If yours is like most young start-ups, the Internet is key to your company's expansion. As your business grows, you add employees. And chances are, those employees will spend a lot of their time online.
But exactly what are they doing online? You might be unpleasantly surprised to find out. Sixty-two percent of companies say their employees have used the Internet to eyeball porn sites, according to research from Elron Software Inc., a Burlington, Massachusetts, developer of Internet filtering software.
In fact, more than 25 percent of the time employees spend online is not work-related, says Phil Lumish, a vice president at JSB Corp., a Scots Valley, California, developer of surfCONTROL, an Internet monitoring tool. That's a huge productivity sinkhole, and it's costing you big money- computers, Net connections and payroll. Internet usage has become a productivity issue, as too many employees waste too many hours checking sports scores, ogling sex sites and swapping personal e-mail.
As for other ways employee Internet usage can cause problems for your business, Larry Walraven, a lawyer in the Newport Beach, California, office of O'Melveny & Myers LLP, ticks off a few cyber-potholes:
"Viewing porn sites could be construed as creating a hostile work environment," Walraven says. Other employees could file sexual harassment claims. In addition, distribution of jokes about specific groups, from women to African Americans or Asians, is no laughing matter, especially if workers file complaints.
"An employee's opinion- a chat room or e-mail- be construed as the company's," says Walraven. The usual form of an e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. If one of your employees circulates messages badmouthing customers or competitors, that opinion could be seen as the company's.
"If an employee downloads unlicensed software and distributes it, that could be a copyright violation," says Walraven. Another possible violation: downloading copyrighted material and distributing it via e-mail.
You can't rip out their modems- need e-mail and the Net for work. But that doesn't mean you have to suffer abuses passively. The solution? Establish an Internet policy. "This discourages Internet usage you don't want and helps protect you from liability," says Gregory A. Miller, an attorney with Buchanan Ingersoll in Pittsburgh.
Another plus: "A written policy can help you avoid lawsuits for firing employees for [Internet abuse]," says Mark Thibodeaux, director of IT compliance at Enron Corp. in Houston.
"Start by putting out an e-mail policy, then expand it to include the Web," suggests Marcelo Halpern, an attorney with Gordon & Glickson LLC in Chicago. More litigation is triggered by inappropriate e-mail than by viewing Web pages, making it a natural first target.
Should you ban use of company computers for personal e-mail? In a survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, only 25 percent of companies explicitly allowed nonbusiness use of company e-mail. However, most don't monitor employee use, and, generally, experts see no harm in allowing some personal e-mail. The big exceptions: mail that's derogatory, obscene or harassing; illegal mail, such as football pools or chain letters; and unauthorized use of your company's name, says Walraven. Your policy should forbid all that and also keep employees off porn, hate-group or other potentially lawsuit-inducing sites, and limit visits to sites not related to work.
And shopping online? Most experts advise permitting it in moderation: It saves employees time and can increase productivity. They'll respect you for respecting them.
The key: "Tell employees you expect them to behave responsibly and that the technology is in place to serve business, not personal, needs," says Thibodeaux.
Should you install software to monitor Internet usage? Well, if a written policy doesn't minimize abuse and you do decide to install tracking software, "Tell employees," says Walraven. "Otherwise, when they find out, it will be seen as an invasion of privacy."
Get detailed legal info on setting up your very own Internet usage policy at law firm Gordon & Glickson LLC's Web site (www.ggtech.com). Well-written, informative (and free) papers are available on "Setting Boundaries on Employee Internet Use" and "Information Technology Strategic Survey of Legal and Business Issues."
Buchanan Ingersoll Professional Corp., (412)562-3960, www.bipc.com
JSB Corp.,(408)263-9881, www.surfcontrol.com.
Elron Software Inc., (781)993 - 6023, www.elronsoftware.com
O'Melvyn & Meyers LLP, (949)823-6968, www.omm.com
Society for Human Resource Management, (703)535 - 6043, www.shrm.org