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ATLANTA-As companies begin to allow employees to work from home, risk managers need to be aware that telecommuters present many of the same risks and liability issues as office-based employees.
A comprehensive telecommuting policy is critical to minimizing exposures and defending against many of the claims that do arise, according to speakers discussing the risks of telecommuting at the American Bankers Assn.'s annual Security, Audit & Risk Management Conference last month in Atlanta.
With more than 9 million American workers telecommuting today, "there is now a mainstream work relationship" between telecommuters and employers, said Andrew M. Reidy, a partner with the McKenna & Cuneo L.L.P. law firm in Washington.
"It's very important to keep in mind that your employees have the very same rights as if they worked in the main office," Mr. Reidy said.
At the same time, the company has many of the same concerns when employees are working from home as when they do their jobs at the office.
"The same security that you have at your office you have to think about for your telecommuters at home," said John S. Ingram, technical director of loss control services at CIGNA Property & Casualty in Philadelphia.
Mr. Ingram noted that corporate espionage can take place over phones, fax machines or computers, and a competitor seeking confidential information about a business can easily find it in discarded faxes and other business materials in a telecommuter's trash.
"It's amazing if people really want information how they can get it from you," Mr. Ingram said. "And it's a lot easier to get it from a home site than from an office site."
Home offices should have locking doors so telecommuters can secure business materials so guests, workers or others visiting their home can't get access to those materials.
Voice mail security is another important consideration, and personal identification numbers or passwords must be kept secure, Mr. Ingram said.
"When you start building your telecommuting policy, it's really important that you look at PIN numbers," said Mr. Ingram, adding that companies should have policies for changing those identification numbers regularly.
Faxes to or from telecommuters should be encrypted if they contain sensitive information, and employers should consider whether they want to provide telecommuters document shredders to destroy faxes and other printed materials before they dispose of or recycle them.
Computer and e-mail security also must be reviewed, he said. This should include: the physical security of telecommuters' computers; ways to secure the user's ID; and the issue of what happens to old computers and, more specifically, company information on their hard drives when the company decides to replace them.
To help employees maintain their own personal security, Mr. Ingram suggested telecommuters receive business-related mail at a post office box rather than their home address. "Never, never have your telecommuters have mail come to their home address," he said. "Once I have your home address I know everything about you."
It's important to audit security at the telecommuter's workplace regularly, said Mr. Ingram, suggesting the employer make a visit to the site twice a year to examine safety issues, security concerns and possible liability exposures.
The subject of site inspections and other employer visits should be addressed in the company's telecommuting policy, said Mr. Reidy of McKenna & Cuneo.
Meanwhile, the employer also should consider the issue of visits to the home by third parties and may want to limit such visits to delivery drop-off and pickup to reduce the risk of third-party liability exposures, Mr. Reidy said.
The company's telecommuting policy also should include specific guidelines for reporting any accidents, such as a delivery person slipping on the telecommuter's front steps, he added.
The potential third-party liabilities an employer faces in connection with its telecommuters are "the same liabilities you always face, everything from bodily injury to property damage and everything in between," Mr. Reidy said.
In terms of employment liability issues, again the potential liabilities are the same with telecommuters as for the workforce at the office, he said, including such concerns as discrimination, sexual harassment and Americans with Disabilities Act exposures.
Once again, a comprehensive telecommuting policy is absolutely necessary, "because it becomes one of your main defenses against some of these potential liabilities," Mr. Reidy said.
If, for example, all employees aren't eligible to telecommute, the distinctions must be spelled out in the company's policy, he advised.
The policy also should address how telecommuters report any improper or potentially harassing e-mail they receive, and how they should handle confidential information.
Various insurance policies may provide employers with coverage for telecommuting-related losses, including comprehensive general liability, property insurance, errors and omissions, financial institution bonds, computer systems fraud insurance, workers compensation and employment practices liability coverage, Mr. Reidy said.
Employers' property coverage should include an off-premises endorsement, "contemplating all the places your people may be working from," he said.
Both speakers emphasized the role telecommuters themselves can play in trying to reduce a company's liability exposures.
"The best source for preventing liabilities is the employees themselves," Mr. Reidy said, adding employers should have a mechanism for getting employees' input on how to prevent liabilities from occurring.
"The biggest solution is communications," added Mr. Ingram, who said regular teleconferencing and quarterly face-to-face meetings can keep telecommuters feeling involved and part of the group at the office.
He said employers also can benefit by setting up telecommuting "labs" in their offices where employees considering working at home can obtain telecommuting training and experience what it will be like and some of the issues involved before actually moving out of the office.