Employers crack down on personal 'Net use

Tasha Newitt was aware her employer, the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries, had a policy restricting personal use of work computers, but she believed it focused on Web surfing, not e-mail. Nonetheless, she was careful to use her work e-mail primarily for professional matters. So she was stunned when the agency fired her after finding 418 personal e-mail messages received over a period of five months (or about 5 per workday) on her PC.

Newitt isn't alone: Increasingly, managers are cracking down on employee Internet activity by drafting strict usage policies--and enforcing them through use of software that monitors surfing, examines e-mail, and restricts the sites an employee can browse to.

Newitt, an eight-year agency veteran, says that she received great performance reviews as well as certificates for providing outstanding customer service in her position as a workers' compensation claims manager. Most of the personal e-mail messages were innocuous notes regarding birthday greetings and lunch plans with coworkers, she says. But none of this mattered to Newitt's employer examined her office's e-mail after a co-worker filed a sexual-harassment complaint against a supervisor. The department ultimately fired 8 employees (including Newitt) and disciplined 16 others for their improper use of agency equipment.

Will Vehrs, who works at the Virginia Department of Business Assistance, received a ten-day unpaid suspension for excessive casual use of the Internet while at work. Vehrs' employer knew he blogged, often about state issues, at the Commonwealth Conservative's Virginia politics blog. In fact, Virginia's governor read and sometimes reused his posts; but he was punished after composing humorous captions for photographs as part of a local newspaper's contest. His captions poked fun at a Virginia county and annoyed a local politician.

Whether streaming video is eating into a company's network bandwidth or employees' viewing of adult content is exposing the firm to sexual harassment charges, companies have some legitimate reasons to limit their workers' access to and activity on the Internet.

A 2005 survey of 526 businesses and organizations by the ePolicy Institute and the American Management Association found that 76 percent of them monitor the sites that their employees visit, and 65 percent block certain sites. At least 55 percent of them review and retain employees' email, and 36 percent track the content on workers' PCs, their keystrokes, and the time that they spend at the keyboard. Lost productivity is a major concern: Last spring, some companies blocked streaming video during the NCAA men's college basketball tournament. Even so, more than 14 million fans accessed video from the NCAA March Madness on Demand Web site during the first three rounds of the tournament, according to CBS SportsLine; and considering the starting times of the games, many of them likely did so from work

Massachusetts-based Networks Unlimited audits the Internet activity of its clients' employees and sells equipment for auditing and blocking workers' Internet use. It says that many executives are surprised at what their employees do online. The company installs a monitoring box on its customers' networks for a week and then extrapolates longer-term patterns of usage from that data to estimate how many hours a year employees spend browsing Web sites.

For example, Networks Unlimited found that fewer than 100 employees at Balls Food--a U.S. supermarket and pharmacy chain--had Net access at work, but that they spent a total of 686 hours in one year using Web-based e-mail such as Hotmail and Yahoo. By contrast, 120 employees at a New York based software company spent an estimated 7700 hours in one year accessing Web-based e-mail, 2400 hours at shopping and sports-related sites, and 250 hours visiting pornographic sites. In total, the employees spent more than 17,000 hours in one year on recreational surfing (roughly 3 hours per employee per week), which translates into an estimated loss in worker productivity of US$867,000, according to Networks Unlimited.

Fear of viruses, spyware, and other security breaches due to non-work-related Web use is another impetus for employers to limit their workers' Internet activity. Such attacks can disrupt company networks and lead to loss of confidential information. But Nancy Flynn, director of the ePolicy Institute and author of Blog Rules and other books on workplace tech policies, says that concern about potential litigation is the main reason organizations manage their employees' Internet use.

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