Wasting Away on the Web

Opinion: More employers are taking workers' Web use seriously.

My IT guy wont tell me exactly what hes doing. Chances are, you arent telling your folks the entire story, either.

In fact, when it comes to spying on employees Internet surfing behavior, perhaps the less said, the better. The very thought of someone watching me update my eBay auctions or price vacation rentals is enough to keep me mostly honest. The corporate tech guys probably dont care enough about my productivity to log my keystrokes and monitor my Trillian logs, right?

But what if they do?

The issue of IT surveillance was driven home last month when Salary.com and America Online released a survey of 10,000 American workers, many of whom admitted that goofing off on the Internet was their primary method of frittering away the workday. In a sign of the times, it beat out socializing with co-workers, 45 percent to 23 percent. It turns out personal Internet time makes up the bulk of the 2 hours the average employee admits wasting each day.

While bosses can easily detect and interrupt water-cooler chatter, the employee who is shopping at Lands End or IMing with fellow fantasy baseball managers may actually appear to be working. Thwarting the activity is a technology challenge, and its one that more and more enterprises are taking seriously, despite resistance from privacy advocates and some employees themselves.

According to the American Management Association, 78 percent of large U.S. employers are regularly checking workers e-mail messages, Internet use, computer files and phone calls. Nearly half of such employers store employee e-mail messages for review. The AMA also found that 65 percent of enterprises had disciplined employees for misuse of e-mail or the Internet at work, and 27 percent had actually fired someone over such offenses.

Surprisingly, less than a third had a written policy spelling out their surveillance efforts or defining appropriate Internet use.

So how do employees feel about being watched by IT while they are on the clock? For most, its a matter of consent.

According to a recent poll of workers in technology-related fields published by the executive recruiting company FPC, 61 percent said they felt their bosses had the right to cyber-spy on them, but only with consent. Just 28 percent felt IT had the right to monitor their activity without consent, and only 1 percent said an employer never has the right to monitor Internet use.

"Its not surprising that companies want to assure that their employees time is predominantly spent on work-related computer usage," said FPC President Ron Herzog. "The majority of employees ... would like to be informed, so it is always in the companys best interest to have an Internet usage policy clearly outlining the companys expectations, which all employees sign upon hiring."

Such a policy maintains some of the pre-emptive mystery that I still believe keeps most people honest. Youre not saying you will monitor me—just that you can. The less said, the better. As the stakes grow beyond a few wasted man-hours and some misappropriated bandwidth, it grows increasingly important for IT to let everyone in the company know they might be watched.

Nowhere was that more evident than at the storied New York printing company Bowne & Co. In June, Robert Johnson, the high-profile CEO of Bowne and the former publisher of Newsday, was arrested and charged with downloading child pornography to company PCs and laptops, according to published reports. The case, which reportedly involved IT tipping off Johnson to the investigation and ultimately resulted in the dismissal of Bownes CIO, illustrates the need for diligence in keeping tabs on company computer use right up to the highest levels.

So I go carefully on my way here, my IT guy being coy about just what he can and will look at. If you arent giving your people the whole story, either, thats fine. The less said, the better. Just as long as all sides understand that the days of Internet freedom at work are justifiably finished.

Executive Editor/News Chris Gonsalves can be contacted at chris_gonsalves@ziffdavis.com.

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