IT POLICY : Setting Sensible Internet Policies

Social networking sites Bebo, MySpace and Facebook didn’t even exist three to four years ago and it’s anyone’s guess what next year’s web craze will be. And as an employer, if you ban one site today, chances are some of your employees are already using new one you’ve never heard of.
For employers this means highly specific internet or website policies for staff can quickly become outdated and redundant. Broader parameters should be kept in mind when it comes to confirming your preferred internet policy for the workplace.

Initial considerations
If you ban all social networking sites, restrict access to all but few work-related websites and closely monitor employee internet usage, you may be just the kind of place any self-respecting Gen Y graduate would shun. But, if it’s open slather, does your openness effectively encourage lax approach to working habits and organisational security?
For employers, striking the right balance on internet policy isn’t easy and there are few things that need careful consideration.
Firstly, the nature and business of every organisation is different. For media company, Facebook, Bebo and other social networking sites could prove veritable goldmine of information when researching or reporting on stories. For other organisations, those sites may provide little business value and simply serve as distraction.
Secondly, the very important issue of bandwidth. Many sites soak it up which can slow down other systems. It can become painfully slow to send and receive emails because flood of employees are viewing the latest Britney Spears meltdown on YouTube.
Finally there are security issues. Office gossip over the water cooler is one thing, posting information on an external social networking site is quite another. In some sectors of the New Zealand Government which deal with classified information, all internet use is banned. You may not need to go that far but you do need to ensure your internal information is protected.
There are also associated risks of employee harassment claims linked to email correspondence between colleagues about other colleagues on Facebook. While not, strictly speaking, on one’s work email, can such communication lead to disciplinary action – all things being equal?
Once you have come to resolution on these issues, there are some broad guidelines to follow in setting your internet policy:

Don’t be too prescriptive
– Make sure your internet policy is broad enough to cover rapidly changing web environment. While it is important to have strong policy against accessing objectionable or pornographic material, listing every social networking site that staff shouldn’t visit is increasingly impractical. Also realise that the web is now part of our daily lives. If you do block certain sites such as TradeMe or Facebook consider allowing employees to go online during lunch hours or before or and after work.

Communicate your policy
– In recent Employment Court cases on internet use the court has stressed the importance of employers communicating their policy frequently to staff. Some Australian employers have their internet policy come up on the screen every time staff log on. Others send frequent email reminders. If internet policy breaches are common in your workplace, it may be sensible to introduce an online policy which staff are required, on regular basis, to read and accept the terms of use. This requirement would greatly assist to defeat any “I didn’t know about that” defence – often the basis of challenge to dismissal for inappropriate internet use.

Act reasonably
– If an employee can access site you don’t think they should be looking at put them on notice of this, before launching into disciplinary action. It’s just common sense isn’t it? Again, use clear and consistent communication to adequately inform staff about your internet policy.

Don’t set viewing time limits
– Excessive internet use is an issue when an employee’s performance is poor. Setting weekly or monthly limits on the number of hours all staff can be on the net can be self-defeating and alienate employees who resent “Big Brother” attitude. The focus should be on how the individual is doing their job, not just on their web stats compared with fellow employees. It is important when counselling staff member on excessive internet use that there is “one rule for everyone”.
Much of this approach may be difficult to swallow for those employers who believe that internet use should be in their employees’ time, not theirs. The reality though is that many coming into the workplace see access to the web as an inalienable right – not special privilege. Marrying up these two perspectives requires internet use policies that are broad in their scope but clear in their meaning.

Maria Berryman is senior associate specialising in employment law at Bell Gully.

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