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Employee Internet Usage

Businesses have come to depend on the internet. Without internet access, companies cannot compete in a connected economy. Business owners must let their employees access the internet during work hours.

Internet use is vital, but employers must control internet activity in and out of their company computers. Your business could be liable for employee misuse. Cybercriminals use unmonitored activity to plant malware in unprotected computers. Small-business owners must have a robust internet access policy to protect their assets and employees.

The Purpose of the Policy

Depending on the nature of your business, your employees may spend many hours at their computers or almost none. Most businesses provide employee email accounts so staff can communicate efficiently. It may not have occurred to you to monitor employee internet use as long as work gets done. The facts might surprise you.

According to one study, up to 40% of workplace internet usage involved non-work-related websites, even before the remote work era. Your employees' web surfing may include social media, shopping, videos, or personal emails. But the pitfalls of unmonitored internet access don't lie only in the time wasted. While workplace problems involving pornography aren't new, the Zoom boom of the pandemic led to some high-profile embarrassments when personal and professional lines became blurred.

Still, many small employers are uncomfortable at the thought of employee monitoring. It seems intrusive and unethical, as if they don't trust their workers. But an internet usage policy has nothing to do with trust. Its purpose is to protect company resources and employer liability.

Some critical reasons for an internet use policy include:

  • Employee productivity: If employees are busy surfing the net, it could mean they're not working. It may even suggest their tasks could be more challenging, and the employer needs to reallocate job duties. Having a policy to prevent employees from pretending to be busy can assist workers and human resources.
  • Intellectual property protection: If your workers' use of the internet includes research to generate reports, they may face the temptation to copy and paste from existing content. That could lead to plagiarism in company materials or charges of copyright infringement. It's important that employees know how to handle sensitive materials to protect your business from legal action.
  • Hostile work environment: Even employees who aren't accessing pornography on company time may cross a line in how they use the internet. If other employees see crude content, off-color jokes, or discriminatory language from their co-workers, it can become the basis for a sexual harassment claim. And if it winds up, say, on your company's website or social media, the fallout may be even more damaging.
  • Breach of confidentiality: Employee computers typically connect via an intranet or other secure system, as well as the internet. Passing documents back and forth in those secured spaces is not necessarily a problem. Moving sensitive data onto the internet, whether by accident or on purpose, could be catastrophic.

Monitoring Without Spying

When employers monitor their workers, the first thing some employees do will likely be to find ways around it. One famous internet legend tells of a remote worker who learned his boss had installed a keystroke monitor on his computer. The worker wrote a macro that clicked a key every five seconds and went about his day.

The best way to avoid this is to have an honest, open internet use policy. Explain your monitoring policy and how it is implemented. Tell your workers what sites you're restricting and why there are limitations.

Internet filters such as parental blocks can restrict access to some websites, including overt porn sites. This is useful if your business has public computers that anyone can use. It may impair functionality if your primary use is research, though, as the filters may block news sites or databases.

You should disclose your use of employee monitoring software in your employee policy handbook. Some states do not require you to disclose that you are monitoring workers if they are using company computers or equipment. You will need to tell them if you install any tracking software on their personal computers or require them to install company software on their own hardware.

The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) controls workplace privacy and monitoring. You should discuss your options with an employment law attorney for the laws in your state. In general, employers have these rights:

  • They may monitor all communications, such as phone calls, as long as they are not private conversations. Employers may restrict personal calls on company phone lines.
  • Employers may read employee emails and retain copies as needed. Employee email should contain a notice of retention (e.g., "Business retains all email for six months").
  • Employers may monitor all computer activity on company-owned computers. That can include keystroke logging and online activities.
  • Employers must consider employee privacy when monitoring employee internet usage. Employers are limited by other privacy laws, including the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).
  • Employers are responsible for protecting employees' personal data stored on company servers. Employers must have adequate antivirus and firewall protection on all company computers and remote equipment.

Your company policies should clearly explain the limits of "personal use" and internet misuse. Everyone surfs the internet now and then. Workers should not feel their job is at risk if they check their personal email or look at Facebook sometimes. Spell out any disciplinary action for repeated improper computer usage.

The internet is a vital part of the modern business world. You can avoid legal action and keep from spying on your workers by implementing a good internet use policy today.

Hire an Employment Law Attorney

Developing a computer monitoring policy is tricky. You need to stay on firm legal ground between employee privacy and business security. To walk that fine line, use FindLaw's attorney referral service to find an employment law attorney in your area.

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