Email etiquette: What Ontario can learn from France

The capacity to send and receive email on smart phone devices and laptops has fundamentally altered the working lives of many. The notion of the ‘9 to 5’ job has, in many industries, become a thing of the past. Our use of email has profoundly altered how and when we work: it has blurred the distinction between work and home lives; it has altered our view of what is appropriate communication and our expectation of how quickly people should respond. In many ways, it has simultaneously increased the volume of workplace communications and dramatically accelerated the pace at which it occurs.

That said, the impact of these changes has had some positive impact on the workplace. It allows more flexible working arrangements. It permits working remotely. It also allows us to communicate (arguably) more efficiently. Overall, however, there seems to be a sense that our unfettered use of email has detrimentally affected employees and may be a source of undue stress and burnout.

The French disconnect

As of January 1, 2017, in a bid to address this concern, France introduced a new law requiring companies with more than 50 employees to negotiate with their staff and implement an email etiquette policy, setting out the hours when staff are not supposed to send and/or answer work-related emails. The law has been lauded by many as a bold attempt to address what is a ubiquitous scourge of modern life: the requirement to always “be on”.

France decided to implement this new law in response to the findings of a September 2015 report commissioned by its Labour Minister, Myriam El Khomri. The report warned against the health impact of what was dubbed ‘info-obesity’ in the workplace. 

The law also has its detractors. It has been noted that the law may be symptomatic of a French government that over-regulates the lives of its citizens. Moreover, the law is in many ways a paper tiger. It lacks an enforcement mechanism for those employers that fail to comply. It also excludes many French employees, who work for employers with less than 50 staff.

Lessons for Ontario employers

While Ontario does not presently have any similar requirement about email usage at work, Ontario employers may wish to consider implementing a voluntary policy of this kind. In 2014, auto manufacturer Daimler introduced an optional service for employees on vacation to have all work emails automatically deleted while they were away. In a similar move, Allianz France (an employer of approximately 10,000 employees), already has in place a policy limiting its workers from sending emails after 6pm.

The benefits for employers of placing limits on work emails are two-fold: 

  1. You proactively encourage employees to disconnect from work, which can help: 
    • foster improved work-life balance, 
    • reduce employee stress and lost productivity (i.e. associated sick leave); and
    • ensu re happier, more productive employees; and
  2. Such a policy will help limit unwanted claims to overtime pay, because the expectation that employees continue to be available, and work, at all hours, is expressly removed.

If your company does move to implement a policy of this kind, prior to doing so consider: whether a blanket policy is appropriate; whether a tiered approach based on role is required; whether there may be a penalty provision for those that breach the policy; and will the policy apply to only internal emails, or those received from external parties such as customers, contractors and suppliers.

This article was originally published on January 16, 2017 on First Reference Talks.

Vey Willetts LLP is an Ottawa-based employment and labour law boutique that provides timely and cost-effective legal advice to help employees and employers resolve workplace issues in the National Capital Region and across Ontario. To speak with an employment lawyer, contact us at: 613-238-4430 or