Technology Abusing the Net – How to curb work surfers

The phenomenal growth of computer and email use in the workplace has its downside. With it has come steady growth in instances of internet and email misuse and abuse. For some the price of this abuse has been high.
According to the American Management Association, more than quarter of Fortune 500 companies have been embroiled in sexual harassment claims arising from employee abuse of corporate email and internet systems.
The number of court cases involving employees dismissed for inappropriate internet or email activities is rising and the ones that make it to court are just the tip of reasonable sized iceberg. That’s because it’s topic neither the companies or individuals concerned care to shout about.
A survey last year by Personnel Magazine in the UK found that 25 percent of respondent companies have sacked employees for internet misuse – most for using porn sites.
The very accessibility of the internet provides much greater scope for transmission of potential offensive or confidential material than any previous technology allowed. And that’s something employers should be concerned about.
However, recent survey carried out in New Zealand by Kensington Swan suggests they’re still tad blase about the problem. It found that access to the internet is widespread. Seventy-five percent of companies allow all staff to access email while 68 percent of companies allow all staff to access the internet. Just 19 percent of firms have total ban on personal use of email while 23 percent have total ban on personal use of the internet. It also found that just one quarter of employers never monitor internet and email use.
That leaves fair leeway for potential abuse. This could range from sending personal emails or surfing non work-related sites during work hours to more mischievous (or ill-conceived) transmission of offensive material, the inadvertent (or deliberate) broadcast of confidential material, or downloading objectionable material from porn sites. The different forms of abuse may evoke varying degrees of employer concern but all come at cost.
Employees who surf the internet during work time are doing less productive work as well as totting up usage charges. study carried out by the Cranfield School of Management last year estimated that internet abuse could be costing small to medium business in the UK up to £1.5 billion year. It found that nearly third of SMEs were losing more than one day’s work week to “cyberslackers”.
The access to objectionable or questionable material has range of damaging and costly consequences – as does the transmission of confidential information or defamatory statements. Then there are the psychological costs. Email and internet abuse breaches the relationship of trust and confidence between the employee and the employer and has implications for the integrity of both. Having managing director downloading objectional material, for instance, is hardly good role modelling.
For most employers their potential liability for the spread of any damaging or offensive material and the resultant harm to their own or the company’s reputation is enough to offset any costs associated with email monitoring and policing.
The fact that not only email but also deleted email may be produced as evidence in court under Rule 3 of the High Court Rules and is discoverable under Rule 293, is almost enough on its own to ensure that employers address this issue.
However, alarmingly only 78 percent of companies in the Kensington Swan survey had written policy for employee behaviour in relation to internet and email usage and only 92 percent of this group had communicated that policy to their employees – vital step in ensuring the policy has any effect and is able to be enforced.
The most effective ways of dealing with the issue are the implementation of regular monitoring and an effective firewall to block inappropriate emails and other material from entering the workplace.
At the heart of the issue is consistency. All instances of email and internet abuse and misuse which come to the attention of management must be dealt with consistently and fairly. You cannot monitor individuals or select groups without good cause or reason. Likewise, you can’t punish abuse in one segment of the workforce and tolerate it in another.
The other difficulty in guarding against such abuse is that there is no target group. Anecdotal evidence suggests that ‘offenders’ are random and no one group can be either singled out or immune.
Indeed, relatively recent high-profile media coverage illustrates that no-one, from the judiciary to chief executive officers and managing directors should be exempt from monitoring. This also illustrates that monitoring has its place regardless of an employee’s occupation or place within the company structure.
Compared with the United Kingdom, New Zealand employers are lagging behind in taking steps to secure safe internet and email usage within the workplace and thereby exposing themselves to potential liability and unnecessary problems.
Only 78 percent of New Zealand companies have written policy for employee behaviour in relation to the internet and email compared with the United Kingdom’s 93 percent. The percentage of local companies that have adequate software in place to block inappropriate internet access is 42 percent (cf 53 percent) though we’re ahead on firewall protection (77 percent cf 71 percent).
The issue for New Zealand companies then is how to effectively stamp out internet and email misuse and abuse. At the heart of this is the implementation of an effective policy. Only then will employers have the means to deal with and take effective action against employees who transgress.
However, this policy has to do more than simply exist. To be truly effective, it must cover the whole workforce, be widely enforced and consistently understood across the entire organisation. Giving employees copy of the policy in their induction manuals and ensuring they sign it to show they have read and understood its provisions is an effective way of achieving this. It also leaves strong paper trail should instances of internet and email misuse and abuse arise.
It is only when all companies take strong stance on the issue of internet and email abuse with comparable standards across the board that any real change will be made.
Employers need to consider not only the cost to themselves in terms of lost production and potential liability but the wider social costs. By making the necessary investment in software and technology, they can help make surfing lot safer. M

Peter Churchman is partner with
Kensington Swan.

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