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Abuse of Internet Access at Work

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When this was written originally, the Internet was less available, and less essential. Since then, almost every workplace has employee access to the Internet, and email, so the issue of abusing Internet access at work has escalated. Most human resource (HR) departments have to face this issue. Here's some advice on policy to try to keep some balance.

This month we look at a question which is being asked with increasing frequency. What are the issues of concern around providing Internet access for government staff?

Problem: I am a manager in a government office that has recently been "wired" so that each employee has access to the Internet. At present staff can surf the net, and use electronic mail. It has come to my attention that one of our staff has been spending inordinate time on the Internet, and there has been a suggestion that he has been accessing "adult sites" while at work. Do you have any comments or suggestions?

Answer: More and more government organizations are installing Internet access for staff, and this question will become more common. How do you regulate usage without making the technology useless? In fact, what degree of regulation is appropriate?

In general terms, let's remember that the Internet allows communication and research to be done from the office. Second, its valuable contribution will be in the ease that communication can occur with colleagues, and members of the public. Unfortunately, there is no hard and fast set of rules. In the situation described above, there are several concerns. Probably the most serious is the possibility that the Internet is being used to access pornographic material, at the taxpayer's expense. Clearly this is a serious concern because of the additional responsibilities and obligations public servants have, compared to other sectors. While few are aware of it, access to web sites can be monitored, and an individual who goes to such sites can be identified by the web site owner.

Since most government staff have identifiers that indicate they are government staff, we must realize that such behaviour is not "secret". There is a potential for public embarrassment. For those reasons, even leaving aside moral and ethical issues, staff should be clear that Internet access brings responsibility. We recommend that an Internet usage policy be drafted (usually called an Acceptable Use Policy-AUP). As with any policy, staff should be actively involved in determining what is and is not acceptable behaviour on the Net. That is probably the clearest of the issues related to the problem given.

The next issue is the lack of productivity that occurs if staff spend inordinate amounts of time surfing the Net. In the specific case outlined, the individual was spending as much as three hours at a time, apparently doing non-work related things. Some people advocate that the employer become a policeman, monitoring access electronically (which is technically possible), and enforcing rules harshly. There are others that suggest that the real issue lies elsewhere, and monitoring and enforcement don't address them. Putting aside the pornography access, one obvious question that comes to mind is whether the individual in question is able to meet his or her job obligations while also spending a good deal of time on unproductive activities. If the answer is no, then there is a clear performance problem that should be dealt with by focusing on the job tasks that are not getting done, or objectives and deadlines not meant. This would be the same, if the person was spending large amounts of time on the telephone, on personal calls.

If the employee is able to complete all job tasks and still "waste time" on the Internet, then the question shifts to whether the individual has sufficient work to do. And that, again, is an issue unrelated to the Internet, itself.

Some other considerations apply. One of the odd things about the Internet is that worthwhile research can be found almost accidentally. Many of the things of value we find are a result of "playing" on the Net. While we don't recommend that staff have free license to pass their days in an Internet stupor, we also do not want to restrict access in a harsh way. It is very difficult to determine whether a person's Internet time is "work related". The more we impose and enforce restrictions, the more effort and resource have to be invested in the police function. Barring extreme cases of abuse, it may be that we have to make sure there is a simple, straight forward policy in place, and then trust that staff will abide by that.

Monitoring use may not add value to the organization, and can create a climate where people will be fearful to use the Internet, even for legitimate reasons.

In the extreme cases of abusive behaviour such as accessing pornographic material, harassing other Internet users, or conducting political activities during work hours), it may be necessary to use stronger methods, including monitoring of log files, followed by appropriate disciplinary actions. Otherwise we suggest that the time issue be handled like any other time issue. Rather than considering the time spent on the Internet, a better focus is on the productivity of the staff member.

Is he doing the job? If not, then normal procedures should be used. If the job is getting done, then perhaps the job needs to be enriched or expanded. Perhaps the Internet time is spent out of boredom, much like some people read the daily newspaper. Conclusion It is absolutely essential that departments have easily understood policies on Internet use, and that these policies be understood by staff. As we indicated, these policies should be drafted with the involvement of staff, whenever possible. If you are of the mind that staff are paid for what they produce rather than the time they put in (a progressive notion), then it makes sense to tackle most of these issues in terms of productivity, not time spent. That's where the focus should be. Clearly this issue is going to come up more and more as we move into the next century. Be prepared beforehand, so you don't have to make up rules as you go along. The "seat of the pants" approach is far more likely to provoke grievances and legal problem.

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