E-mail – the business and personal divide.

Back in the beginning of time, when the internet was first being born, very few people had an email account, and if you did, its use was very limited.   I still remember Netnorth being established (google it) and the excitement it brought.   It was about connecting disparate universities in Canada and allowing us to set standards and protocols to begin using things like e-mail.  That was a time when fname@domain worked because there weren’t 5 million John Does and I ended up with bo@uoguelph.ca.  It was all very informal.

In those early days there were not many people to talk to so your inbox was never overflowing.  Communications were predominately work based.   As the commercial internet evolved, we began to see more email accounts and people began to use their University email account for personal use.   The line was blurred, it was familiar and it just grew that way.  Nobody was really thinking long term and there really wasn’t a pressing problem for getting yet another email account.

Probably about 7 or 8 years ago I actively began using an external email account and separating my personal correspondence from work correspondence.  The transition is not an easy undertaking and there is an investment needed.  To me, this seemed prudent, as I did not want people to assign my personal views to the University and I didn’t want my personal correspondence accessible on the University systems.   Many of my peers did the same thing, but there are still many people in higher education who do not make that separation.

The interesting question is whether this is a problem or not.  In the last few months I have been made aware of a few instances where people expressed strong personal opinions on issues outside of the University, using their University email accounts.  People external to the University felt  these views were associated with the University, because it came from a University email account.  In one of the instances the individual signed the email with their personal address.  I assume this was intended as a signal that it was, in their view, not representative of the institution.  There was likely a big disconnect happening here.

Is this one of those problems unique to universities.  I suspect not, but I also suspect it is more prevalent in higher educations.   How do we resolve this?  Given that we have ‘tolerated’ this until now, I suspect it needs to be an education of the community around best practices and talking about why it is a better option for them personally.

At Queen’s we have a series of Email and FIPPA Best Practices.   Right in the opening paragraph it is noted that: “Email is increasingly used for conducting University business and is viewed as a University record”.  I think this is consistent with a trend towards separating out your personal email and it is interesting to note that an email is a University record.  It also goes on to state: “Whenever possible don’t use email to communicate confidential or sensitive information or personal information” and “Email bears University identifying marks. Use the same care with it as you would with University letterhead”.   I think these can be interpreted in different ways, but there is clearly a delineation being made.

These are  good practices that we should all follow and I think the last point is particularly relevant.  Whether or not you believe there can be a separation between business and personal on the same email account, people external to the community may see it the same way as issuing something on letterhead.  It is simply in your best interest to avoid confusion by separating out your personal emails.   Accounts are freely available and can be easily linked, so the barriers are small.

In addition to these best practices, the University has also has been updating a series of policies around Information Security.  The latest iteration of the Acceptable Use Policy states, in Seciton 5.1: You will use Queen’s IT resources for the academic and administrative purposes for which they are intended.   This is very clear, and although this notion has been around for a long time it has never been enforced.  It would be challenging to change that position now.

The easier course is for us to  build awareness around the pitfalls of using your University email for personal use, and the advantages from separating it out to an external account.   A lot of my private sector colleagues have disclaimers at the end of their emails.  In addition to the legal issue it addresses I think it also builds awareness around the institutional  record

So at the end of the day, is there a problem?   I think there is, but the community practice is moving us away from the problem. I think that building a little more awareness on the issue will allow people to make their own informed decision and we will see less use of the institutional account for personal correspondence.