These days, companies aren't just watching their customers' online movements. An increasing number are dogging their employees' Web footsteps as well.
The reason is simple: money. The US Department of Labor estimates that wasted time costs corporations up to $US3 million a year for each 1000 employees.
Where are employees wasting most of their time these days? It's not the watercooler. Companies that want to improve efficiency are looking to rein in Web-surfing workers, and providers of Web monitoring software have devised a lot of ways to help them do it.
"There are any number of software programs that allow employers to see if an employee has been to, say, the Playboy site," says Peter Nickerson, CEO and president of N2H2, an Internet-monitoring company in Seattle.
N2H2's software, like products from a dozen other companies, uses artificial intelligence to analyze Web content. Some products require further human evaluation; others are fully automated. They typically cost $10,000 to $15,000.
But are they worth it? If employees aren't spending time online - forwarding jokes, checking ball scores, trading stocks - are they necessarily working harder? "If they were spending three hours a day on the Internet and now only spend one hour a day," Nickerson says, "that's a savings of time for the employer."
Still, no one can say for sure that employees are taking hours not spent on the Net and using them to work. However, "if a guy is using an hour a day doing Christmas shopping online, he's likely to stay at the office longer," says Tony Lee, editor in chief and general manager at Careers.wsj.com, part of the Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition. And, adds Lee, "some part [of Web surfing] is informative."
Opinions about what's informative and what's not vary. In some offices, time spent at the Dilbert site is seen as time wasted. At Compaq, Dilbert is on the company intranet.
"We do filter some sites," says Compaq spokesman Alan Hodel. "But I'm on the Internet most of the day and I can't remember when I've seen a blocked site."
Nickerson says N2H2 has been asked to block employee access to sites related to gambling, drug or alcohol use, sports, auctions, stock trading and pornography.
X marks the gist
Right now, many workers don't seem to mind the monitoring. Seventy-eight per cent of human resource professionals and 62 per cent of job seekers think employers should have the right to monitor Web use, according to a poll by the Society for Human Resource Management and Careers.wsj.com. (The same poll showed only 48 per cent of job seekers, as opposed to 65 per cent of HR professionals, think it's OK to monitor e-mail.) If few people are complaining about free-speech infringement, there's a simple reason, "X-rated [content], that's what this is really about," says Lee. "Employees don't want a hostile work environment."
The same goes for employers. "If someone's looking at X-rated sites, it leaves [a company] open to a sex-harassment suit," says Jeffrey Neuburger, an Internet law specialist at Brown Raysman Millstein Felder & Steiner in New York. "With the optimum connectivity at many workplaces, it's an issue."
Earlier this year, Xerox fired 40 employees for violating its Internet use policy, which restricts surfing to business purposes only. Xerox refused to comment on its policies for this story, but the company does warn its employees that they're being monitored.
The American Civil Liberties Union has yet to enter the Web monitoring fray, but it's not enamored of the practice. "The question is what's appropriate," says Ed Yohnka, director of communications for ACLU Illinois. "When you don't wiretap the phones or listen to conversations across desks, should you be monitoring Web sites?"
For many employers the answer, so far, is Yes.