As the Internet becomes a common tool in the workplace, employers find themselves doing yet another balancing act. Legal liability, decreased bandwidth, and lost productivity are all reasons for management to limit personal Internet use. Yet as employees work longer hours, the Internet offers them an efficient way to accomplish personal tasks during the workday.
Is there a fair solution for both parties? The answer lies in setting up a flexible policy. This comprehensive policy, built with input from several departments in the organization, aims to minimize Internet abuse while enabling workers to accomplish reasonable personal tasks online at work. There are several fundamental steps in creating and maintaining such a policy.
Step 1: Corporate culture check
A flexible Internet policy that is valued by both employer and employee must reflect company culture. Some companies allow for very casual attire, nap times, or bringing pets to work. But other companies won't even let their employees have a phone on their desks. Regardless, the Internet policy needs to reflect the company's overall attitudes toward its workers.
For example, Reed Business Information (RBI), an international publisher, wanted to give its employees - many of them journalists - access to the wealth of information on the Web. But it also wanted to prevent inappropriate content from entering the workplace. As a publishing group, RBI had to create an Internet policy that established regulations but maintained flexibility for work-related research. Hence, an effective Internet policy for RBI's corporate culture did not mean strict regulations, but rather, guidelines integrated with flexibility.
Step 2: Creating the policy
While there is no standard list of "ingredients" for the perfect policy, HR professionals should try to include these basic items:
- a disclaimer that warns against the dangers of the Internet and shields the company from being held liable for any material viewed or downloaded;
- a summary of network use limitations that outlines appropriate and inappropriate uses of the computer network resources;
- an agreement not to waste or damage computer resources that includes details on accessing the Internet through firewalls, avoiding frivolous use, and notifying the administrator if one suspects a virus; and
- a 'no expectation of privacy' statement that waives privacy rights over any materials sent or created using the company's computer network.
Step 3: Educating and updating employees
Any policy will be useless if employees don't know about technological advances - and their place in the policy. In addition to giving initial notification of the policy, such as through employee manuals or employee training sessions, the employer should update the policy according to developing technology and content, and keep employees directly informed of these updates.
For example, the Internet has given birth to such things as MP3 music files and streaming video downloads. Whenever new technologies like these appear on the scene, HR should decide whether they're allowed under the Internet policy. If the decision is no, it's important to warn employees about it.
The final step: Policy enforcement
Internet-use policies without enforcement are the equivalent of speed-limit signs without traffic cops.
One way to keep policy violations from getting out of hand is to purchase filtering software, which blocks employee access to whatever Web sites are deemed inappropriate for the workplace while still allowing access to the sites needed for getting work done.
"Misuse of the Internet at work should never get to the point of termination," said John Carrington, CEO and chairman of Websense, one of many companies that sell Web-filtering software. "After establishing Internet use policies, corporations need to start monitoring their Internet traffic and enforcing the policies. Web-filtering software provides HR professionals with the tools to effectively manage employee use and prevent future disciplinary action."
To accommodate the balance between professional and personal employee Internet use in the workplace, HR professionals must create flexible Internet access policies. Corporate culture, key sections, education and updates, and policy enforcement are all fundamental steps in creating and maintaining such a policy.