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Workers, Surf At Your Own Risk

Working Life: Cyberspace

Workers, Surf at Your Own Risk

More and more companies are monitoring their employees' abuse of the Internet

For two years, a high-level executive at a New England finance company arrived at work each morning, said hello to his secretary, and then shut the door of his roomy, windowed office behind him. Like clockwork, he drew the blinds and tilted his computer screen toward him so that--should anyone suddenly barge in--they couldn't tell what he was doing. For the next six hours, and sometimes eight, he proceeded to cruise the Internet for the raunchiest porn sites he could find.

This particular smut surfer had a job that gave him enough slack so that all he had to do was keep up appearances, if not actually get much done. The ruse was working until about six months ago, when his boss asked him to join the company's committee to draft an Internet abuse policy. Ironically, the executive is now part of his company's group looking into how to deal with the problem. Meanwhile, he has privately sought counseling and has whittled the time he spends glued to girlie sights to one hour a day.

While this man may be an extreme example of someone who abuses his Internet access, lots of employees are dabbling. "The most commonly abused Web sites at work are porn," says Dr. David Greenfield, head of the Center for Internet Addiction in West Hartford, Conn. As much as 70% of traffic on porn sites like Passion Palace and Planet Love take place during work hours, according to SexTracker, a service that monitors usage of such sites. SexTracker estimates that one in five white-collar male workers is accessing pornography at work.HOME SWEET OFFICE. Of course, porn sites aren't the only nonwork-related places employees are surfing to. With the world's greatest diversion at their fingertips, many multitaskers are turning into multislackers, doing everything from ordering spring wardrobes, planning elaborate summer holidays, carrying on torrid cyberaffairs, day-trading their portfolios, and eBaying their belongings. As many as 70% of Charles Schwab & Co. customers do their online trading from their office desks. At, servers are repaired over the weekend, since most of the transactions occur during the workday. Indeed, cyber-loafing accounts for 30% to 40% of lost worker productivity, according to Framingham (Mass.)-based International Data Corp. (IDC). "The dirty little secret of e-commerce is that it's being done from 9 to 5," says Andrew Meyer, marketing vice-president of Websense Inc., a San Diego-based maker of employee monitoring software. Websense estimates that the price tag of all this Internet distraction is $54 billion annually.

In response, managers are cracking down. Nearly one-third of those companies polled by Websense have fired workers for improper Internet use, and two-thirds have had to do some disciplining. Nearly three-quarters of major U.S. companies are now recording and reviewing their employees' communications, including telephone calls, e-mail, and Internet connections--a figure that has doubled since 1997, according to the American Management Assn.

The snooping is uncovering all kinds of on-line behavior, a lot of it sexually charged. Recently, several companies--including Xerox, New York Times, Edward Jones, and First Union Bank--fired employees who sent sexually offensive messages on the company's e-mail system. Chevron Corp. and Microsoft Corp. both settled sexual-harassment lawsuits for $2.2 million apiece as a result of internally circulated e-mails that could have created hostile work environments.

But while litigation over sexually explicit e-mails and porn-site visits was the chief corporate worry of a year ago, today's concern is about wasted time and effort. Consider what happened at public-relations firm Golin/Harris International in Chicago in mid-May. Barrett Buss, vice-president of information systems, was testing out the company's brand new software that tracks employees' Web usage when he noticed that 80% of the bandwidth at one of the branch offices was being chewed up by Napster Inc., the controversial site that allows users to download pirated songs for free. Turns out three Golin/Harris employees were ignoring work and downloading a virtual jukebox instead. Golin/Harris cracked down and banned the use of Napster at the office. "I thought there were definitely ethical problems here, and I don't like to see that stuff on my network," Buss says.ALARM BELL. To fight back against what they view as mounting bad behavior by employees, execs are starting to snap up Web-monitoring software. IDC predicts the industry will have a 75% compounded annual growth rate through 2003. The companies--such as industry leaders Elron, JSB's SurfControl, and Net Partners--provide software that can record an employee's every digital move, including thoughts that she types on her keyboard and then erases, as well as Web sites visited and e-mails sent and received. Some programs will even send an alarm-like bell to human-resource heads to alert them that an employee is trolling a porn site. About 40% of companies are now using such software, up from 17% in late 1998. IDC predicts that 80% of companies will be monitoring all of their employees' behavior online by July, 2001.

The employee backlash is already starting. Shel Holtz, CEO of consulting firm Holtz Communication & Technology in Concord, Calif., likens Corporate America's monitoring mania to x-raying briefcases and steaming open envelopes--especially since productivity is at an all-time high. "If you don't have any indication my performance is suffering," says Holtz, "why are you checking my e-mail?"

Holtz points out that people are working the equivalent of a month more per year than they did a decade ago, so that the lines between work and life are blurring. And now that work has invaded the home, Holtz thinks it's only reasonable that a little home be allowed to invade work. Says Holtz: "How committed am I going to be to an organization that blatantly says, `I don't trust you?"'

Some employees are fighting back by encrypting their e-mail messages and installing games that have panic buttons that pop up a fake spreadsheet if the boss strolls by. The disgruntled set likens the corporate watchdogging to the suspicions that surfaced with the advent of the telephone a century ago and fax machines 15 years ago. Executives in both eras feared the new technology would lead to a leaking of trade secrets and decreased productivity. Neither happened.

Today, in fact, employers that become too Big Brotherish risk alienating the young recruits they are so desperate to draw. To the hyperlink-weaned Generation Y, the Internet isn't a perk--it's a right. "The exact kinds of people companies want to attract are the kinds they will turn off with these Internet policies," predicts Chris Christiansen, Internet analyst at IDC.CHANGE OF POLICY. Many companies that tried the heavyhanded approach have found that it backfired. When MediaOne Group was part of U S West Inc., the parent company would routinely send out dramatic e-mail messages threatening employees who used the Internet for personal use. Morale sank. Once MediaOne was spun off, however, executives adopted a culture that was a bit more trusting. "We decided to put the power in the hands of the supervisors who have the power to manage people, and then to trust people to do their jobs," says Don Johnson, director of new-media technologies at MediaOne.

If it's hard for companies to figure out the right balance between private and work-related Internet use now, just wait. It's only going to get trickier. Soon, the next generation of wireless devices will allow employees to wander even farther afield from their desks. It's not hard to imagine co-workers entertaining one another by playing real-time music, videos, and even porn shows on their corporate cell phones. "It could get really ugly," Christiansen says. "The world is going to change radically, and unless some constraints are put on the new wireless technologies, companies are going to find themselves with outrageous, unbudgeted costs for what they thought was a great new convenience." The danger: The costs will far outweigh the savings these new gadgets are supposed to bring.By Michelle Conlin in New YorkReturn to top

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