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Employees online? Take a byte out of your liability

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in Employment Law,HR Management,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,Management Training,People Management

No employer wants to explain to a court why jokes like "Why beer is better than women" are bouncing around the company e-mail system. But that's the position more companies are finding themselves in: defending themselves against a hostile work environment claim with no company policy to fall back on.

As computers become more common at work, they're also extending their reach into new corners of employment law. E-mail and the Internet have made it easier for workers to fire off harassing remarks, and harder for you to police them.

Write policy now

As a result, any company with a PC and a modem needs an information security policy that addresses at least these five basic issues:

  • Ownership: Notify workers that the company owns the hardware and software.
  • Legal restrictions: Employees must follow all copyright, decency and bias laws relating to the Internet and e-mail.
  • Monitoring: Eliminate any expectation of privacy. Reserve the right to monitor e-mail and Web usage.
  • Acceptable use: Clearly define what is acceptable and unacceptable use.
  • Security: Have policies on passwords, virus-checking and other security issues.

It's best to get several department heads from your company together to draw up such policies. For example, because acceptable-use policies will cut across many different issues, the group that writes the policy should include representatives not only of human resources and the legal counsel but also your chief information officer.

Monitoring goes mainstream

In addition to having strong policies, more companies are monitoring employee phone calls, e-mail, Internet use and computer files. The number of major U.S. companies monitoring worker communications has jumped from 35 percent in 1997 to nearly 74 percent in 2000, according to the American Management Association (AMA).

What do companies monitor most? Here are the top five practices (with the percentage of companies active in each category):

  • Internet connections 54%
  • E-mail messages 38
  • Computer files 30
  • Workplace (videotaping) 14
  • Telephone conversations 11

The AMA recommends your electronic monitoring policy be:


  • Clearly defined, illustrated with specific examples of misuse and disseminated to all employees.
  • Covered during recruitment, orientation and training.
  • Discussed in meetings between managers and employees.

Notify staff of monitoring

How far can you go in monitoring employee communications? Don't expect clear direction from Congress or the courts. While technology rockets forward, lawmakers and the courts are lagging behind on how to regulate it.

Federal and state privacy laws place some limits on employers. But several court cases have upheld a company's right to monitor its workers' computer usage.

Bottom line: You can increase the likelihood that your monitoring will withstand legal scrutiny by doing two things: Restrict your monitoring to business purposes and notify employees in advance of the acceptable-use and monitoring policies.

Avoid outside attacks

A comprehensive approach to ensuring computer use doesn't damage your business also includes monitoring the Internet for possible defamation or other false information about your company. Example: Last summer, a fake earnings report for one company sent its stock plummeting.

Wired workers: The stats


  • Three-quarters of U.S. adult Internet users have gone online from work.
  • Half of the workers who go online at work say they click on personal sites at least once per day, according to the Pew Internet Project.
  • One-quarter of employees use the Internet for personal reasons for 10 to 30 minutes each workday, according to a Vault.com survey. Another 47 percent are doing so for longer, some for more than two hours.
  • While 80 percent of employers had Internet access in 1997, only 30 percent of them had formal Internet policies, according to the Society for Human Resource Management


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