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Think Twice Does HR Want to Be a Digital Snoop

Internet monitoring can work, in limited doses, for the right reasons.

September 1, 2001
Related Topics: Technology and the Law, Internet
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Abrief history of how we got into the bizarre business of bugging employees' computers:

First, computers offered employees a ripe new opportunity to harass and defame one another. Second, workdays grew and lunchtimes shrank, causing people to do more errands at work. A full 36 percent of employees take care of personal responsibilities on a daily basis while at work, according to a Xylo study. They spend an average of 1.35 hours each day doing these errands.

Then the courts gave employers a green light, saying that they can -- under certain conditions -- monitor employees' computers.

Meanwhile, vendors like Websense, eSniff, Elron Software, ICaughtYou.com, and SurfControl began cropping up and selling highly effective technology to help employers free up clogged electronic connections and monitor how employees are using their computers. Some software not only keeps track of specific sites your employees visit, but also saves every keystroke they make. Even employees who use the delete key are at the employer's mercy.

Employer concerns are real. Employees can abuse the Net, and the rest of the company can end up paying the price in lawsuits, slower connections, and lower productivity. At Xerox, employees were fired for surfing eight hours a day. At Compaq, employees were logging on to porn sites hundreds of times. Websense says that more than one out of every three companies has fired someone for inappropriate Internet use this year.

An American Management Association study says that 63 percent of major U.S. companies monitor how long their employees are spending on the Internet, and 47 percent store and read employees' e-mail.

Ellen Bayer, who deals with HR issues for the AMA, says, "Privacy in today's workplace is largely illusory."

You're telling me.

Cutting off porn before it makes its way into the building may be a good idea. But before you rush headlong into watching over employees' computers, consider:

You may be sending the wrong message. It's one thing to have a solid policy, giving you reasonable leeway to monitor employee use of company property. It's how you use that policy that could get you in trouble. I'm not talking legal trouble. More worrisome is the bad internal PR you create when your employees discover that you're looking over their shoulders.

"The drawback to traditional Internet monitoring is the potential for employee privacy invasion, causing HR executives to fear both being too draconian with workers and employee backlash," says Andrew Meyer of Websense. He argues for more sophisticated approaches, such as allowing employees to access non-work sites for a certain amount of time per day.

You may be undermining other HR programs. At the same time that corporate America is spending millions of dollars on portals for employees to take care of personal business at work, companies are monitoring employees in case they do too much personal business at work. "Monitoring does send a mixed message," says Karen Olson, marketing director at Xylo. "If we had a normal 8-to-5 or 9-to-5 workday with an hour lunch, there would be plenty of time to do errands. But not with the workplace the way it is."

It's the right problem but the wrong solution. If employees are spending time researching Chandra Levy, is cutting off all sites that mention her name the answer?

In other words, if employees don't find their jobs compelling enough, it's probably because they aren't being challenged. They'll find something else to fiddle with if you block their browser.

Okay, even if you don't buy any of these arguments, and still believe that your company should be doing this, should you? Is this how you want to spend your time? Is this the direction the profession should
be taking?

"Policing employees on the Internet is not a way to capture people's minds and souls," says Diana Wong, vice president of human resources for Primus, a Seattle software company. "Of all the things we can do to motivate employees, this isn't one of them."

No, sniffing around in cubicles isn't a big employee motivator. Internet monitoring can work, in limited doses, for the right reasons. But it's no substitute for a workplace where employees are as enthusiastic about the business's goals as they are about chat rooms, stock trades, and Anna Kournikova.

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