Study: Internet abuse is top reason for workplace discipline

Who's looking over your shoulder? E-mail and Internet abuse is now the number one reason for disciplinary action in companies in the U.K., according to a survey carried out by London law firm KLegal and Personnel Today magazine.

Over the past 12 months, the number of disciplinary cases for e-mail and Internet abuse -- 358 cases -- exceeded the 326 cases for dishonesty, violence and health and safety breaches put together, KLegal said in a statement Tuesday.

This is going to keep on happening unless companies are firm about their policies, KLegal Partner Stephen Levinson said Tuesday.

"My view is that people will keep using the Internet at work, because it's there, like Everest."

Of the 358 cases brought, 69 people were disciplined for excessive amounts of time using the Internet or e-mail for personal use, and five of those were dismissed. Pornographic e-mail caused 64 people to be disciplined and 25 to be dismissed. Pornographic sites were responsible for 53 cases and nine dismissals. Sending e-mail that could damage a company's reputation brought 49 cases and two dismissals.

Many people use the Internet at home for trawling porn sites, and then bring those personal habits to work, Levinson said. "So long as they can, they will, because people are foolish. But if you have software that can prevent them doing so, you solve the problem," he said.

Any software designer who can develop blocking software that really works, without blocking simply by skin tone or specific wording, will make a fortune, Levinson said. "It's not easy to do. If the software can detect that there's a certain amount of naked flesh, from the tones on the screen, it also blocks lingerie sites. Recently I sent an e-mail that referred to 'teaching your grandmother to suck eggs,' and that was rejected because of 'suck.' If we can get around those problems, we would solve the big problem," he said.

"In the meantime, you have to tell people the policies. I think many companies do tell their employees there's a policy but they're very quiet about it. You have to make enough noise and let people know they're being watched. Spell out what's acceptable, what's seen as an offensive joke. If you want to be tough, you have to be very specific," Levinson said.

The survey covered 212 companies, across a broad spread of industries, Levinson said. While most companies are now making an effort to monitor Internet use and let employees know that they do so, KLegal found that the number of infringements is still high.

Most employers -- 93 percent -- have guidelines for employee behavior, and 93 percent of those communicate that policy to all employees. However, only 87 percent of these policies define "misconduct" and "gross misconduct." Misconduct can include acting dishonestly, violence or criminal activity, sending pornographic material, and breaching health and safety rules.

While most employers claim to be monitoring use, the frequency of monitoring varies enormously. Over 20 percent monitor daily, 10 percent weekly and another 10 percent monthly. In 27 percent of cases human resource managers don't know how often monitoring is done, and 12 percent acknowledge it's a quarterly check.

The access allowed to employees also varies. Only 54 percent of companies allow staff access to the Internet at all, and 49 percent access to Internet and e-mail.

There is a total ban on personal e-mail at 10 percent of companies, and on personal use of the Internet at 13 percent. Others are less certain, with 14 percent having no policy on e-mail and 13 percent no rules on Internet use.

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