To snoop or not to snoop-for employers today, that is the question. Big names like Xerox, Dow Chemical and The New York Times are setting the precedent, axing workers for Net abuses ranging from inappropriate surfing to violations of e-mail policy. Meanwhile, tools for monitoring e-mail and Net use are now affordable and widely available, raising the bar on moral dilemmas. As easy as it may be to read every word in every e-mail and to know every Web site that employees visit, is it right?
"Historically, e-mail monitoring has been seen as Big Brother. But today people are starting to see there may be problems if you don't monitor," says Walter R. Boos, president of Content Technologies Inc. in Bellevue, Washington, whose MAILsweeper software provides a tool for reading all incoming and outgoing e-mail.
The moral vs. practical issue arises with Web surfing as well. "Productivity issues definitely come up with employee use of the Web," says Kevin Blakeman, president of SurfControl, a Scotts Valley, California, developer of Net monitoring and filtering tools. When workers are eye-balling stock market ticks and hopping into auction sites, they aren't doing their jobs, which triggers employer worries about wasted time.
Aggravating matters is that more and more companies are providing Net access to more employees. A few years ago, Net access was largely limited to a corporate elite, but "today, much wider constituencies within organizations are online, and that has caused greater concern about abuse," says Adam Bosnian, vice president of marketing at Burlington, Massachusetts-based Elron Software, another developer of monitoring tools.
With the Net bringing new workplace threats, more employers seem willing to join the Big Brother ranks. Business use of monitoring software is growing. In 1999, just 27 percent of companies surveyed by the American Management Association reviewed employee e-mail; in 2000, that jumped to 38.1 percent. And in 2000, for the first time, the AMA measured employer monitoring of employee Internet connections: 54.1 percent said they monitored access. Employee reaction to this snooping? "More are simply accepting that it happens," says Boos.
The AMA survey base, however, is mostly drawn from large businesses-and experts readily concede that use of Net surveillance tools in smaller businesses is far less widespread. Entrepreneurs are still divided on instituting eyes-on policies.
Steve Rosa, 36, founder, president and chief creative officer of Advertising Ventures Inc., a Providence, Rhode Island, ad agency, wants nothing to do with monitoring. "We don't and won't snoop," says Rosa. "I'm not going to invade my people's privacy. For many of my workers, e-mail is their primary mode of communication. I have confidence in my team."
Katherine Rothman, 30, owner and CEO of KMR Communications Inc., a New York City-based medical and health PR firm, holds the exact opposite position. "I've found it necessary to limit employee use of the Net. Productivity was suffering, and my phone bills were going higher and higher," says Rothman, who, among other steps, brought in a technician to dismantle all instant-messaging functions on employee computers. "Too many were using it, too often," she says, "and it just wasn't business-related."
Rothman's main way of monitoring Net use is by walking around and watching, and she's told her five employees that if they don't shape up, she'll unplug all their Net connections and set up one computer in her office for supervised access. "I don't want to do that, but if I have to, I will," she says, adding that she'd also consider monitoring software. "The profitability of my business is at stake."
Kevin Ford, 35, president of the Armstrong Group, a 10-employee consulting firm in Fairfax, Virginia, believes that with the right balance, monitoring can be liberating rather than restricting. The moral issue for Ford is not so much monitoring itself, but the way in which it's done. Honesty is key. "We monitor employee e-mail and tell them we will," says Ford. "Our culture is based on openness. All our e-mail passwords are made available to all employees. Anybody, at any time, can read my e-mail-and I'm the president. We do this because it's more efficient for business."
Ford explains that sometimes employees have been absent and key information was available only in their e-mail. "That's the main reason we keep e-mail public," he says. "We also want the computers used as business tools. We simply talk to employees who are making too much personal use of them."
How do employees react to Ford's policy? "Initially, they're surprised when they hear it-but we believe in fully discussing all our policies," Ford says. "When we talk about what we do with e-mail, employees understand why. To us, the core value is being open and, when you're open, people usually go along with you."
While Rosa stands by his view that monitoring "would create the wrong atmosphere," the role of Big Brother is being donned by many entrepreneurs, whether with reluctance or with pride. And maybe it's not such a scary idea in 2000 as it was in 1984. "Our e-mail environment is very safe, for the company and the employees," says Ford. "We believe our way is best."