Surfing the Web at Work

What Are an Employer's Alternatives to Monitoring Employees Online?

Employees discussing employer monitoring of employee internet use during the work day.
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Employees spend between one and three hours a day surfing the web on personal business at work, depending on the study reviewed.

Since most studies depend on employee self-reported data, this productivity loss, combined with the concerns employers have for where their employees are surfing the web at work, causes more employers to monitor employee use of the internet.

Employees shop, do banking, visit sports sites, pay bills, chat on Facebook, tweet on Twitter, and more.

With most employees, these are occasional activities that they pursue on breaks and lunch. If they do spend a few minutes of work time, they likely make up for it answering email after the kids go to bed.

But, a small percentage of employees abuse the privilege. In one company, a disgruntled supervisor was spending 6-7 hours a day doing everything from job searching to looking up recipes and downloading coupons.

In another, the change in position of an employee’s computer, making the view of its screen impossible by anyone except the employee, made IT suspicious. They found that the employee was downloading and watching pornographic movies. So, sometimes employers’ worst fears are justified.

In this second example, not finding out about the porn, the employer would have been put in the position of a potential lawsuit for sexual harassment or a hostile work environment claim. Neither would have been welcomed, so the employer let the employee go.

Employer Surveillance of Employees Surfing the Web at Work

Employers who block access to employees surfing the web at work are concerned about employees visiting adult sites with sexual, romantic, or pornographic content; game sites; social networking sites; entertainment sites; shopping/auction sites; and sports sites.

In addition, some companies use URL blocks to stop employees from visiting external blogs. Others block access to sites such as Facebook at work.

Depending on the company, computer monitoring takes many forms: some employers track content, keystrokes, and time spent at the keyboard; some store and review computer files; others monitor the blogosphere to see what is being written about the company by employees, and others monitor social media networking sites.

Of the companies that monitor email, some use technology tools to automatically monitor email and others assign an employee to manually read and review email.

Why Employers Are Monitoring Employees Surfing the Web at Work

Employers believe this employee surveillance is necessary for employee productivity, legal reasons, the safety of company information, and to prevent an environment of harassment.

According to Manny Avramidis, senior vice president of global human resources for the AMA:

"There are primary reasons why employers monitor employee Internet behavior at work, depending on the organization and its employees. Employee productivity is key. Some companies will say that trade secret issues are important, not necessarily because employees intentionally share company information, but employees may not realize the importance to competitors of such items as new product features and organization charts.

"Intranet sites share information employers don't want outsiders to know because of competition and the need to beat competitors to market. Other companies are concerned about fraud as far as data security, making sure information is not being stolen.

"Some companies will say safety and productivity are their key concerns which may involve monitoring employee location via GPS [global positioning satellite], video cameras in production work areas, and security guards to check IDs and the contents of items brought to work. And, other employers will cite potential liability because they have been burned in the courts. Most organizations have some capital to monitor and it's fairly cheap to do it. So they do."

More Employer Concerns About Surfing the Web at Work

In addition to the concern about the kinds of sites employees are visiting at work for these reasons, a number of additional concerns motivate employers to monitor employees surfing the web at work.

Litigation is a serious issue to employers said Nancy Flynn, executive director of The ePolicy Institute and author of The ePolicy Handbook, 2nd Edition (AMACOM, 2008) and other internet-related books.

According to SHRM (accessed 1-11-18—you must be a member), "In this age of digital information, business managers, HR professionals, IT professionals and legal professionals must work closely together to develop policies and procedures related to employment record-keeping. In the event of employment-related litigation, a thorough search will likely be done of an employer's electronic records. 

"Electronic data include e-mail, web pages, word processing files, computer databases and any other information that is stored on a computer and that exists in a medium that can be read only through the use of computers. It can also include electronic trails left behind, such as when a manager adds or deletes text to a performance review, the formulas employees used for making spreadsheet calculations or edits to a memorandum and other unintentionally stored data.

"Electronic data are becoming increasingly important in legal proceedings. Consultation with legal counsel about electronic data storage, retention and destruction is especially important since the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure—Rule 34 was amended specifically to address discovery rules for electronically stored information."

According to Avramidis:

"There are more and more employers placing employee computer use under surveillance because the technology is becoming cheaper and cheaper. No matter how you feel about it, employers that don't monitor will become fewer and fewer, not to nail employees, but because monitoring increasingly makes business sense. It's only going to become more and more significant in America. Employees really need to read and be aware of policies.

"Employers should establish policies to be clear with employees about their employment relationship. A policy acts as a deterrent. In Florida, as an example, it is not unusual to park police cars by the road over-night as a deterrent to motorists speeding.

