Monitoring Employee Computer Use in the Workplace

Lost worker productivity is a significant issue facing business leaders today. Arguably one of the major factors contributing to this is the personal use of company computers by employees – a trend that has evolved from today’s tech savvy generation of workers who view this as a right versus a privilege. In response, growing numbers of employers are turning to sophisticated technology to monitor computer activity on the Internet, use of electronic mail, and computer file transfers.

The benefits of an effective computer monitoring system cannot be overlooked as the following example shows: Recently I received a call from a business owner in our local area who was interested in having our company serve as their IT service vendor. During our initial discussion I inquired about whether he would be interested in having us provide computer monitoring services as a part of the agreement. Sensing that he was a bit uncertain as to the value of this, I offered to “throw in this additional service” just to see what we might find. What the first report revealed was beyond what he could have ever imagined: employee visits to porn sites, on-line dating services, e-shopping portals, and even resume update sites. Eventually we discovered that this was just the tip of the iceberg relative to the inappropriate web destinations being accessed during work time.

Recent studies show that this is not an isolated trend. According to an Accountemps Network Appliance, Inc survey, U.S. employees spend an estimated 56 minutes each workday on personal Internet activities. This study also found that an estimated 64 percent of employers surveyed monitor employee Internet activity at least somewhat closely and that a surprising 70 percent of employees say that their employer has a right to monitor their Internet activity.

Implications For Companies

The costs associated with the personal use of computers at work can be staggering particularly for emerging companies who must ensure that their workforces are working at peak capacity in order to achieve profitability and growth. Computer system abuses come in many forms: the employee who when downloading a new background screen from the Internet releases spy ware onto his system; workplace romantics who as a result of opening an innocent looking e-mail release a title wave of viruses throughout the company; Monday morning sports junkies who use up valuable bandwidth and reduce company-wide, Internet connection speed to a crawl when downloading videos from their favorite sports sites

Fortunately remedies exist for employers who want to take a get tough stand with those who make frequent personal use of work computers. While there are many federal and state laws, which provide some restrictions on what employers can do, computer monitoring is generally permitted for legitimate business reasons to protect the interests of the company. An example of this is in the case of an employers who seeks to prevent employees from openly viewing sexual explicit Web sites or posting lewd jokes on a on-line company bulletin board. This type of behavior could lead to a “hostile work environment” sexual harassment claim – which has the potential to exact an enormous financial and emotional burden on the company


So what can be done to curb the personal use of computers by employees at work? Below are several suggestions to point you in the right direction:

1. Establish A Policy: Employers that plan to monitor employee personal use of computers should begin by formulating a policy with the help of a competent employment law attorney. This step will go a long way towards establishing a legitimate business purpose for the monitoring that will take place and diminish any expectations of privacy an employee may have regarding their use of the Internet, computer files, electronic mail and other computer systems. This policy should be contained in the employee handbook and all employees should sign a consent form when they receive computer privileges at work.

2. Ensure Employee Awareness: Employees should be regularly reminded that the computer systems and software applications they are using are company property and should be used for business purposes only. They should also be made aware of the fact that the primary purpose behind the company monitoring activities is not only to protect the confidentiality and integrity of the system but also to ensure a more productive and profitable work environment.

3. Set Up A Monitoring Service: Often the most important step that a business can take is to establish an Internet monitoring service through a technology service provider, which logs employee computer activity 24/7. A number of these service packets offer easily assessable online reports, which identify users by computer name, provides trends reports, and identifies the types of Internet content being accessed. It is also recommended that a company consider adding a File Transfer monitoring component given the growing number of employees involved with transferring proprietary information to locations external to the company. The cost of this type of service: $10-$50 per computer, per month. That’s less than the cost of a latte per day!

While monitoring services may be viewed by some as intrusive and inconsistent with prevailing privacy laws, the goal is simple: to ensure that every employee is productive in their work while protecting the company’s IT infrastructure from threats that could compromise the system. Over time many companies increasingly see this as an important strategic tool in their quest for long term profitability and sustainability.

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