Monday, July 03, 2000

Bosses tackle Internet abuse

When cat's away, mouse will play

By John J. Byczkowski and John Eckberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        When the Internet arrived at the recruiting staffing division of Belcan Corp. in November 1999, executives at the Florence firm soon found that the Web was a sword with at least two razor edges.

        It offered the 50 employees who place clerical and administrative workers at local companies a chance to seek resumes at nanosecond speed. On the other hand, it gave workers a golden opportunity to goof off — that is, to surf for fun or profit while appearing to be busy.

        This week Belcan did what many companies are doing nationwide: It began to restrict Web access to employees and prohibit personal surfing.

        “The Internet is a human resources nightmare,” said Amy Frasure, division recruitment leader for the firm.

        “It's like the potato chip — you can't eat just one. It's tough to take just a minute to search, check your e-mail, maybe click-through to another site. Ten minutes turns into 30 minutes and then an hour.”

        Employers are paying more attention to what their workers are doing on the Internet. According to a survey by the American Management Association, 54 percent of American companies are monitoring Internet use. And 38 percent say they store and review all e-mail, up from 27 percent in 1999.

        “Certainly it's a hot topic among employment lawyers nationally and locally,” said Paul Tobias, a Cincinnati lawyer. Many workers don't realize their Internet movements are recorded on server log files, as are the contents of their e-mails. “I've had a couple of cases where people were fired for bad language in an e-mail,” he said.

        Are Cincinnati companies having problems, or are they just concerned? Cadre Computer Resources is one local computer network company that installs software that tracks and blocks unwanted Internet use. “The ones that are heading off existing problems spend a lot more money with us,” said senior vice president Mike Moeller.

        Because of concern over abuse, many companies still aren't wired. “Cincinnati being a conservative market, a lot of companies still do not offer Internet access or e-mail to their employees,” he said.

        Belcan's case may be extreme. Companies are logically concerned about productivity, said Eric Rolfe Greenberg, director of management studies for the American Management Association. “People who are surfing the Net, or organizing their high school reunions through e-mail, aren't doing their work,” he said.

        Many statistics point to employees doing personal surfing at work. A survey by career Web site of its users found 51 percent of employers believe surfing on the job hurts productivity, and even more employees — 56 percent — admit it does.

        But does it really? Overall, there's little evidence of that. The Federal Reserve Board this week cited “continuing rapid advances in productivity” due to technology advances as one reason for holding the line on interest rates.

        Mr. Greenberg acknowledged there's more smoke than fire. “Are we dealing with a productivity crisis? No,” he said. “I would call it a concern, a legitimate concern.”

        Kate Kaibni, co-author of the survey, said “Employers understand that employees have to get personal stuff done during the work done.” It takes less time, for example, for a worker to buy an anniversary gift online than it does to leave the office and go to the store, she said.

        Some 82 percent of employers said they tolerate “a reasonable amount” of Web surfing, she said. “Reasonable” can mean five minutes or a half-hour.

        A more pressing issue is liability. If a worker is sitting in his office surfing pornography sites, “that's a productivity problem,” Mr. Greenberg said. “But if a colleague walks in and sees those images on the screen, that's a liability problem, because what the colleague has walked into is a hostile workplace environment.”

        The AMA study found 42 percent of employers took disciplinary actions against employees for abusing Internet access, and 45 percent did so for inappropriate use of e-mail.

        Another issue is bandwidth — a company's computer and Internet traffic gets bogged down if workers are busy downloading MP3 music files.

        Whatever they tolerate, employers need to let employees know about the rules. “Employers are better off if they warn their employees” about what is and isn't acceptable, said Randy Frek ing, a Cincinnati lawyer who specializes in employment cases.

        The law isn't clear, he said. He said employers who monitor phone calls must stop listening when employees make personal phone calls from work. Does that same rule apply to e-mail? It's not certain, he said, when employees have a reasonable expectation of e-mail privacy.

        A written policy can clear things up. The AMA's Mr. Greenberg said most employer policies begin by saying the computers are to be used only for business purposes. “That's what's wrong with them,” he said.

        Such a restriction isn't practical, because personal use is going to occur. “Inevitably your disciplinary actions are going to be arbitrary, because everybody does it,” he said. “There has to be some real-world recognition of what goes on.”

        A blanket ban on any personal Net action can also hinder a company in a tight labor market. "While companies have tried to be more flexible on many work/life issues because of the tight marketplace, I've not seen that degree of flexibility regarding employees using company time for the Internet and e-mail,” said Linda Gravett, co-owner of, an online human resources firm in Loveland.

        Ms. Gravett said that members of the X-generation, people born between 1964 and 1975, are most likely to consider Internet access a factor in choosing their employer.

        “I don't think it will be long before companies will be using the offer of extensive Internet access as a recruiting tool,” she said. “But I still think many companies will point out that a policy is in place regarding use of the Internet and the company's ability to access e-mail.”

        Ms. Kaibni said a ban on viewing pornography sites is the one constant among companies. Many companies also ban accessing job-search sites — they don't want workers looking for jobs on company time — and online stockbrokers.

        “What's best is to let employees know that the server tracks where they're going and stores what they're writing,” Mr. Greenberg said. They'll begin to police themselves, he said.

        The next step is to “deal with the temptation” by installing blocking software, Mr. Greenberg said. Packages from companies like WebSense, Cyber Patrol and N2H2 can selectively block access to specific Web sites. WebSense, for instance, maintains lists of sites in 28 categories, from abortion advocacy to online brokers to gambling and pornography.

        Bo Wood, a Cincinnati resident and chairman of the board of Log-on Data Corp., based in Orange, Calif., said the company's X-STOP blocking products were developed in 1995 to prevent Internet abuse at work.

        “The fact is that 80 percent of the visits to pornographic Web sites occur between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., when people are at work,” he said. X-STOP allows employers to limit who can surf, where they can look and during what hours. It can be customized to allow selective surfing during lunch hours, he said.

        With the law uncertain and Internet use exploding, specialists call for common sense. “I think that managers would say that if my people have time to surf the Internet, then they don't have enough work to do,” said Patti Hathaway, a Westerville, Ohio, author of several books on workplace and management issues.

        “The real issue here is trust. Do you trust that people are not going overboard. If you give people strong, clear goals and their manager provides feedback. If you treat them like adults, they are not going to be as prone to go on the Internet for personal use.”

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