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Controlling Company Cyberspace

The Internet blurs the line between personal and business use. Should you monitor employee behavior?

As the Internet becomes increasingly dominant in people’s lives, material handling business owners are faced with the dilemma of implementing appropriate e-mail and Web policies. Many owners struggle to reconcile a need for productivity with a possible invasion of employee privacy. A recent survey by Websense, an employee Internet management company in San Diego, California, found that 82.6 percent of American companies have Internet access policies (IAPs) summarizing proper Internet use at work.

The same survey noted that more than 60 percent of companies have punished employees for inappropriate Internet usage. Thirty percent of businesses report firing an employee for it.

For some companies, monitoring employee e-mail is a safeguard against revealing classified data or violating confidentiality terms. However, a survey conducted by Forrester Consulting for Proofpoint Inc., which produces e-mail monitoring tools for companies, indicates that only 51 percent of companies trained employees on their e-mail policies during the last year. MHEDA members differ when discussing e-mail and Web policies, providing a variety of valid opinions and viewpoints.

Aaron Johnson 

“I do spot-checks of e-mail and Web activity, and we have a filter that won’t allow employees to access certain objectionable Web sites.”

Aaron Johnson, IT Manager
Alta Lift Truck Services
(Wixom, MI)

A Slippery Slope
“We don’t have a policy because we are not entirely sure how we should restrict access to the Internet, which many employees use to aid our company,” explains Stewart Raynor, president of Norpak Handling Limited (Port Hope, ON, Canada). Raynor decided in the 1990s that he would allow unlimited usage of the Internet and e-mail at work, and his view has not changed. Raynor assumes some employees use the Internet for reasons other than business, but doesn’t see it affecting productivity. “There might be some instant messaging going around the offices, but nothing I am overly concerned about.” With many Edgers among his company’s 27 employees, Raynor believes the younger employees work best with unlimited Internet access. “The advantages outweigh the disadvantages,” Raynor says. “We told one young man who spent more time on personal business that we needed to change the ratio around, and it hasn’t been a problem since.” Raynor says his decision is influenced by generational experts such as Convention presenter Bob Wendover, who says limiting access to the Internet is counter-productive for Gen Xers and Millenials.

Sayco Equipment Sales (Sarasota, FL) is in the small percentage of American companies currently without an Internet access policy, though General Manager Brian Sayre is in the process of writing one for his 20 employees. Due to rapid changes in technology, Sayre became dissatisfied with the previous “unspoken” rule that employees should not use the Internet excessively for personal use. He also felt the lack of a written policy left the company open to lawsuits. Sayre noticed that his employees were not using the Internet inappropriately, but they did spend excessive amounts of time on non-business related Web sites. “My main concern is productivity,” Sayre says. “The secondary issue is about legal safety and protecting the company from lawsuits.”

Sayre is in the process of determining the consequences for policy violation, noting the societal trend of giving offenders an educated break. “With the employment environment the way it is, I think I would give a verbal warning followed by a written reprimand, with the third offense punishable by termination,” Sayre says. If the Internet misuse involves pornography, he will give a written warning followed by termination if it happens a second time.

“The reality is that you are trying to get some kind of productivity,” Sayre reiterates. “How is using e-mail five times a day any different from someone’s spouse calling in five times a day and interrupting work?” When Sayre finishes writing the IAP, he will make employees sign and keep the records in their personnel file. Sayre doesn’t mind an employee checking e-mail during lunch, but still stresses that appropriate guidelines should be followed. “The purpose of the policy will be to protect our employees from sexual harassment if someone is on the wrong Web site,” he says. “It’s an open environment in a small facility so the computer screens of the seven employees with Internet access are fairly visible.”

 Joyce Schwob

“We prohibit the use of computers and e-mail in ways that are disruptive, offensive to others or harmful. Other than that, we don’t limit computer use.”

Joyce Schwob, President
JIT Toyota-Lift
(Frewsburg, NY)

Establishing a Policy
Joe Verzino, president of Liftech Equipment Companies (East Syracuse, NY), instituted an Internet usage policy 10 years ago, when the Internet and e-mail began to take a central role at work and home. “Every employee signs the policy which states the computer and Internet are for business purposes and appropriate material. However, we do not limit people from sending a personal e-mail occasionally,” Verzino says. Verzino has fired two people for downloading pornographic material at work. “They both received one warning, but transgressed again so we had to let them go,” Verzino explains. “I don’t think we have an abusive problem, and employees know we take the policy seriously because it acts as a deterrent for racy jokes and such.” Most employees sign the policy without comment, though Verzino recalls some technicians who balked. “They said they were always on the road anyway, but we told them that it wasn’t an option and they signed,” Verzino says. “There are about 170 employees at Liftech, and everyone understands the need for it.”

