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Boss’s Tip of the Week #28: The Internet: How to Keep an Asset from Becoming a Liability (or a Lawsuit)

The Boss's Survival GuideHere is the latest installment of the Boss’s Tip of the Week.  This advice column for managers is brought to you by Bob Rosner and Allan Halcrow, co-authors of The Boss’s Survival Guide.

Today’s employees have been given a modern-day Pandora’s box that contains all things evil, and they have been asked not to open it. But many “Pandoras” have opened it, and used the Internet at work to view pornography, gamble, buy illegal drugs, and harass one another. That lid can’t be closed again; the Internet is here to stay. Of course, this box also has so many benefits—communication, learning, research, shopping—that we don’t want to close the lid. We simply want to control what we allow to escape. Gaining that control is not simple, popular, or perfect, but it is necessary. Rely on a combination of software, rules, and diligence. Here’s how:
 
Know the risks. Internet porn gets all the press, and it’s ugly. It’s also only the tip of the iceberg. Employees have found more ways to misuse the Net than Baskin-Robbins has flavors. You need to know what you’re up against:

Harassment and cyberstalking: Under a cloak of presumed anonymity, employees can send each other sexual propositions, racial epithets, attacks on religion, and threats of violence. E-mail messages, postings on message boards, and discussions in Internet chat rooms can all be used.
Cyberlibel: Disgruntled employees vent their anger by making false and harmful statements about their employers and disseminate them using the Internet. A former CFO was accused of posting messages that his employer’s future was “uncertain and unstable” on an investment message board. An Internet post falsely claimed that electronic greeting cards made by Blue Mountain Arts contain a virus that destroys the recipient’s computer system when they’re opened.
Possible trademark infringement: Employees can use your company’s name in ways you wish they wouldn’t. Most commonly, this takes the form of Internet sites created as gathering spots for employees and customers to diss you; U-Hell and netscapesucks.com are examples. These sites are never fun, but they become even less fun when they’re used for blackmail. An ex-employee might agree to shut down a complaint site in exchange for a more lucrative settlement to a lawsuit, for example.
Posting personal information: An angry consumer posted the home addresses, phone numbers, Social Security numbers, and other data of several employees at a collection agency that he felt had wronged him.
E-mail abuse: E-mail is a cheap method of mass distribution. A former employee sent regular mass e-mails to thousands of current employees warning them of pending layoffs and urging them to distrust management.
Disclosure of trade secrets: Employees can wittingly or unwittingly reveal trade secrets while chatting online or posting to message boards.
Fraud and misrepresentation: Employees and applicants can use the Internet to transmit false documents because their authenticity is harder to discern. Applicants may supply false transcripts, for example, during the hiring process.
Excessive Internet use: Employees may spend 80% of their day (or more) surfing the Net. Psychiatrists assert that addiction to the Internet is a serious problem; they label the disorder Internetomania, computer addiction, Internet addictive disorder, and cyberaddiction. Internet addiction is most often associated with pornography sites, but that’s hardly where it ends. Gambling sites, cyber games, online auctions, social networking sites and other destinations can also eat up employee time.

Train employees to use the Internet. Employees are routinely offered training in how to use various software programs, but rarely get training on Web surfing. If you’re currently offering computer training, add an Internet component. If not, offer stand-alone training. Be sure to present your Internet policy at the training, and demonstrate how to navigate the Internet to reach specific sites and to avoid others.
Block access to inappropriate sites. Software is available that blocks access to sexually explicit and other inappropriate sites; use it.
Monitor use. Work with your Information Systems (IS) department or an independent consultant to be sure that you can track Internet use. Do random checks of how much time employees spend on the Web and where they go. Employees should be on notice that such checks will occur.
Help employees separate business from personal. With many employees traveling for business and working overtime, it’s tempting for them to check their personal email at work. Discourage employees from doing so. They may not realize that when they use the company computer to check email it gets stored on the company server and becomes company property. Beyond that, it makes it more likely that inappropriate or personal information (such as a medical diagnosis or bank account information) may be seen by someone else.
Discourage employees from sending or forwarding jokes or other forms of humor. What one person finds humorous another may find offensive. People should exchange such email from home, on their own computer on their own time.
Set a good example. Monitor your own Internet use at work. Limit the time you spend online, and don’t visit inappropriate sites.
 
Real Life Example
 
An employee complained to HR that a co-worker was sending her sexually explicit images using the company’s e-mail system. HR investigated her complaint and was stunned to discover thousands of pornographic images stored on the company’s intranet. The pictures had been downloaded from Web sites by dozens of employees, who in turn circulated them among themselves and with employees of other companies.
Working with the IS department, HR monitored Internet use for several days and catalogued the images as evidence. Before the dust settled, dozens of employees were terminated and others disciplined. HR was particularly shocked to find that some managers had been participating.
“I thought it wasn’t right,” one employee told HR when he was fired. “But when my manager did it, I was confused.”

Boss’s Tip of the Week #28: The Internet: How to Keep an Asset from Becoming a Liability (or a Lawsuit)
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