The Monitor Has Two Faces
More Employers Watching Workers' Computer Use
- By Gail Repsher Emery
- Jun 14, 2001
Every employee has an occasional bad day, and the Internet makes it easy to dull the pain.
"You can just say screw it, and goof off. You've been there and I've been there," said James Walker, chief executive officer of Secure Access Systems LLC, a Dallas firm that is designing a new device to control workers' Web access.
But a problem arises, said Walker and other technology executives, when a little Web surfing turns into a major productivity problem.
Washington attorney Robert Smith has seen it happen with some clients. One, a government contractor, suspected an employee was not performing up to par, and began monitoring activity on his computer.
The contractor discovered the employee was communicating with his friends and playing computer games while he was charging the government for his time. Even after the contractor advised the employee and his colleagues that their computers were for business purposes only, the employee continued to play during working hours. Ultimately, the worker was fired for falsifying work records, and the contractor repaid the government for his time.
"In virtually all cases involving a performance-related deficiency, one of the first things we do is pop on to the computer and monitor what is going on. Even though the individual deletes files, the computer presents a hell of a road map," said Smith, senior partner and vice chairman of the labor and employment law practice at Morgan Lewis & Bockius LLP.
Increasingly, employers are turning to technologies that provide a sophisticated record showing where employees are going and when. A survey released April 18 by the American Management Association in New York found 78 percent of major U.S. companies monitor employee e-mail and Internet use, up 4 percent from the previous year.
According to industry analyst Brian Burke of International Data Corp. of Framingham, Mass., 70 percent of all employers will be equipped to monitor workers' Web use by the end of 2002.
Interest in monitoring e-mail and Web use was spurred in part by the desire to avoid negative publicity and prevent sexual harassment lawsuits resulting from employee download or transmission of pornographic materials, according to Web filtering company executives.
In 1999, Xerox Corp. fired 40 workers for visiting pornographic and retail Web sites. In July 2000, Dow Chemical Co. fired 50 workers and reprimanded 200 for e-mailing pornographic and violent images from company computers.
And last month the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission issued a preliminary finding that a group of Minneapolis librarians was exposed to a hostile work environment because of pornography downloaded on library computers.
While legal action and negative publicity are still major concerns that lead to employee monitoring, increasingly, employers want to use the technology to gauge worker productivity, said Kevin Blakeman, president of U.S. operations for SurfControl Inc. in Scotts Valley, Calif. The company provides e-mail and Web filtering software.
"It's a Pandora's box of information and services and media out there," Blakeman said. "The key is understanding how employees are using the Internet, because it is such a key business tool. If you've got someone downloading MP3 [music] files, they are potentially slowing down the work of other employees" by using too much bandwidth, he said.
|Surfers at Work|
|How often do you access the Web for |
1 to 3 times a day: 23 percent
4 to 6 times: 10 percent
7 to 10 times: Less than 1 percent
More than 10 times: 8 percent
Never: 16 percent
Don't have access at work: 14 percent
Do not work: 26 percent
Does the boss know?
Extremely likely: 27 percent
Very likely: 21 percent
Somewhat likely: 23 percent
Not very likely: 11 percent
Not at all likely: 10 percent
Don't know/Not sure: 8 percent
Based on a survey of 1,000 Americans by Yankelovich Partners Inc. Survey conducted for the Dittus Group.
Employers also use the technology to ensure the security of their Web and e-mail networks, said Parag Pruthi, chief executive officer of Niksun Inc. in North Brunswick, N.J. The company's technology allows users to detect inappropriate e-mail and Web use as well as network intrusions.
"Over the last two to three years, the expense of personnel has gone up tremendously, especially in the IT industry. More and more we are forced into hiring temporary workers and consultants to ensure timely completion of our projects. It's not clear whether those people will comply with security guidelines and won't look into taking certain information into their next job," he said. "There is a greater awareness amongst industry and government agencies to monitor access to secure and valuable information."
Employers commonly use filtering technology to identify suspicious words in e-mails or Web site addresses, said Tom Patterson, an information security expert with KPMG Consulting Inc. in McLean, Va. Rather than blocking access to the sites or stopping the e-mail transmission, the software will flag the content for review by a systems administrator.
