Employees Online the Productivity Issue

By Holtz, Shel | Communication World, February 2001 | Go to article overview

Employees Online the Productivity Issue


Holtz, Shel, Communication World


employees have no expectation of privacy when they use their employers' online resources, and communicators often are charged with letting employees know it. After all, somebody has to convey the organization's policies restricting access and limiting individual privacy; some communicators are even asked to develop the policies. Yet what, exactly, is the company communicating with such rules? What are the consequences, and how do they stack up against the risks a company incurs when it permits private communication and unfettered Internet access?

Although some of the concerns about employee Internet use may be valid, employers have taken the quick-fix approach to resolving these issues: technically blocking employee access to the entire Internet or targeted parts of the Net, and watching over employees' shoulders to make sure they don't do anything they shouldn't. This approach is almost always unwarranted, and the consequences may be worse than the problem it is designed to address.

Most companies offer written policies explaining their Internet access. According to a study of 244 companies conducted in late 2000 by the Saratoga Institute, 92.6 percent said they have written policies in place, and 62.9 percent said they include Internet usage guidelines in their employee handbooks. Nevertheless, employees routinely circumvent the policies to use company online resources. In a 1999 study conducted by CIO Communications, 42 percent of the executives surveyed said their employees simply ignore written policies. (Most often, employees ignore policies because they are poorly explained or poorly communicated, they are not enforced, or employees don't know they're enforced.) Getting around company Internet usage guidelines is increasingly easy to do given the availability of software and web sites designed specifically to thwart organizations' efforts to monitor and restrict employee Internet use. (For examples, see safeweb.com, freedom.net, and anonymizer.com.)

That employees feel it necessary to mask their online activities is borne out by the number of companies that engage in Big Brother--like monitoring (see article in Dec/Jan CW, "Big Brother: Net-Style Privacy -- A Communication Nightmare?" p. 15). Sixty-eight percent of major United States firms monitor their employees, according to an American Management Association study. Employers read employee e-mail, track keystrokes, and monitor web sites visited. The American Civil Liberties Union concludes that some 20 million U.S.-based employees have their e-mail, computer files, and even their voice mail scrutinized by their companies. Nearly 65 percent of companies have disciplined employees for abusing the Internet, according to a poll of 224 human resources directors; 30 percent said employees have been fired for their abuses.

Companies engage in these activities to address a number of concerns:

* Employees who spend time engaged in non-work-related surfing are affecting company productivity.

* Employees should not be permitted to use company Internet resources to access inappropriate content, such as sexually explicit material, hate-oriented web sites or job-hunting resources.

* It Is inappropriate for employees to use their company e-mail addresses to engage in non-work-related online discussions. In addition to fearing damage to the company's reputation, employers worry about disclosure of confidential and proprietary information and violation of laws and regulations.

* The resources employees use to do non-work-related surfing belong to the company. That gives the company the right to monitor them and to ensure that employees use them only for work-related purposes.

the productivity issue

An avalanche of studies bolsters the claim that productivity is suffering because of non-work-related use of the Internet. Most of these studies are funded by the very companies that make and sell the software and other tools companies use to monitor or block employee access. …

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