A little personal surfing at work OK

  • By Joyce Rosenberg
  • Thursday, November 1, 2007 11:01pm
  • Business

In just a few weeks, many employees at companies across the country won’t be able to resist temptation. They’ll visit their favorite online retailers and do some holiday shopping when they’re supposed to be working.

Small-business owners need to decide how much Internet surfing they’ll permit on company PCs, and they need to make clear to employees what the limits are. They might also want to consider installing software that can control or monitor Internet usage. At the same time, it’s best not to turn into a dictator when it comes to staffers dabbling online — an office shouldn’t have an oppressive atmosphere, and a little down time every now and then is probably a good thing.

Employees use the Internet for a variety of personal reasons while at work. They check their e-mail, shop, download music and place postings on sites such as myspace.com. Depending on the time of the year, they check on fantasy football leagues or how they’re doing in NCAA basketball tournament pools.

That can sound scary to a company owner worried about work time lost to the Internet. But if you’re tempted to ban personal Internet use outright, other business owners, labor lawyers and human resources professionals will advise against it.

“It’s something that becomes sort of an HR-employee relations goodwill issue,” said Rick Gibbs, a senior human resources specialist with Administaff, a Houston-based company that provides human resources outsourcing.

“We suggest companies have policies concerning use of the Internet and to stress those in a positive way,” Gibbs said. “Take it from the perspective that most people are professional and they’re going to use things professionally.”

In other words, remind employees that company computers and the Internet are primarily for helping the business get its work done, but also acknowledge that sometimes employees need to deal with personal matters online.

Audrey Mross, a labor and employment attorney with Munck Butrus Carter PC in Dallas, agreed that banning Internet access can be a morale buster, and said such an edict can actually distract employees from their work. For example, employees with child- or elder-care responsibilities often need to send e-mails or do online research or even check a nursery school Web cam to help resolve caregiving problems.

“The quicker you can get those concerns off their mind, the quicker they can get their mind back on the job,” she said.

But what about the employee who just wants a little goof-off time? The answer — and a company’s policy — should depend on what kind of online activities they’re engaging in.

Some companies permit employees to visit certain kinds of Internet sites, but restrict access to others. Jones, Rose, Dykstra and Associates, a Columbia, Md.-based company whose services include computer security, has installed software that prevents staffers from visiting MySpace, Facebook and similar sites that some people use to communicate with friends.

“Those tend to be real time-burners,” said senior partner Brian Dykstra, who said his company is more liberal about employee visits to sites such as eBay and online retailers.

“I don’t mind the occasional shopping trip,” he said. “I recognize that people need to do holiday shopping and things like that.”

Monitoring software can alert you if employees are doing too much Internet surfing in general, and that’s something that might be useful in a larger office. However, even without high-tech help, it can quickly become pretty clear if employees are abusing Internet privileges because their productivity is likely to suffer. In that case, Mross noted, an owner has a performance issue to deal with.

Owners need to make it very clear that even if personal use of the Internet is generally OK, certain online sites and activities are not only forbidden, but can also be illegal. Downloading pornography can be a crime, and it can also expose a company to possible sexual harassment charges if employees are offended by what a co-worker is doing online. Most Internet gambling is also illegal.

Another factor to consider is whether some online activities can put a strain on your technology — especially if employees are downloading movies and music.

Some owners believe some surfing can actually be a good thing. Lisa Brock, president of the public relations firm Brock Communications in Tampa, Fla., recalled a staffer who was getting married and entertaining co-workers as she visited wedding planning sites.

Brock said she doesn’t monitor her employees’ online activities, and noted that they don’t need to be online to indulge in a little down time.

“We all take mental vacations, whether we’re on the Internet or just drifting off in our thoughts,” she said.

Joyce Rosenberg writes about small business for the Associated Press.

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