Abusing the Net: How to Curb Work Surfers: With Surfing There's Always the Risk of Getting Dumped-A Lesson Worth Heeding as the Incidence of Workplace Internet Abuse Increases and Both Companies and Employees Pay the Cost

By Churchman, Peter | New Zealand Management, September 2003 | Go to article overview

Abusing the Net: How to Curb Work Surfers: With Surfing There's Always the Risk of Getting Dumped-A Lesson Worth Heeding as the Incidence of Workplace Internet Abuse Increases and Both Companies and Employees Pay the Cost


Churchman, Peter, New Zealand Management


The phenomenal growth of computer and email use in the workplace has its downside. With it has come a steady growth in instances of internet and email misuse and abuse. For some the price of this abuse has been high.

According to the American Management Association, more than a quarter of Fortune 500 companies have been embroiled in sexual harassment claims arising from employee abuse of corporate email and internet systems.

The number of court cases involving employees dismissed for inappropriate internet or email activities is rising and the ones that make it to court are just the tip of a reasonable sized iceberg. That's because it's a topic neither the companies or individuals concerned care to shout about.

A survey last year by Personnel Magazine in the UK found that 25 percent of respondent companies have sacked employees for internet misuse--most for using porn sites.

The very accessibility of the internet provides much greater scope for transmission of potential offensive or confidential material than any previous technology allowed. And that's something employers should be concerned about.

However, a recent survey carried out in New Zealand by Kensington Swan suggests they're still a tad blase about the problem. It found that access to the internet is widespread. Seventy-five percent of companies allow all staff to access email while 68 percent of companies allow all staff to access the internet. Just 19 percent of firms have a total ban on personal use of email while 23 percent have a total ban on personal use of the internet. It also found that just one quarter of employers never monitor internet and email use.

That leaves a fair leeway for potential abuse. This could range from sending personal emails or surfing non work-related sites during work hours to more mischievous (or ill-conceived) transmission of offensive material, the inadvertent (or deliberate) broadcast of confidential material, or downloading objectionable material from porn sites. The different forms of abuse may evoke varying degrees of employer concern but all come at a cost.

Employees who surf the internet during work time are doing less productive work as well as totting up usage charges. A study carried out by the Cranfield School of Management last year estimated that internet abuse could be costing small to medium business in the UK up to 1.5 billion [pounds sterling] a year. It found that nearly a third of SMEs were losing more than one day's work a week to "cyberslackers".

The access to objectionable or questionable material has a range of damaging and costly consequences--as does the transmission of confidential information or defamatory statements. Then there are the psychological costs. Email and internet abuse breaches the relationship of trust and confidence between the employee and the employer and has implications for the integrity of both. Having a managing director downloading objectional material, for instance, is hardly good role modelling.

For most employers their potential liability lot the spread of any damaging or offensive material and the resultant harm to their own or the company's reputation is enough to offset any costs associated with email monitoring and policing.

The fact that not only email but also deleted email may be produced as evidence in a court under Rule 3 of the High Court Rules and is discoverable under Rule 293, is almost enough on its own to ensure that employers address this issue. …

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