Things You Should Know Before Using the Internet at Work

There are some things you should know before you ever use the Internet at work-even on your own time, such as at a break or lunch-or receive or send personal e-mail.

Your employer may be watching everything you do and may be allowed to do so by law. Your boss may monitor your Web surfing, the personal e-mails you send or receive, how many visits you have made to a restricted Internet site and which sites you have visited, whether appropriate or not, if you have downloaded any inappropriate images, and whether or not you have used encryption. Employers may even use computer equipment that will allow them to determine how fast you do data entry, if that is a part of your job, and particular words you may type at work, such as “boss” and “union.” In fact, surveys have shown that most employers do monitor many aspects of their employees’ jobs, such as the use of the telephone, computers, voice mail, and e-mail. A 2005 survey by the American Management Association found that 75% of employers monitor the use of the Internet by employees in order to prevent inappropriate surfing, and 65 % use software to block connections to sites deemed off limits.

No doubt rules concerning the use of the Internet and e-mail for personal use can vary from company to company. Some companies may allow the use of computers only for company business. Others may allow you to use the Internet, e-mail, or even play games on a computer on your break or lunch time. You should know the policy of your company before even thinking of using a computer for personal use. Especially beware of using a computer for personal use that is meant only for company business.

It isn’t hard to determine how you are using your time surfing the Web as an employee. Various companies produce software that makes surveillance of your use of the Internet quite easy. One company, www.surfsecurity.com, offers a variety of software for that purpose that can be downloaded for a fee. Other companies, such as www.softsecurity.com, offer a variety off similar software that can be downloaded for a free trial period, from www.hotfiles.com.

The software can be loaded onto the hard drive of the computer you are using at work, or can be sent to you as an e-mail attachment. After the software is activated, it will register each keystroke before it appears on your computer screen as you use the Internet.

No doubt the issue of such monitoring is one of company time and company business versus your First Amendment rights. Your employer may want to know if you are neglecting your work to write personal e-mails, surf the Web, or even complain against management in chat rooms.

Courts have used two criteria in deciding the outcome of court cases involving such issues: Did the employee have a reasonable expectation of privacy, and does the business have a legitimate business interest that would justify the intrusion of your privacy?

No doubt companies have reasons to be concerned about the use of the Internet and e-mail by their employees. Employees that use company time for Web surfing attract unwanted e-mails, that could even have a virus, and waste company time. Such usage of a computer may slow down the Internet for employees who need it for legitimate business purposes.

Courts have often sided with the employer in cases involving such issues. In the case of Michael A. Smyth v. The Pillsbury Company, Smyth was dismissed as regional operations manager of the Pillsbury Company in February of 1995 after sending a series of e-mail messages to his supervisor. The company deemed the messages to be unprofessional.

Smyth sued the company. He claimed the company had assured its employees that e-mails would not result in reprimand. The court decided, however, that Pennsylvania law dictates that “an employer may discharge an employee with or without cause, at pleasure, unless restrained by some contract.”

Because he could not claim wrongful termination, Smyth then suggested that the use of his personal e-mail against him was a violation of public policy. Public policy violations have been deemed by the court to be about such things as reprimanding an employee called for jury duty and not hiring someone because of previous convictions.

The court ruled against Smyth. It determined there was no expectation of privacy. It also determined that Smyth was not made to share personal information. It further found that the company had a legitimate business purpose for its actions.

Other similar cases that were decided in favor of a company against an employee were Bourke v Nissan and Shoars v Epson.
Fortunately for employees, 80% of employers do let their employees know about their monitoring of employee activity. A total of 84% of employers have established policy for e-mail use by employees, and 81% have clear policies concerning personal Internet use by employees.

The law has also allowed employers to listen to employees phone calls (although in California the employee must be informed by of the monitoring by a recording or a beep signal), obtain a record of employee phone calls, and listen to the conversation of an employee wearing a headset with other employees.

An employer may have written policies about monitoring employees’ activities. That policy is legally binding, such as a policy that an employee will be notified if his computer activities are being monitored. There are exceptions, however, such as one for wrongdoing.

There are very few laws concerning workplace monitoring, so there are very few laws to protect you, if you use the Internet or send or receive personal e-mails at work.

There are a variety of organizations, however, that monitor how employers monitor the use of the Internet and e-mail of employees and that advocate stronger regulations on employers. Some of the organizations include: National Work Rights Institute (www.workrights.org ); 9 to 5, the National Association of Workplace Fairness (www.9to5.org); and Workplace Fairness (www.workplacefairness.org ).

In short, before you use the Internet or send or receive personal e-mails at work, it would pay you to know what courts have allowed employers to do as far as monitoring such activity.

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