For years, Internet usage at work has followed some pretty clear parameters: Don’t use work email or computer time for personal communications. Stick to work-related activities. Stay off social media. But recent changes in the business world have made wider Internet use acceptable, and, in some cases, even required. So where can a business owner start when it comes to setting boundaries for online time? Here are some guidelines that juggle workplace rules with employee privacy.
Make It Official
The first step in setting boundaries for workplace Internet and email usage is to put it in writing. There should be a section in the employee handbook that specifically lists the rules for all employees. The policies must be clear and concise. Wording with a lot of ambiguity will be difficult to enforce if there are instances of abuse down the road. Access to sites with adult content should be addressed specifically in the policy and carry the harshest penalties. Employers might want to get the advice of an attorney before making the wording of the policy official. Finally, all staff members should be required to read the policies and sign a document indicating they understood the rules on Internet and email usage.
If there is a specific way you wish workers to use the Internet and email, they must be instructed in correct procedures. You can’t expect them to follow rules if they don’t know how to do so. Again, as companies get more involved with customer interaction via social media, the restrictions governing workplace Internet and email use likely will evolve. In that case, too, training for everyone likely will be required. Part of the training sessions should cover online security issues and personal safety. Employees should understand that the Internet is a tool to help them in their work, not a distraction that reduces productivity.
Using Internet search functions to find information is one thing, but workplace email accounts can lead to serious policy breaches. Of course, personal email is not appropriate for work, and workers should not conduct personal correspondence using company computers. In addition, though, employees should never share private company business through email or send incendiary messages from the company servers. A good rule of thumb, which could even be written into the handbook policy, is to never write something on a work computer that you wouldn’t want the whole world to read. Remind employees that when they send business-related emails, they are representing the entire company.
Be Tech Savvy
Finally, there are a few technological factors that figure into Internet and email use in the workplace. First, workers should not be downloading extra software, applications or strange email attachments. These are likely to contain viruses that could cause major damage to the company’s entire network of computers. There should also be a mechanism in place with which sensitive emails or other types of information can be deleted permanently from the computer after they are no longer needed. File scrubbing should be a routine task that keeps computers operating quickly, safely and with adequate security protocols. For people who work in industries with sensitive data, encryption capabilities might be required for some employees’ communications. A firewall might be another good tool in the fight against inappropriate Internet usage by employees.
Employees cannot expect free rein on Internet usage as long as they are not breaking any rules. At the same time, employers should not monitor every worker’s exact keystrokes when they are online. Company computers are subject to confiscation and search at any time, but employers should honor workers’ privacy unless they have probable cause to take a closer look. If the company finds that online time was being used inappropriately, action should be taken swiftly according to the provisions of the company policy mentioned above.
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