"Where employers often fall short is that they tell employees that they will be monitored but they don't describe exactly what behavior is expected or not expected. To explain exactly what their expectations are about the policy is important. Educating the employees and explaining the definition of what is fair and acceptable internet and email use annually is recommended."

While an increasing number of states and jurisdictions are requiring employers to notify employees of electronic monitoring, the majority of employers are doing a good job of alerting employees when they are being watched.

Most employers inform employees that the company is monitoring content, keystrokes and time spent at the keyboard and most let employees know that the company reviews their computer use. Most also alert employees to email monitoring.

Should You Monitor Employees?

Despite this increase, the monitoring of employee time and use online is a signal of distrust and incongruent with an employee-oriented culture that regards employees as the chief assets of the company.

If fewer than 1 percent of employees, according to some reports, abuse their work day and employer trust online, why make 100 percent of employees feel uncomfortable and distrusted? So, the practice of electronically monitoring employees at work has strong pros and cons.

Electronic surveillance of employees at work can yield results that are beneficial to the employer in controlling abuse. They can protect an employer's interests in a lawsuit—or not—depending.

But, there are powerful reasons why an employer might not want to use employee internet monitoring. Avramidis says that this decision depends on the company and the work environment an employer wants to create:

"Depending on the level of freedom allowed in a company or the type of employer, electronic surveillance of employees may not be desirable. Companies that employ new college grads, who have absolutely blurred lines, and are online all day, are an example.

"In fact, 99 percent of the population will be fine without electronic surveillance; fewer than 1 percent of employees are causing the damage that allows all of the bad stuff for employers to kick in."

On days like Cyber Monday, Black Friday, the NCAA championships, and other popular events, employers might be tempted to overreact to employees shopping and watching games online. And, employees may feel as if they need to sneak and cheat to do their internet activities. But, a healthy balance benefits all parties.

Employers may want to think twice about developing and implementing policies that forbid all personal online computer use during the work day with employees who are still answering emails at 8 p.m. at night.

Employees must also practice reasonable internet use for personal shopping and the like at work. Few employers will quibble over a few minutes to place an order, but many deservedly object to an employee comparing prices online for half the workday.

It would behoove employees, to understand their employer's internet, email, and computer policies and expectations. Over half of all employers surveyed had fired employees for email and Internet abuse.

Employers who have fired workers for email misuse did so for these reasons: violation of a company policy; inappropriate or offensive language; excessive personal use; or breach of company confidentiality rules.

Know your employer's policies about internet and email use. Because the percentage of employers monitoring computer behavior is rising every year, what you don't know or pay attention to could hurt your standing with your employer.

Most employers don't mind some or a small amount of computer use for personal business at work. You need to know how your employer defines some.

Alternatives to Employee Monitoring

It's a choice every company has to make. And, more and more companies are choosing to monitor employees and their online use. I don't recommend employee internet monitoring. I do recommend the following actions to create an organizational environment in which employees don’t abuse their employer’s trust.

  • Develop a solid internet and email policy that provides employees with clear expectations about the employer's stance on personal time online at work. This policy can broadly forbid certain activities and site visitations without making employees feel like criminals. The policy can emphasize responsibility, faith, and trust.
  • Communicate the policy using lots of examples so that employees are not confused about their requirements. Continuously communicate your expectations and address employees who take advantage of their employer’s time individually. If an employee’s productivity or contribution slips, communicate with the employee to determine if online use is affecting performance. Use progressive discipline with employees who repeatedly violate your expectations and trust.
  • Train your managers and supervisors about how to establish and maintain the expectations and policies of your workplace. Train them to recognize when an employee might be abusing internet time or sites at work. The IT staff, in the example above, had been given clear guidance and training about what to watch for in potential cases of internet abuse. Rather than monitoring all employee activity online, they selectively monitored when they thought a potential problem might exist.
  • Develop and maintain a culture of trust. Developing an environment in which employees self-monitor personal online time at work is the most effective approach. Deal with employees who are over the line on a case-by-case basis. Don't burden the majority of your hard-working employees with overly burdensome policies because of the actions of a few. Get rid of the few.

Online abuse of time does occur in workplaces. But, employee internet monitoring is an overbroad reaction to the activities of a small percentage of employees. It contributes to an environment in which employees feel untrusted. It encourages sneaky behavior on the part of employees.

It causes employees to waste energy worrying about whether what they are doing is okay or not, and it encourages a 9 to 5 mentality. An employer of choice finds alternatives to employee internet monitoring.