The Truth about Personal Internet Use in the Workplace and 5 Simple Ways to Protect Your Company
Internet access is one of the most valuable tools that we have in the workplace. It allows companies and employees to remain connected, to research quickly, to find and transmit information seamlessly, and to stay on the cutting edge of our industries.
But you need only to walk past a row of cubicles on a given day to see that Internet use is easy to abuse. It’s not uncommon to find employees checking personal email, looking at sports websites, downloading photos, watching live-streaming videos, or even cruising dating sites.
While some of this might seem harmless, it’s important to be aware of the potential implications of personal internet use in the workplace. It doesn’t take much for one employee’s breach to affect your entire company. Here are a few risks associated with personal internet use that you might not be aware of:
Bandwidth Costs: Heavy graphics, video clips, and audio files are particularly notorious for clogging digital pipelines. If your staff is emailing photos of their family vacation to their friends, paying bills online, or downloading music, they are using up a huge amount of expensive bandwidth and slowing down your organization as a result.
Legal Liability: 70% of all Internet porn traffic occurs during the 9-to-5 workday (SexTracker) and 27% of Fortune 500 companies have been accused of sexual harassment stemming from inappropriate e-mail and Internet usage. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that companies can be held accountable for their employees forwarding offensive messages and viewing pornography.
A Damaged Reputation: A lawyer at a London firm forwarded an explicit email he received from a female acquaintance to several co-workers as a joke. Unfortunately, those people sent it on to a few of their friends and within a short period of time, thousands of people from around the world, including the press, received it. Not only was the reputation of the woman involved irreparably damaged, but the company itself ended up in a huge controversy that hurt their image and credibility.
Loss of Productivity: E-mail and the Internet offer a temptation that is hard to resist; that’s why 73% of employees who use the Internet are fully aware that they are consuming valuable bandwidth and hampering critical business activities with inappropriate Internet usage – but do it anyway.
Viruses and Spyware: Employees can accidentally (or intentionally!) download harmful viruses and spyware through music files, screen savers, and other online files.
So what can you do to protect your organization?
The line between protecting your company and micromanaging your employees can seem razor thin when it comes to personal internet use. Internet access, after all, is necessary for research, staying informed on latest trends, and good communication. You can hardly revoke access entirely, nor do you want to.
So what are some manageable methods for protecting yourselves and your employees? Here are five simple things that you can do to mitigate internet abuses in your office:
1. Communicate your expectations to your employees: Decide ahead of time what you’re comfortable with as far as personal internet use, and communicate those boundaries clearly to your employees. Write up an Internet Use Policy that spells out your expectations and explains, in detail, how you’ll handle violations.
If you don’t already have a policy in place, consider involving your employees in the process. By alerting them to the risks posed by personal internet use and empowering them to solve the problem, you’ll create an atmosphere of trust and collaboration rather than cultivating resentment and fear.
2. Allow personal internet use occasionally within a set of reasonable boundaries: Employees tend to do best in atmospheres where they feel trusted rather than micromanaged. So, if possible, benchmark certain times of the day for personal internet use. Give employees freedom to check their email or networking sites during lunch or breaks. Remind them which sites are never okay to access at work and trust them to make smart decisions.
3. Deal with violators quickly and personally: Once you’ve established a good, solid Internet Use Policy and communicated it to your employees, you have to make sure to follow through on the consequences. If you notice that an employee is using the internet inappropriately, make sure to speak with him or her personally and as quickly as possible. Reiterate your expectations and do what you can to help the violator adopt healthy practices.
4. Set productivity goals and reward those who meet them: Legalities aside, one of the top reasons to limit personal internet time is its adverse effect on productivity. Productivity is also a great barometer of whether or not your employees are abusing their privileges. Set reasonable but challenging productivity goals and give your employees a reason to stay busy. They’re much more likely to waste time online if they’re bored and unchallenged in their work.
When your employees make great strides on a project or your bottom line is up, make sure to reward their hard work. Everyone wants to feel like they’re part of the team, so make sure you recognize how significant each person is to the success of the company.
5. Invest in internet content filtering software: For some companies, the best option is to install internet content filtering software. This will block sites that are unquestionably harmful to your business. But it also generates reports and statistics about where your employees are spending their time. If you’re consistently seeing internet abuse in the workplace, having this information at hand will help you make solid decisions about which sites need to be banned and which are being used responsibly.
If you choose to go this route, make sure you inform your employees in advance so that they can take responsibility for their own actions. Be clear that this is not a way for you to “spy” on your employees but a way to protect everyone. Invite them to come to you with any questions they may have, as open communication is an essential component of a good work environment.
Don’t let your company become a victim of inappropriate personal internet use. Set good, sustainable boundaries and practice clear communication.