Surfing the Web at Work

Alternatives for Monitoring Employee Online Activity

Employees discussing employer monitoring of employee internet use during the work day.

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Employees spend between one and three hours a day surfing the web on personal business at work, depending on the study reviewed. Since most studies depend on employee self-reported data, this productivity loss, combined with the concerns employers have for where their employees are surfing the web at work, causes more employers to decide to monitor employee use of the internet.

Employees shop, do banking, visit sports sites, pay bills, chat on Facebook, tweet on Twitter, and more. With most employees, these are occasional activities they pursue on breaks and lunch. If they do spend a few minutes of work time, they likely make up for it answering email after the kids go to bed.

Abuse of Internet at Work

A percentage of employees do abuse the privilege of internet usage at work. In one company, a disgruntled supervisor was spending 6-7 hours a day doing everything from job searching to looking up recipes, shopping, and downloading coupons.

In another, an employee changed the position of his computer, making the view of its screen impossible to see by anyone except the employee. This raised the suspicions of the IT staff, so they viewed his internet history and found the employee was downloading and watching pornographic movies.

If the employer had remained unaware the employee was viewing porn, the employer could have faced a lawsuit for sexual harassment or a hostile work environment claim. Neither would have been welcomed, so the employer let the employee go. (The employer's internet usage policy spelled out clearly the conditions under which they would terminate an employee.)

Employer Surveillance of Employees Surfing the Web

Employers who block access to employees surfing the web at work are concerned about employees visiting adult sites with sexual, romantic, or pornographic content as well as sites for gaming, social networking, entertainment, shopping/auctions, and sports. In addition, some companies use URL blocks to stop employees from visiting external blogs. Others block access to sites such as Facebook at work.

Depending on the company, computer monitoring takes many forms: some employers track content, keystrokes, and time spent at the keyboard; others store and review computer files. Many firms use alerts to monitor what is being written about the company by employees, and others monitor social media networking sites.

When companies monitor email, some use technology tools to handle the job looking for key words and phrases, while others assign an employee to read and review it manually.

Why Employers Monitor Online Behavior

Employers believe this employee surveillance is necessary for employee productivity, legal reasons, the safety of company information, and to prevent an environment of harassment.

Manny Avramidis, president and CEO of the American Management Association, writes:

"There are primary reasons why employers monitor employee Internet behavior at work, depending on the organization and its employees. Employee productivity is key. Some companies will say that trade secret issues are important, not necessarily because employees intentionally share company information, but employees may not realize the importance to competitors of such items as new product features and organization charts.

"Intranet sites share information employers don't want outsiders to know because of competition and the need to beat competitors to market. Other companies are concerned about fraud as far as data security, making sure information is not being stolen.

"Some companies will say safety and productivity are their key concerns which may involve monitoring employee location via GPS [global positioning satellite], video cameras in production work areas, and security guards to check IDs and the contents of items brought to work. And, other employers will cite potential liability because they have been burned in the courts. Most organizations have some capital to monitor and it's fairly cheap to do it. So they do."

More Employer Concerns About Surfing the Web at Work

In addition to the concern about the kinds of sites employees are visiting at work for these reasons, a number of additional concerns motivate employers to monitor employees surfing the web at work.

Litigation is a serious issue to employers said Nancy Flynn, executive director of The ePolicy Institute and author of The ePolicy Handbook and other internet policy-related books.

According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), "In this age of digital information, business managers, HR professionals, IT professionals and legal professionals must work closely together to develop policies and procedures related to employment record-keeping. In the event of employment-related litigation, a thorough search will likely be done of an employer's electronic records. 

"Electronic data include email, web pages, word processing files, computer databases and any other information that is stored on a computer and that exists in a medium that can be read-only through the use of computers. It can also include electronic trails left behind, such as when a manager adds or deletes text to a performance review, the formulas employees used for making spreadsheet calculations or edits to a memorandum and other unintentionally stored data.

"Electronic data are becoming increasingly important in legal proceedings. Consultation with legal counsel about electronic data storage, retention and destruction is especially important since the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure—Rule 34 was amended specifically to address discovery rules for electronically stored information."