Filtering software allows employers to generate reports that detail usage patterns, and monitoring typically takes one employee 10 to 20 minutes a day, company executives said.
Filtering is preferable to blocking, Patterson said, because the sheer magnitude of the Web makes it nearly impossible to maintain a comprehensive list of inappropriate Web sites or suspicious e-mail language.
Walker, however, has a different solution that doesn't require filtering or monitoring. His product, which will come to market late this month, gives workers unrestricted access to a group of Web sites their employer has deemed appropriate. The product also will allow users to control client access to their networks.
"The heart of our proposition is that companies would be spending their time on far better things than looking over everybody's shoulder," Walker said. "Filtering out bad places is a hopeless proposition. Only going to good stuff is easier."
A proliferation of good technologies make it easy to monitor usage, so more companies are taking steps to prevent misuse before it happens, said Patterson, managing director of the KPMG Consulting electronic commerce transactions practice.
"Our main objective is to make sure that the use of the Internet is for business purposes primarily, and the bandwidth we have is being used for that purpose," said Bob Santmyer, vice president of technology solutions and chief technology officer at Halifax Corp. in Alexandria, Va. The IT firm also resells filtering technologies, including SurfControl.
"There was some bandwidth use we saw that didn't make sense," Santmyer said. He discovered that employees who had some idle time were using the online auction site eBay.
"It's not that the use was out of control. It's just a case where the employee doesn't think about the resource they are taking up or the amount of time they are taking up," he said.
Hamilton Scientific Ltd. of Roseland, N.J., uses Niksun technology to ensure the security of the electronic medical records it creates.
"Their product gives us the power of a security camera which is constantly monitoring what is going on in traffic directed toward our server. We have not had any breaches of security. It's just that there is the potential," said Dr. Alex Golin, vice president of sales and marketing.
Monitoring has had a dramatic effect on Web usage at the Navy's base in Newport, R.I., said spokesman Dave Sanders. Of 550 employees, about 400 have Web access, he said. Their Web surfing has dropped 50 percent since software produced by Elron Software Inc. of Burlington, Mass., was installed in January.
"Obviously, we believe it has increased productivity," he said. Previously, many employees were listening to radio stations via the Web, consuming lots of bandwidth and slowing productivity for everyone else, Sanders said.
Another Elron customer saw the space on its e-mail server increase by 50 percent within a week of advising employees they shouldn't store inappropriate files, said Adam Bosnian, vice president of marketing for Elron Software.
Despite the effectiveness of monitoring, Patterson cautions the technology can't stop all abuse. It can only identify problems.
Employers should detail in writing what use of company technology is appropriate and what is not. The combination of a policy and periodic monitoring tends to curtail inappropriate use, he said.
"That's all employees are really looking for," Patterson said. "In reality, you check your stocks and send an e-mail to your mother, and most companies and employees are OK with that. Employees just want to know what the rules are."
Without a usage policy, employees have some expectation of privacy in the workplace. A well-defined policy can assert that employees have no privacy rights and provide vital protection to employers facing litigation because of employee wrongdoing, Smith said.
"Because of the sordid nature of some materials on the Internet, and the potential for its distribution, you could be talking about a significant amount of money [damages] unless the employer is proactive and engages in constructive and preventative measures like implementing a policy and disciplining workers," Smith said.
Policies should advise employees that they don't have privacy rights at work, that the company's computer systems and content are company property, and that the company will monitor them periodically, Smith said.
Policies should also state that employees can't use the systems to discriminate or create a hostile working environment, and they should provide examples of acceptable and unacceptable computer use, he said.
Nevertheless, employers should be careful not to alienate workers while they're setting boundaries, said Rob Preston, editor in chief of InternetWeek magazine.
"Companies want to have their employees feel as if they are grownups, and if you are cracking down on them for booking a vacation online, and they are otherwise good employees, they will feel disenfranchised," he said. "Companies are asking a lot of their employees these days, and I think they need to give them a little leeway on doing some personal things on company time."
As Bosnian noted, some personal Web use can improve employee productivity.
"If I'm doing some [Web] shopping during my lunch hour, I'm at my desk," he said. "If I'm out at Barnes and Noble, I can't be reached."
What it comes down to, Preston said, "is that nothing can replace a good people manager. The supervisor needs to have a handle on employees' work. You can't depend on software to solve people management problems."