and planning for.

By having a company email policy in place, you can easily evaluate your employees’ performance and productivity, while discouraging them from abusing the communications system. It can help you protect confidential information and protect trade secrets and policies, and also protect from illegal activity, such as sexual harassment.

Does your company have an email policy in place? If not, its time to create one. Here are a few things you should include.

Start with usage
What is considered business use and what is considered personal use? What is acceptable? Clearly define both sides, and list guidelines for each. For example, if personal email is allowed at work, you may wish to set limits on the times of the day they can be sent (during breaks), or how they are viewed and stored. Also have clear guidelines on what can be attached to email, such as MP3 or EXE files. You may also wish to include a maximum file size for attachments sent via email.

Monitoring schedules
Once you have an email policy in place, its important to follow through with monitoring. How will you judge if your employees are using email in the correct way? Will you evaluate email files and usage on a regular basis? Make sure you clearly define these policies to the individual users so they aren’t surprised by the consequences.

Waste of resources
Email can tie up network traffic in many ways, especially with larger files and increased content. If your employees are allowed to sign up for newsletters and visit newsgroups, is there an appropriate limit to what they can receive? Also consider limiting the amount of data they can store. Some files, especially those heavy in graphic content, can quickly grow in size. Saving these files week after week, year after year, can quickly escalate the amount of storage space you need to maintain this much data.

Email risks
While we like to assume that everyone is familiar with the risks associated with email, clearly that isn’t the case when we consistently see stories in the news about cases going to court over email privacy issues. Email has inherent risks every time you type in information and hit the send button. Harmful effects can occur due to their actions. If someone doesn’t want their information shared with the world, they shouldn’t hit send. The more your employees understand this, the more control you’ll have over your email process.

Email practices
While defining the risks involved with email should be at the top of your to-do list, so to should defining the best way to use and send email. It may seem redundant, but consider it to be company security. Share with your employees etiquette tips on how to create great email – write in complete sentences, clearly define your message, use a company signature, use proper punctuation. Also share instructions on sending attachments, and proper storage procedures.

Proper storage
When dealing with customers, it may be important to file and save correspondence for future use. If confidential data exists, make sure you have specific guidelines for handling it effectively. Create a company wide system for storing email – cloud base filing systems work best – and share how to properly store documentation so others have access too. Also define how long email will remain on the servers, and the appropriate action to take to retain documentation for longer terms.

Make sure your policies for violations are clearly defined. Employees need to see in black and white what is considered a violation, and the steps that will be taken when violations occur. The more specific you can be with actions taken, the more clear it will be with your employees both as they follow the rules, and if they run into problems and potentially break the rules.