By NOLA L. SARKISIAN

Staff Reporter

Thinking of sending someone at the office a special e-mail for Valentine's Day?

Better think again. That romantic missive might be retrieved by your boss and seen as a strike against your productivity. Or even worse, it could become part of a court case in which you are accused of e-harassment.

With projections that 40 million office workers will be sending 60 billion messages in 2000, companies are laying out new rules on how to handle this new wave of communication. Many times, that means outright bans on personal e-mail, including electronic flinging of Cupid's arrows.

"We're seeing employers publish policies to protect the privacy of individuals. There's even a second wave of implementation as companies redistribute policies to be more proactive," said Eileen Fernandes, senior manager for the human resources strategies group at Deloitte & Touche LLP. "Some are even going as far as listing kinds of information that are appropriate and inappropriate, such as personal usage and even e-mail etiquette."

Why are companies so concerned about a little electronic flirting?

"Primarily productivity. They feel (employees) are working on games and sending e-mail," said William Dutton, a professor at USC's Annenberg School for Communication. "Yet, there's not conclusive evidence that suggests that. In fact, evidence is showing that high-tech companies show increased productivity because employees feel they have more resources and more tools to get their jobs done."

Productivity is a definite concern at Westlake Village-based Pleasant Holidays. "Personal e-mail is frowned upon," said spokeswoman Karen Schulz. "It simply takes up time from work. Our business revolves around technology and the technology is there for business purposes only. It's been written in our personnel handbook for the past few years."

Other companies are generally less rigid, with good taste and moderation considered the watchwords.

"No company wants to become a singles bar with employees hitting on one another," said Martin Miller, whose Brentwood-based Nebula Communications deals in Web site design and corporate communications. "It just gets down to behavior and how it's done. People can be harassed via e-mail just like on a person-to-person basis."

David Heroux, business unit director of Source Consulting in West Los Angeles, said e-mail has helped him get better acquainted with colleagues in and out of the office an easier and less threatening entree than approaching someone in person.

"You feel safer. People open up. Internal love notes are harmless," he said. "I can see sending sexually explicit jokes as grounds for dismissal, but do you fire somebody who asks someone out on a date? It may be inappropriate, but is it a fireable offense?"

A production coordinator for an L.A. entertainment company said e-mail was a good way for her to break the ice with an attractive co-worker a few cubicles away. For several months, they zapped flirtatious messages back and forth.

"It led to a luncheon. We had a good time for about two months. That was about it. It really was no big deal," said the 28-year-old West Los Angeles resident who didn't want her name used because she was afraid of getting in trouble with her boss.

For many firms, the real cause for concern is what happens if the romance goes awry.

"It's a positive should the people get involved and married and live happily ever after," said Karen Kukurin, vice president of communications for the Employers Group, a Los Angeles-based human resources management association. "However, employers worry about if one partner breaks up the relationship and the spurned individual starts harassing the employee. The ultimate fear is a lawsuit."

Because employers can be held responsible for worker conduct, more and more e-mail is being monitored in one survey, 36 percent of the employers sampled said they look through internal e-mail.

"Employers need to protect themselves against workplace lawsuits that may stem from sexually harassing e-mails," said Nancy Flynn, co-author of "Writing Effective E-Mail."

So what is proper protocol? First off, assume that anything can and might be read even if the e-mail is erased. And don't write anything in e-mail that would make you blush in front of a judge.

"If you're involved in a lawsuit, the opposing side can get an expert to come in and get to your hard drive," said Mark McLean, a labor lawyer with Arter & Hadden in Woodland Hills. He said that in 90 percent of the sexual harassment cases he handled last year, opposing lawyers demanded that electronic mail be turned over as evidence.

Still, some people shrug off such warnings and let common sense prevail.

"Sure, I've done some e-mail flirting, but nothing's come of it. It just depends on how people approach it," said Stephanie Bowen, a 31-year-old Los Angeles resident. "If they come on strong, it's not appropriate. If they test the waters and ask if I wouldn't mind going out for coffee, then that might be OK."

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.