Your Company Needs an Internet Use Policy

Technology Ain’t Like it Used to Be

In the 1980s, I worked for the IT division of a large federal contractor.  We were early adopters of email technology.  Nowadays, email is a vital fixture of most businesses, but in the 1980s the concept was still in its infancy.  Employers were trying to understand email’s role in the workplace, while employees attempted to learn how to utilize its capabilities.

In 1986, the world learned an interesting lesson about the impermanence of the “delete” feature when the FBI was able to retrieve over 5000 emails deleted by Oliver North during the Iran-Contra affair.

Since that time, the roles and functions of email and the internet have expanded enormously, and employers and employees have continued to learn lessons (sometimes painful) about their uses accordingly.

Technology and Privacy in the Workplace

One of the biggest email and internet-related issues in the workplace is employee misconceptions about their right to privacy.

Frequently, employees assume that they have an expectation of a right to privacy in their emails and on their workplace computer.  In reality, employers have a right to protect their company’s security by ensuring that employees are using their work time effectively, and that company assets are being utilized in a cost-effective manner.

In order for you, as an employer, to protect your own interests, you should have a policy in your employee handbook regarding your employees’ internet and email usage.

Make Your Expectations Clear to Your Employees

It is up to you as an employer to determine where to draw the line with internet use.

The internet offers an alluring distraction to employees during the workday — wasting time, corporate dollars, and valuable bandwidth.  Statistics about employee personal use of email and the internet vary depending upon their source, but are invariably quite staggering.

Perhaps you find that allowing employees to use the internet on their lunch breaks acts as a boost to employee morale and increases employee-retention.  Perhaps you find that all non-work-related uses of the internet and email function as a distraction and a drain upon your company’s resources.

It is your responsibility to ensure that your policy clearly outlines what your expectations are regarding employee internet and email usage.

Tell Your Staff Big Brother is Watching

There is technology available to help you monitor internet activities, should you wish to do so.

Establish a company policy on the retention of email messages and internet browser histories.  Remind your employees that emails — and any other items on their company computers — are company property, which you have a right to monitor.

Make sure your employees do not expect privacy on their workplace computer.

Computer Porn = Hostile Work Environment

Unfortunately, sometimes employees’ internet usage goes beyond the frivolous, into much darker and inappropriate territory.  Occasionally, an employer calls us, wondering what to do about a staff member who is using the internet at work to view pornographic websites.

Situations such as this need to be dealt with immediately, as they can potentially create liability on the part of the employer, who is subject to laws which prohibit sexual harassment or the creation of a hostile work environment.

Companies with the means and know-how should have their IT departments block access to unacceptable websites.  At the least, all companies should have a sexual harassment policy in place.

Your company policy on internet usage should prohibit access to sexually explicit or otherwise inappropriate websites.  It should clearly state that any employee accessing such websites is in violation of your sexual harassment policy, and thus subject to disciplinary action.

Protect Your Bandwidth

As technology changes and advances, new issues rear their heads.  The advent of Napster and other music-swapping software presents employers with an entirely different can of worms.  The downloading of music (illegal or otherwise) is a growing concern for employers.

The streaming of music and video from the internet consumes valuable bandwidth.  Many company policies prohibit the use of company computers for these purposes.  You may want to include a similar prohibition in your own policy.

Adapt Your Policy as Technology Changes

Technology has come a long, long way since Ollie North’s day.  In the 1980s, we never could have imagined some of the issues that are commonplace today.  20 years from now, the same will be true of us today.  The only constant about technology is how quickly it changes.  It’s challenging for company policies to keep pace, but for those of us in human resources, it is a challenge that must be met.

This article was originally posted in the October, 2007 edition of the Kitsap Business Journal.

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