A Publication of WTVP

One of your employees spends part of his lunch hour dialing up what most people would consider a pornographic Website while eating lunch at his desk.

Or another employee spends about 15 minutes dialing up a shopping Website during a break and ordering something for her husband's birthday gift.

Still another employee checks out an all-sports Website that features all of last night's ball scores and allows him to view some key plays from key games.

Or one of your managers checks her stocks once every hour or so–not really to trade, but to keep an eye on her financial portfolio.

What do you do? Treat them all the same? Different strokes for different folks? How does management decide these days what's private and what's not–what's business abuse and what's not–and what should be allowed and what should not?

There used to be a pretty hard-and-fast rule: do something with company resources for your own benefit–and you've broken the rule. It was easy. You couldn't help yourself to a company's products or parts of products–regardless of whether you were in the factory or an office. So, for instance, taking a flywheel was essentially the same as taking a ream of paper. You couldn't help yourself to either–because both were purchased and/or produced with company resources.

But has technology changed things that much? We think not.

For instance, it's been possible to conduct personal business by phone for a long time–whether it be ordering something from a catalog, complaining to a utility about a personal bill or something even more well defined, like selling stock by calling a broker.

The technology per se hasn't changed that radically–it's our ability to monitor the use of the technology. It was difficult, for instance, for an employer to monitor the dozens or hundreds or thousands of phone calls made by employees every day. Phone numbers that had been called could be checked, but that was a very long and tedious process.

The Internet, of course, has changed such things. With a central site shared by all employees, an employer can tune in to not only Websites accessed by individual employees, but can read their e-mails, too.

So technology has just made it easier for an employer to check the use and abuse of itself by employees.

Does the employer have a right?

I'm afraid we're going to have to say "yes." After all, when accessing Websites, the employee is using technology provided by his employer and using it on company time. When he or she is guilty of sending offensive e-mails, whether inside or outside the company, as long as it's done internally, it's still being done with company resources. Ethics aside, potential liability (not to mention embarrassment) is a driving force behind employers' need to monitor Web activity.

A recent Wall Street Journal article pointed out that the new company tech may actually be a "secret agent," hired to investigate the company's Internet activity. As an example, one of the projects my son was asked to work on in his new position at a large company was the auditing of every employee's computer Internet activity. The assignment was determined necessary by management to help monitor abuses and serve as the background in formulating company policy. He sheepishly was forced to admit before handing in the report that his penchant for checking e-Bay had stopped when given the assignment.

We can argue–and would–over the right of someone (actually anyone) to try to find out that information about an individual using his own computer at home. Except for someone who is caught up in something illegal–like pedophilia or drug dealing or something like that–it's no one's business how we use our home computer. But the workplace–that's a completely different story.

Our take on it is this: a company spends good money for computers, for software, for Internet access by its employees and spends good money to pay them for services rendered. That has never been interpreted to mean that those employees then had the right to use those computers or software or Internet access for their own use.

Now that's not to say that some companies should allow some limited personal access to the Internet for their employees. Because after all, a happy employee is generally a very productive employee. And someone who gets to spend a few minutes, let's say looking up a retailer's Website and ordering a product, might be a much more satisfied and thus productive employee for the remainder of the day. But now we're getting into management styles–and that's not really our intention.

We think it's a good thing that employers can monitor the use of their electronic resources.

But in doing so, a company should make it very clear to all employees what the rules are regarding the use of company computers and the Internet–that the company can and will monitor how those things are used–and that employees found in violation of the rules will be dealt with accordingly. If an employee finds the rules too stringent or the monitoring too oppressive, he or she is free to find another employer–better yet, surf at home. As one investigator tells Internet abusers, "You live in a democracy, you don't work in one." IBI