Mike Nemechek, president of IBT, Inc. (Merriam, KS), favors the flexible Internet usage policy at his company of 450 employees, 150 of whom work at the Merriam headquarters. “We recognize that people have lives, and e-mail is a fundamental part of communicating with your family,” Nemechek says. “Our policy states that personal use of e-mail is acceptable, but secondary to the requirement of getting work done.” Creation of IBT’s Internet policy was prompted by the installation of new computers at company branches. Nemechek has never had employees react adversely to signing the acknowledgement form, which can be accessed online by employees. “Our policy does not prohibit the use of personal e-mail. I think our approach is perceived as relatively reasonable and within the context of the business environment,” Nemechek says. Employees who violate the policy are subject to a series of written and verbal warnings. A zero-tolerance policy for repeat abuse leads to termination. Nemechek recalls one incident in which a male employee had inappropriate material on his computer. “The cubicle working environment is fairly open, and a female colleague had noticed this policy violation,” Nemechek says. “We gave the young man a verbal warning and we haven’t had any further reports of misconduct.”

The Internet policy for JIT Toyota-Lift (Frewsburg, NY) states, “Internet access to global electronic information resources on the World Wide Web is provided by JIT to assist employees in obtaining work-related data and technology. While Internet usage is intended for job-related activities, personal use may be permitted with prior authorization.” President Joyce Schwob allows personal Internet and e-mail use, but doesn’t actively encourage the 33 employees to spend excessive amounts of personal time on the Web. “Most importantly, e-mails should not contain any defamatory or off-color jokes,” she says. “We don’t limit computer use, but if an employee is e-mailing or visiting non-business sites excessively, I cut them off.” JIT’s policy has been in place for eight years, the product of a company-wide procedure update due to widespread employee Internet access. No employee has ever reacted adversely to the policy when signing the form during the hiring process. If policy violations do occur, the guilty party is subject to the regular graduated discipline scale. “They get two warnings and then they are terminated,” Schwob says. “You need productivity for a business to work.”

 Mike Nemechek

“We recognize that e-mail is a fundamental part of communicating with your family. Personal use of e-mail is acceptable, though secondary to getting the work done.”

Mike Nemechek, President
IBT Inc.
(Merriam, KS)

Aaron Johnson, IT manager at Alta Lift Truck Services (Wixom, MI), implemented an Internet usage policy to guard against computer viruses and malicious e-mails. “We saw all the news headlines that reported companies getting into trouble because employees used the Internet improperly,” Johnson says. “To avoid those problems, our policy restricts personal use of the Internet and e-mail. They are to be used for business purposes only.” Johnson admits that despite the wording of the policy, which employees sign when they are first hired, everyone uses e-mail for responsible personal communication. “The policy says that there is absolutely no personal use, but it is not enforced to the strict letter,” he says. “Everyone e-mails their kids and wives and that sort of thing, which we allow. We have the policy in place in case the Internet is being abused, and then we have the right to stop such behavior.”

The Internet policy at J.H. Ryder Machinery (Mississauga, ON, Canada) was implemented on July 1, 2000, to avoid misuse of the Internet. The policy states, “V-Mail and Internet systems are provided by the Company for employees to facilitate the performance of company work and their contents are the property of J. H. Ryder Machinery Limited. Personal use of E-Mail/V-Mail or the Internet by employees is allowable but should not interfere with or conflict with business use. Employees should exercise good judgment regarding the reasonableness of personal use.” Chief Financial Officer Ron Greer says there have not yet been any adverse reactions to the policy, which is communicated in writing in the employee handbook given to each employee at the start of their employment.

To Monitor or Not To Monitor?
Once an Internet access policy is in place, how can it be enforced? Some employers, including Joe Verzino at Liftech, use employee monitoring software to see exactly when and where workers go on the Web. “The program is occasionally checked by our IT tech and allows me to see what sites employees have been visiting,” Verzino says.

