For Immediate Release

To spy or not to spy on employees' personal Web use

By Lisette Hilton

Marysville, WA - April 25, 2003-- Employers are divided on whether and how much they should monitor, track and control employees' personal Web use. Some employers closely watch employees and take the stand that employees who use the Web for personal reasons on company time should be disciplined and eventually fired. Others would rather let their employees surf to their hearts content-as long as they're performing on the job.

Let 'em surf (within reason)

The Big Brother approach is a turn-off for employees, says Frank Heasley, PhD, president and CEO of, a leading Internet recruitment and professional community that targets jobseekers and HR professionals in biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, healthcare and science. "Excessive monitoring of employees' Internet activities is damaging for morale. It signals that the employer doesn't trust its staff, and it sends the message that the employer thinks that any activity that cannot be directly attributed to 'work' is simply goofing off," he says. "Freedom of thought is a fundamental human right. Unwarranted restriction or surveillance of Internet access comes very close to being a serious infringement on that right, is certainly demotivating, and ultimately will stifle creativity and damage productivity."

Dr. Heasley admits there is a place-even for monitoring. If there is good evidence to warrant suspicion of a specific employee or group, then Internet monitoring is an effective and necessary tool in protecting an employer's interests, he says.

Employers should treat employees as adults who have rights to their own privacy, says Beverly Kaye, EdD, CEO and founder Career Systems International, a talent solution consulting company, and co-author of the book Love 'Em or Lose 'Em: Getting Good People to Stay.

Dr. Kaye does not recommend monitoring employees' Web use. She suggests that employers and managers who are concerned rather make it clear that company time is not meant for doing personal tasks on the Web. Leaders should tell employees why this is so, detailing costs, etc. However, management should also allow for flexibility should an employee need to go to a Web site to take care of personal business during the work shift.

"I know that it can be very upsetting to an employer to know that your employees are using time this way. I know that the most popular time to use job boards is during the day," Dr. Kaye says. "I think that is symptomatic of another problem if it is job boards that they're going to, and managers should be aware."

Bosses that have workplaces in which employees don't have enough to do so they waste their time surfing the Web have bigger problems than Internet usage, says Rick Maurer, author of the book What don't you want What I Want? about why people resist ideas and what can be done about it.

Maurer suggests that employers ignore extracurricular Web use if the employees are doing their jobs well. In addition, if employees are not delivering, "it's a performance problem and deal with a performance problem," he says. "The truth of the matter is that there will be people who abuse it, but they'll abuse other things too. When you create a personnel policy to get the small percentage that are doing something wrong you insult the loyalty and intelligence of the other 95%."

Middle ground

Perhaps, different situations warrant different approaches. "Management should only resort to monitoring if there is a performance issue with someone surfing on numerous occasions. If it continues to be a problem, the employee should have a counseling session about it. Monitoring would be warranted after the counseling to see if that rectified the situation. If not, a written warning should be given and the monitoring would be continued. If the surfing has stopped, so should the monitoring," says Steve Wood, a manager for more than 25 years and author of the book Stop 'Em From Leaving, techniques for reducing employee turnover.

Ben Leichtling, PhD, who coaches executives and consults on employee productivity and motivation, says companies need to ask themselves how much surfing of what sites is OK and when does it turn into a negative, as well as how much monitoring is good and when does it turn into a negative. ("I'm leaving out spreading porn, harassment, setting up a separate employee business on company time and with company equipment.")

He recalls one tech company where there was so much surfing and streaming (stock, music, porn) that it affected available bandwidth and productivity. While trying to figure out why available bandwidth was so decreased, the company stumbled upon a few individuals who were way out of bounds. The company chose to deal with it mostly as a productivity issue. According to Dr. Leichtling, they resolved the problems with those people and did not institute general surveillance.

"While the arguments for spying seem rational and technology makes spying more feasible, it decreases productivity, is a prescription for disaster and, most important, is the wrong way to approach the issue," he says. "The issue is really about hiring, training, motivating and retaining good (great) employees and dealing with a few abusers and 'rotten apples.' Don't waste productive employees' energy focusing on spying.

Some things can't be ignored

The one time when having a policy about Web use and possibly monitoring Web use is critical is when it comes to employees' accessing inappropriate content, such as pornography or discriminating materials.

Patricia S. Eyres, attorney at law and professional speaker and consultant on legal issues, says that companies should not only adopt policies that address employee Web use but also be sure to follow them consistently. Employees that go to inappropriate Web sites can create hostile work environments for fellow employees if they send the photos or messages or display them in the workplace.

While she is an advocate of monitoring inappropriate personal Web use, Eyres recommends more leniency when it comes to other uses, such as online shopping, checking sports, news or stocks. Still, if a company is going to allow any personal use to appropriate but nonbusiness sites, like personal shopping, they need to enforce consistent guidelines. Consistency is the key, she says. "The great temptation for supervisors is when they have a star employee, they overlook personal usage because they know they're getting their work done anyway [and they discipline employees who are just hanging by their fingernails for violating Web policy]," Eyres says.

Inconsistent treatment of employees cannot only be a morale but also a legal problem for employers, Eyres adds.

Employers should have formal Internet and email policies, says Rita Risser, a California attorney and CEO of Fair Measures, a company that provides legal training for managers.
The policy should work with the company's antiharassment policy. For example, when addressing "inappropriate" use, the Internet policy might refer to the company's definition of "inappropriate" in the company's antiharassment policy.

The company should require employees either not to use the work computer for personal use or say that employees can only have "reasonable personal use," she says. "Reasonable doesn't have to be defined but usually is understood. Checking stock quotes or personal email for 10 to 15 minutes a day might not be a problem, while five hours spent, playing games on the Web would be a big problem.

While written policies tend to protect companies, some types of tracking might not only hurt morale but also create legal problems for employers, Risser says. If an employer states that it monitors outgoing emails and a fellow employee gets an inappropriate or offensive email from another employee, the recipient can blame the company for not blocking the email. "In a situation of harassing emails being sent, the employer is liable under the harassment laws if it knew or should have known the harassment was occurring," Risser says.

Whether companies look the other way or monitor their employees' internet use, they should do it in a way that preserves employee morale and loyalty, Dr. Heasley says. "It's not usually the Internet that's the problem. Employers need to look deeper when trying to rectify situations."

Lisette Hilton is a professional writer, specializing in medical and business writing to the trade and consumer.

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