According to AMA's Avramidis, employee surveillance is inevitable as the technology to do it becomes cheaper. He writes:

"Where employers often fall short is they tell employees they will be monitored but they don't describe exactly what behavior is expected or not expected. To explain exactly what their expectations are about the policy is important. Educating the employees and explaining the definition of what is fair and acceptable internet and email use annually is recommended."

"No matter how you feel about it, employers that don't monitor will become fewer and fewer, not to nail employees, but because monitoring increasingly makes business sense." — Manny Avramidis, president and CEO, the American Management Association

While an increasing number of states and jurisdictions are requiring employers to notify employees of electronic monitoring, the majority of employers are doing a good job of alerting employees when they are being watched.

Most employers inform employees the company is monitoring content, keystrokes, and time spent at the keyboard and most let employees know the company reviews their computer use. Most also alert employees to email monitoring.

Should You Monitor Employees?

The monitoring of employee time and use online is a signal of distrust and incongruent with an employee-oriented culture that regards employees as the chief assets of the company.

If fewer than 1% of employees, by some reports, abuse their workday and employer trust online, why make 100% of employees feel uncomfortable and distrusted? So, the practice of electronically monitoring employees at work has strong pros and cons.

Electronic surveillance of employees at work can yield results that are beneficial to the employer in controlling abuse. They can protect an employer's interests in a lawsuit—or not—depending on the nature of the situation.

But, there are powerful reasons why an employer might not want to use employee internet monitoring. Avramidis says that this decision depends on the company and the work environment an employer wants to create:

"Depending on the level of freedom allowed in a company or the type of employer, electronic surveillance of employees may not be desirable. Companies that employ new college grads, who have absolutely blurred lines, and are online all day, are an example.

On big online shopping days like Cyber Monday or Prime Day, big sporting occasions like the NCAA championships' March Madness, and other popular events, employers might be tempted to overreact. Employees may feel as if they need to sneak and cheat to do their internet activities. But, a healthy balance benefits all parties.

Employers may want to think twice about developing and implementing policies that forbid all personal online computer use during the workday when employees are still answering emails after hours.

Employees must also practice reasonable internet use. Few employers will quibble over a few minutes to place an order, but many deservedly object to an employee comparing prices online for half the workday. IT departments, meanwhile, have legitimate concerns about how streaming slows down company systems.

It would behoove employees to understand their employer's internet, email, and computer policies and expectations. Employers who have fired workers for email misuse did so for these reasons:

  • Violation of a company policy
  • inappropriate or offensive language
  • Excessive personal use
  • Breach of company confidentiality rules

Know your employer's policies about the internet and email use. What you don't know or pay attention to could hurt your standing with your employer.

Alternatives to Employee Monitoring

Here are ways to create an organizational environment in which employees don’t abuse their employer’s trust:

  • Develop a solid internet and email policy that provides employees with clear expectations about the employer's stance on personal time online at work. This policy can broadly forbid certain activities and site visitations without making employees feel like criminals. The policy can emphasize responsibility, faith, professional confidence, and trust.
  • Communicate the policy using lots of examples so employees are not confused about the requirements. Continuously communicate your expectations and address employees individually who take advantage of their employer’s time. If an employee’s productivity or contribution slips, communicate with the employee to determine if online use is affecting performance. Use progressive discipline with employees who repeatedly violate your expectations and trust.
  • Train your managers and supervisors about how to establish and maintain the expectations and policies of your workplace. Train them to recognize when an employee might be abusing internet time or sites at work. 
  • Develop and maintain a culture of trust. Developing an environment in which employees self-monitor personal online time at work is the most effective approach. Deal with employees who are over the line on a case-by-case basis. Don't burden the majority of your hard-working employees with overly burdensome policies because of the actions of a few. Get rid of the few.

Monitoring causes employees to waste energy worrying about whether what they are doing is acceptable and it encourages a 9-to-5 mentality. An employer of choice finds alternatives to employee internet monitoring.