One of the UK's largest law firms has embarked on a damage limitation exercise after an email containing a lewd joke which originated from its office in London hit the headlines across the world. The email in question originated on 7th December and it starts with a couple of jokes of a sexual nature which appear to have been sent by a person called Claire Swire to a close friend, Bradley Chait, a junior solicitor at the city law firm, Norton Rose.

In what appears to be an exchange of emails between the couple, Claire Swire made some comments about their relationship under the heading "Yours was yum", which her boyfriend saw fit to forward to six friends with the comment "Now THAT's a nice compliment from a lass, isn't it?". At least one of the friends couldn't resist the temptation to circulate the email on a wider basis, which started a chain reaction.

The email finally reached me on 11th December, having been forwarded over 20 times through a veritable who's who of UK law firms and major corporations (extrapolating from these numbers, the email is likely to have been seen by millions worldwide). By this stage, the email had undergone a metamorphosis with Claire Swire becoming an almost mythical figure to be sought out and identified.

Meanwhile, back at Norton Rose, Mr. Chait's employers were less than amused. A rather terse press statement was issued stating that the firm "takes a robust approach to email abuse" and that, based on internal rules which prohibit the sending and receipt of non-work related material, "implementation of the firm's disciplinary procedures began as soon as the firm became aware of the circumstances".

It's certainly not the first time that employers have taken such a stern view of indecent emails being circulated, and a number of high profile corporations have sacked employees this year for such activities. This is not at all surprising given that under the doctrine of vicarious liability employers can be liable for acts of their employees undertaken in the course of their employment. Under Hong Kong law, there are various ways in which liability can accrue to employers in respect of email messages sent by employees. These include defamation, sexual discrimination, misuse of personal data and the distribution of indecent or obscene material.

In the meantime, the Claire Swire story goes on, with websites dedicated to Miss Swire and Mr Chait having been set up over the weekend, and the British press having tracked down and forced Miss Swire into hiding. Further emails have also been circulating which claim to attach photographs of Miss Swire. One such email that reached my desktop contains a URL for a website promoting a London firm of optometrists which features a photograph of one of their employees, one Claire Swire. Of course, in the world of the Internet it is impossible to confirm whether this is indeed the same person as the Claire Swire who sent the original risqué email. If this is not the case, then this second email may well be defamatory and the sender of that email (and potentially his employer) could face legal action.

Any moral to come out of this story is twofold. First, if you hadn't already learnt from Monica Lewinsky and Bill Gates, although informal in nature emails are a written form of communication, the contents of which can come back to haunt the writer. In the work context, employees should be aware that circulating emails which others may find offensive or which may cause embarrassment or even liability to their employers can result in disciplinary action or even dismissal. This is not only a message for employees, but also for employers, as they should not work on the assumption employees will become aware by themselves. Employees should be informed that email policies should be taken seriously, and what starts as a joke may not be so funny in the end.

First published in SCMP Technology Post on19 December 2000.