Compass Newsletter - Articles

Effective Technology Policy

by Eric Yandell
Spring 2000

It's 3:30 p.m. Do you know where your staff are? Increasingly, the answer is: online answering brother Brian's e-mail, ordering Mariner tickets, or checking stock performance. High speed Internet and e-mail access from networked individual workstations has become an increasingly effective - even necessary - business tool. Ready access, however, has proven overly tempting to many employees. As a result, some employers have noticed a marked drop in productivity attributable to such extra-curricular activities. What's an employer to do?

Some employers have yielded to a contrary temptation: banning all personal use of the Internet and e-mail. This policy has the virtue of simplicity and can encourage employees to keep their mind on their work. However, it also poses a number of difficulties.

First, to be effective, the policy must be strictly enforced, which entails at least two things:

  • Persistent monitoring, either through the network itself or by frequent unannounced observation; and

  • Enforcement of the policy in situations, such as those involving key or long-term employees, where the employer may be inclined to leniency.

Second, it can be bad for morale. Employees tend to view monitoring as a sign that their employer does not trust them. Moreover, many employees do not have or cannot afford Internet access at home (or have to fight their children for the computer) and so view access through work as a valuable perk, which the employer is taking away.

Third, gray areas between personal and business use will persist and make the policy hard to enforce. Sales people will befriend customers and so e-mail may contain plans to get together over the weekend. Search for useful business websites may intersect with a personal interest, which the employee is tempted to explore "as long as he is there."

Finally, like children, some employees will simply test limits. The mere task of trying to distinguish business from personal use may be quite time-consuming.

A less restrictive approach may ultimately prove more successful and less expensive. Employees should consider adopting a policy to accomplish the following:

  • Authorize limited personal use of e-mail, the Internet and other office technology.

  • Restrict such personal use to breaks, lunch periods and other off-duty times except with prior supervisory approval.

  • Limit access to certain computers, such as a computer in a lunch room. Nothing encourages judicious use more than a co-worker standing over the user's shoulder awaiting his turn.

  • Discourage or bar certain uses, such as chat rooms or online shopping.

  • Remind employees that "their computer" is really the employer's computer. Accordingly, all communications sent and received should be professional in tone and should contain no defamatory or objectionable material.

  • Warn employees that "private" e-mail and letters, personal records, and other sensitive information is not truly private. Co-workers may pry or discover information inadvertently over the network.

  • Advise employees that the employer reserves the right to monitor, with or without notice, even if it does not presently do so on a formal basis.

  • Remind employees that, like diamonds, e-mail is forever and can be retrieved even after deletion.

  • Remind employees that complaints should be made in person and not by e-mail. For some reason, as recent court cases confirm, composing an e-mail message can induce a certain unrestrained candor that may later prove embarrassing or inculpatory. E-mail is not a soap box for personal views and employees should express themselves as they would if the encounter were face to face.

  • Prohibit access to sites that most would find offensive and encourage employees to report objectionable or excessive solicitations from outside sources.

  • Prohibit forwarding of e-mail, no matter how instructive or humorous, in a blanket fashion. At the receiving end, all such items require time to sort through. This ease and speed of replication is perhaps the most damaging to productivity.

  • Encourage employees to explore available and developing Internet sites. Employers may want to provide training on efficient use of the Internet and suggest that employees bookmark useful sites so that others have the benefit of accumulated useful information. Employees should also consider having occasional staff meetings, or other more formal sessions during which useful information may be shared.

  • Implement a system to guard against incoming e-mail for "viruses" and "worms" and prohibits or formalizes downloading software or electronic files or opening attachments. The recent "I love you" virus is a wake-up call.

  • Remind employees handling confidential or proprietary information in e-mail of the need for special care.

  • Reiterate the disciplinary consequences of violating the policy.

The Internet is quite possibly the most powerful productivity tool available to business. While unrestrained or improper use by employees may negatively impact productivity, so too may an unnecessarily restrictive Internet policy. The key to maximizing the potential of the Internet for business is to implement a formal policy that prohibits abuse but allows, and encourages, legitimate use.