Last May, Brian Sayre installed a monitoring system that allows him to see every keystroke and Web site Sayco employees hit, as well as how much time they spend at a particular Web site. “Installing global positioning units on company vans to ensure accurate billing and appropriate personnel usage was the best thing we ever did,” Sayre says. “So if we monitor our service techs, I think we are entitled to monitor our office people, because of lawsuits, liabilities and sexual harassment situations.” Sayre will continue to install the most up-to-date programs and enforce a written policy. “Negligence is not an excuse that works in front of a judge.”

 Joe Verzino

“We have the capability to monitor Internet usage, but we don’t look at it every day. Our IT person does an occasional check to see what sites people have been visiting.”

Joe Verzino, President
Liftech Equipment Companies
(East Syracuse, NY)

Sayre verbally warned employees when the monitoring system was implemented and checks the spyware once a week. One time he found an employee had spent about 20 minutes searching for the perfect baseball seats on ticketmaster.com. “If that was the only 20 minutes he spent on it that day, there’s no problem,” Sayre says. “But it’s a productivity issue, and they need to be talking to our customers and mechanics. Those are minutes that they can be doing something extra.” Sayre says 30 minutes of personal Internet use for an at-desk lunch eater is appropriate, and 10 minutes for someone who goes out to lunch.

Mike Nemechek oversees monitoring software that allows him to capture any inappropriate Internet usage at IBT. “We haven’t seen a rise in improper Internet use and I think we have done a good job of communicating our policy to employees,” Nemechek says. “It’s been in place since we started deploying PCs to the branches a couple of years ago. Of course, the policy is always subject to minor modifications as technology changes.”

In Aaron Johnson’s five years as IT manager at Alta Lift Truck, there have been no cases of employees abusing Internet or e-mail privileges. “I’ve had monitoring software for two years and I do spot checks to see what types of sites employees have been visiting,” Johnson says. “We also have a filter that blocks employee access to Web sites containing inappropriate material, such as pornography and gambling.”

Monitoring of the 358 employees at J.H. Ryder is conducted by the IT department and violations reported to managers. The most important example of misuse is the transmission of obscene, profane or offensive material over any company communication system, including accessing erotic materials via news groups. Also messages, jokes or forms which violate the company harassment policy or create an intimidating or hostile work environment are prohibited. Disciplinary actions include a letter placed in the confidential employee files, written warnings and revoking of Internet access privileges for serious cases. There have been some cases in which the policy was violated by employees visiting pornographic Web sites. The offending employees were disciplined and Internet access revoked.

Goodbye, You’re Fired!
One Company’s Innovative
Approach To Monitoring
Software
A young employee at a computer company decided he would fill his workday by playing Internet games. IT technicians took a digital picture of the company CEO waving a pink slip with the words, “Goodbye, You’re Fired” over his head. The IT techs instructed the employee’s computer to send him the special picture when he tried to access his games. Needless to say, the young man got the picture immediately.

An Invasion of Privacy?
Other company executives disagree with the use of electronic computer monitoring programs. “Personally, I think it is an invasion of privacy,” Stewart Raynor says. “As long as employees keep personal e-mailing and Internet usage under control at Norpak, there are no problems that warrant monitoring.”

The monitoring policy at JIT Toyota-Lift states that because “JIT is sensitive to the legitimate privacy rights of employees, every effort will be made to guarantee that workplace monitoring is done in an ethical and respectful manner. Although the company does not make a practice of monitoring these systems, management reserves the right to retrieve the contents for legitimate reasons, such as to find lost messages, to comply with investigations of wrongful acts or to recover from system failure.” Joyce Schwob checks the software once a month, usually when she sees a non-productive employee. “I might go in and look for a report to see if they have spent an excessive amount of time on non-work-related things,” she explains. “One employee was spending excessive amounts of time on non-business related Web sites, so I restricted her access to the Internet for a while by blocking her favorite addresses.”

Clearly, the debate over personal Internet and e-mail use in the material handling workplace will only intensify. The implementation of company Web policies help some executives draw a line between employees and their ever-expanding social networks but it remains to be seen how these policies will adapt to future advances in technology. There is no doubt, however, that the material handling workplace remains a domain for business, and employees who violate that reality should be punished accordingly.

 Material Handling Equipment Distributors Association

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