Surfing on company time
Web Informant #197, 1 May 2000
My essay on the big blur from WI #196 got lots of great comments from you, and brings up another issue. You know your staff is surfing around the Web on company time, looking at personal sites when they should be working and developing code. The trouble is - should you do anything about it?
This is a lot harder question than determining whether to block (or charge) employees from making personal phone calls. Part of the problem is that the Web is so public an entity: unlike a phone call to some family member, surfing around from the corporate network leaves all sorts of trails and can affect more than just the individual surfer. Consider these examples:
- What if someone leaves his or her desk with some questionable content on screen? It could offend someone else who happened on by.
- What if someone sends some offensive joke around the company's e-mail system? Or worse yet, running a questionable personal mailing list server from their desktop? Again, the potential for offense (and lawsuits) is there.
- What if someone posts privileged corporate information to a public bulletin board or discussion group? This could affect the stock price of the company or influence some sensitive negotiations, or compromise some future business deal. And if they are foolish enough to use their corporate e-mail account in the posting, that could be even more trouble.
- What if someone has their default Web startup page to display their stock portfolio and regularly updates it to keep up with the market? While not harming anyone else, it could impact this individual's productivity.
I am sure you can think of more examples and have seen your share of questionable personal activities. All of this isn't new: back in the good ole days of PCs (say the late 1980s), you could find games with a special "boss" button that would instantly change the screen display into some innocuous spreadsheet in case you-know-who happened by your cubical. Maybe the time has come for something similar as a Web plug-in.
The trouble is today the Web and the Internet have become well integrated into our daily lives. Besides, a counter argument to using the workday for personal items is that the work day isn't just 9 to 5: I check my e-mail from home at all hours of the day and night shouldn't that count towards my work time and allow me a little slack during the day? And a recent article in the Wall Street Journal mentions how a father-to-be was sending real-time progress report e-mails from the delivery room. A bit too much, even for me.
There is the potential for discrimination lawsuits for some of the more offensive activities, to be sure. And your company owns this gear and has every right to determine how it will be used. You want to trust your staff to do the right thing, and to be responsible for their actions. You believe you have hired professionals who can get their jobs done.
Still, at a minimum, you need to lay out something in writing about your corporate policies about personal use of computer systems. I am amazed at how many companies still don't do this. If you are one of them, please put something down on paper it today. It doesn't have to be fancy, complete, or involved. Just be specific about what is permitted and what isn't, and what are the consequences. Your staff will feel better about it, believe me, and everyone can get back to doing their work.
I think the written guidelines are preferable to more heavy-handed approaches, such as implementing network blocking or monitoring software. Sure, there are situations that call for these more draconian measures, such as in public schools where you want to protect children from viewing more offensive sites. But the blocking approach is fraught with issues such as who decides on which sites and what may be inappropriate for a second grader is fine for a tenth grader.
And even implementing monitoring software can be troublesome: what do you do with all of this data that is collected on individual's surfing habits? Maybe a better idea is to say you are monitoring outbound Web usage but then don't actually turn the collectors on. A few places I know have done this and the actual threat of the monitoring programs cut back the most egregious abusers.
The blur between our home and work lives will continue, to be sure. And to make both more productive, all of us need to be clear about what kinds of computing activities are permitted in both places.
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Web Informant copyright 2000 by David Strom, Inc., reprinted by permission
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