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Monitoring Employee Internet Use: Is It Bad Business?

Many employers monitor employee use of the Internet. A privacy advocate says that is an ineffective business decision.
Posted December 6, 2002
By

David Haskin


New employees at Hoffman Construction in Portland, Ore., receive a written policy that limits their personal use of the Internet during work hours. The policy says, among other things, that the company can monitor workers' activities.

"They have to sign the policy before they can get access," said Brian Muir, the company's network and systems administrator.

Monitoring employees' use the Internet has become a common weapon in the battle against lost productivity, according to Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute. However, Maltby claimed that monitoring is both ethically bad because it invades employees' privacy and is an ineffective way to prevent abuse.

"Internet monitoring is a privacy nightmare that doesn't do much for the employer," Maltby said flatly.

Maltby is hardly a dewy-eyed idealist. An attorney and former executive vice president of a technology firm, he agreed that abuse of the Internet is a serious problem in some companies.

"It's like a coffee break that can go on for hours and hours," he said.

How Monitoring Can Cause Problems

But while companies have the right to prevent the loss of productivity caused by employees browsing the Web and using e-mail for personal reasons, there are better ways to do that than monitoring, he said.

"I never suggest solutions that I couldn't have lived with when I was in business," Maltby said.

In fact, monitoring can actually create problems, he said, citing a theoretical example.

"These days, people don't go to Dear Abby for advice -- they go to the Internet," he said. "Say there's a woman who's being battered at home and she comes in to work and goes to a Web site for help. If somebody's monitoring her Web usage and talks about it in the lunch room, everybody in the company could find out and maybe she hasn't even told her mother yet."

In this theoretical case, Maltby said the company not only has disrespected and hurt an employee by opening a difficult part of her life to others, but it also failed to improve productivity. In fact, it may have made a difficult personal situation worse, thereby decreasing productivity.

Not everybody agrees with Maltby, of course.

"Monitoring and placing sensible limits on where employees are empowered to go on the Internet simply makes practical sense from corporate liability, security and fiduciary perspectives," said Mark Holcomb, product marketing manager for N2H2, Inc., which developed the Sentian software used by Muir and Hoffman Construction.

Holcomb said he was not only referring to lost productivity from abuse of Internet access, but also the threat of security breaches, either from within the company or from outside.

"When people browse the Internet, there's a risk that information pulled back to their desktop could contain Trojan horses and other invasive software that gives people outside the network access to network information," he said.

Holcomb also noted liability issues. A commonly heard concern, for instance, is that sexual harassment suits can result when a man uses the company Internet connection to look at pornography and a woman sees that occur and finds it offensive.

Maltby doesn't give much credence to that rationale for monitoring.

"Liability issues with porn sites are vastly exaggerated," according to Maltby. "The law is clear: Somebody who is offended must first bring it to the employer's attention and give the employer a chance to fix the problem." The company is liable only if it fails to correct the offending activity.

So What Do You Do?

While Maltby believes that monitoring employee activities can create business and ethical problems, there is a solution, he said. The first part of the solution is a strong policy. Holcomb agreed fully with Maltby and the need for such policies, although Maltby maintained such policies are surprisingly rare in the corporate world.

"Real control means controlling behavior before it happens, not afterward," he said.

With a strong policy in place, you can then use software to limit access in ways that match the policy, according to Maltby.

Maltby, Muir and Holcomb agreed on the need for a strong policy and the ability to limit access; they only disagree on the need to monitor employee Internet activity. Holcomb and Muir said it should remain the right of the company to monitor if necessary.

Muir said Hoffman Construction reserves that right but rarely uses it. He agreed that the company's policy about Internet use, rather than the threat of monitoring, has played the most important role in avoiding employee abuse of Internet access. With the policy in place, he said he deployed the Sentian software that limits access to certain types of sites at certain times of the day.

"There are certain sites that are blocked all the time, like adult content," Muir said. "Stuff like sports and entertainment and e-commerce is only blocked during regular business hours, but employees can access them during lunchtime and before and after work hours."

Maltby argued that even the threat of monitoring isn't necessary at all if the proper steps are taken to avoid abuse.

"The management issues and the ethical issues aren't identical, but they're closely related," Maltby said. "What's most effective in eliminating abuse and what is most respectful of the employee's privacy and morale can be the same thing."






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