A Publication of WTVP

Is the computer network at the office for personal use? Businesses and organizations face an ethical challenge because people are unclear about the role of the office local area network. Is the network strictly a business tool, or can an employee use it for personal business? Even five years ago, this question wasn’t in the line of sight. The only comparison to past employee activity might be copier aerobics, where people stood at the copier and made pages and pages for personal use.

The network use question is vexing on many levels. Some focus on the computer equipment and ask whether it can be put to personal use. Others focus on whether employees can send personal e-mail on a business platform. From a practical standpoint, though, employees might stuff their network folders with all kinds of software and programs that have nothing to do with business activities. The network space has been taken for personal use. That practice may cause more of a problem than others.

Most people don’t think about use of computer memory. The amount seems limitless these days, and they don’t think through the burden of various personal programs. But space in a LAN isn’t limitless, and various “fun and games” applications can consume hundreds of megabytes of space or more. Taking this business network space for personal use means it may not be possible to get the job done.

A business operation can suffer greatly in computer performance and productivity. Programs that use hundreds of megabytes of memory can slow a system—especially one in a smaller office. The LAN can be put into “low gear” so employees can store hundreds of personal digital pictures, hundreds if not thousands of songs, enormous graphics files of personal interests, or computer games that require a lot of space at many different levels. All of these options are in addition to the vital database function, as well as a huge variety of programs and support systems that help the business do its work.

Another, related issue in personal use of the business computer system is the unauthorized copying of digital materials. As the controversy surrounding Napster demonstrated, people are quite happy to copy and distribute song collections and music projects with co-workers and friends. But there are two problems. First, sharing intellectual property without permission is illegal. It isn’t public property. Secondly, it’s okay to share the property as long as you pay for it. Some don’t want to pay or don’t think they have to do so. It’s one issue if the person is facing this question on his or her own equipment—and quite another if it’s the business providing the platform.

One related question when dealing with computer and video games: is the workplace the site for gaming? When it comes to computer use, some people can’t make this distinction. Supervisors and managers must confront workers about this behavior, as covert and quiet as it can be—and even if it’s on “off-time” like lunch or after work. Even if the employee doesn’t have computer equipment at home, it doesn’t mean the workplace system can be the home computer and the workplace system as well. That’s a distinction increasingly lost on workers—especially younger ones in whom the computer culture is ingrained from an early age.

Managers need to develop ethical standards and clear policies for personal use of the network. It’s one thing to have some opportunities for sending and receiving personal e-mail off the network to Yahoo, AOL, or other contact programs. It’s quite another to allow large downloads of programs for personal use. Such policies also address illicit and illegal use—pornography or shady personal business dealings, for example.

Some offices, especially those with younger workers, are setting up personal use sections of the office for use on breaks and meals or by appointment (and with trackability) after hours. That way, games, personal secured files, and “lock-ups” for university coursework and personal communication are directed through a separate system.

In the end, managers need to help employees learn the differences ethically and practically between use of the local area network for business purposes and for personal use so there’s no confusion—and so systems aren’t clogged with huge programs for personal use. Employees can learn the company has an ownership in access and in database management and security and that personal use is by permission only—and within limits. This policy approach is hard to communicate and tough to enforce, but it’s essential for business productivity, employee commitment, and data security. IBI