The Internet Police

My company has started cracking down on improper use of the internet during working hours. I feel this is a mixed blessing. I understand that surfing the net can be lumped in with personal phone calls, water-cooler talk and padding the expense report.  However, there needs to be a balance struck.

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.  Again, I think a balance needs to be set.

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. It is certainly demotivating, and ultimately will stifle creativity and damage productivity.  People get worked-up about net usage and focus less on real work situations. It happened here for two days.

Employers should treat employees as adults who have rights to their own privacy. 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 percent.

Employers and managers who are concerned should 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.

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. 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.

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.  Nobody would or can argue that point and most employees understand this.  The employees who have a problem with that kind of policy are not the type of employees anyone should consider keeping.

While written policies tend to protect companies, some types of tracking might not only hurt morale but also create legal problems for employers. 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.  Another example can be if an employee keeps receiving unsolicited email advertising sexually-themed products and talks about it to fellow employees.  An employee who overheard the conversation can go to Human Resources and complain of a “hostile work-place.”

ZDNet’s John Galvin has a story from the trenches that should scare any company thinking of monitoring email. It involves a man whose email from a doctor is intercepted by an IT manager. The IT manager then blabs about the man’s deadly disease. Think lawsuit. Think bigger lawsuit when the man’s insurer hears of the condition and considers dropping his coverage.

The internet is not the problem when certain employees are surfing excessively.  It is a productivity problem.  Excessive Big Brother watching doesn’t help morale and it will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back on good employees looking elsewhere for employment.

To conclude, I’d like to quote from the movie ‘Office Space,’ “When I make a mistake, I have eight different people comin’ by to tell me about it. That’s my only real motivation is not to be hassled, that and the fear of losing my job. But you know Bob that will only make someone work just hard enough not to get fired.”