Why do most companies say you can’t use their computers, internet connections, etc. for anything other than business purposes when they know people probably check out Ebay from time to time or use their company email account to visit a blog site on occasion? Is this just zero tolerance to avoid a slippery slope or is there some other “evil” HR reason behind this?

I’m usually the first to point out evil HR practices, but I can’t say that there is a single evil thing about limiting internet access at work. (Okay, I can. If your company blocks out brilliant sites, such as evilhrlady.blogspot.com then we have problems. Remember, people, this is a work related site and you should read it every day! If I haven’t published new content, re-read old content.)

Yes, companies know that people check e-bay, their home e-mail, read the NY Times and blogs and participate in internet forums. Some of this is harmless, some is not.

When you are working, you are being paid to perform work for the company. If you are busy selling on e-bay or arguing some point on a forum, you are not working. Companies should be alarmed that their employees are not working. If you are Christmas shopping, you are not working.

Now, all the activities that I’ve mentioned are fairly wholesome. There are certainly internet activities that are not wholesome. Since we all know what those are, I shan’t mention them. Just know that if you so much as think about looking at an unwholesome site I will make sure you are fired without so much as two weeks pay. Don’t do it. Don’t risk it.

When at work, you should be working. If your company allows you to surf the web at lunch, go ahead, but realize that your IT department can track every site you visit. I’ve heard that the IT department can also see what passwords you are typing in, so a bad IT person can then access your bank account. I have no idea if it is true, but it’s something to think about.

If you are violating your company policy (even if everyone else is doing it), you take on risks. Be in compliance. Make sure your manager approves of what you are doing and most of all, work while you are at work.

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21 thoughts on “Surfing the Web

  1. There are a couple reasons why companies have such policies…to begin with, if people are messing around on the interwebs all day, it can affect the entire network and slow things down. Why should the admin out front, entering applicant tracking info, not be able to use PeopleSoft because you’re on Ebay? Secondly, it is to deter people from abusing the benefit. While many companies will turn a blind eye to someone visiting a blog or checking their gmail, if an employee isn’t hitting deadlines or is watching the Mets game or last night’s episode of The Office (I used to work with this type of employee), we can fire you. Partially evil, but mostly logical. If we don’t have this policy in place and we fire you, you’ll claim that you didn’t realize you couldn’t use the web to do your online banking, and sue us. Chances are, we’ll settle for a ridiculous amount of money to avoid losing even more money.

  2. If that’s the company’s policy, well then there’s not much you can do. But here’s the thing, employers: A lot of people need the flexibility that Internet access provides. Working parents, for example, are juggling a million things and being able to do a little online banking is a godsend. Life is pretty hectic and fast-paced these days and taking a few minutes to order the mother-in-law’s birthday gift isn’t going to kill anybody. My company is very liberal about Internet use (I’m posting on a blog, aren’t I?) as long as people hit their deadlines and are sensible about it. One of our coworkers was refinancing his house last week and it seemed that every two minutes he was on the phone to Charles Schwab. But he’s a fine worker and stayed late to make up the time.

  3. And that is precisely why most companies – even with the “internet/pc/phones are meant for business only” – don’t bother to write up the person who took 5 minutes to check his gmail account. But as the previous poster noted, where you get into trouble is when you abuse the policy. I had one employee constantly miss deadlines, yet coworkers saw him on the internet all day. Lo and behold after checking with IT, he spend 3+ hours of his day on on non-work related internet sites. Another employee got into heated debates with “customers” of her eBay auctions using company email. The angry “customer” promptly emailed the company to report her behavior. This is not the company being unreasonable or inflexible; these are clear examples of employees not using common sense and self-monitoring on what is appropriate and acceptable use of company resources.

  4. Here’s a call for common sense on both sides. Yes, employees should use common sense in how and how much they use a work connection. And yes, good supervisors will apply a bit of common sense from the company side.

  5. My company is very liberal about Internet use (I’m posting on a blog, aren’t I?) as long as people hit their deadlines and are sensible about it.

    I dunno: in my company, the more, ahem, active surfers always meet their deadlines, but they have the dullest and least polished presentations, the most unstructured memos, and the worst code. And then they always complain that their raises aren’t as large as they’d like…

  6. Excellent commentary all around as usual!

    I’m typically in favor of minimal personal use of company property policies. To me they are the most realistic and easier for employees AND employers to comply with / use to their advantage. So check your gmail and your blogs for less than 30 min or so a day, make sure your work is done AND top quality and we will have no problem.

    Unless you download something illegal or that messes up the system. Then you are TOAST!

    One other point: Why the sense of entitlement from employees lately? Seriously. Why do you think you should be given any and everything you want just because you want it? A job is not a right just like having a driver’s license is not a right. Using someone else’s property that you don’t pay for is NOT your right. It’s a privilege.

  7. Evil HR Wench, I’m not in HR, just a regular research grunt, and I have to say the idea of it being ok to do “just” 30 minutes of websurfing seems incredibly wasteful to me! Especially because that’s on top of the time salaried folk will spend on coffee breaks, and chat breaks, and selling their kid’s fund-raising candy, etc.

    Maybe I should just shut up and feel lucky that I have a job I like enough to actually do it. I’m starting to suspect that’s rare.

  8. Wow, I have been promoted to EVIL HR Wench. Nice!!

    Research grunt – salaried employees are not paid for their time, yo. They are paid for doing a job. Hourly folks are paid for their time.

    Sure it’s wasteful. So are holiday parties, buying kleenex and having huge compter monitors. But people still do it. 30 min was just an example – I wouldn’t put that in a policy per se. Personally I can surf the web while on hold, waiting for a meeting to start, etc. Ain’t no thang.

  9. Why?

    So I can fire your lazy backside for cause. That is the only reason “negative” policies exist. If I don’t have it in policy, document my instructing of you about it, and record my enforcement of it, I get into trouble.

    Really cool thing is I can use it without “cause” too since you are likely to violate it. HR may be evil, but tread lightly around the engineers as well. We actually read the instructions (policy manual).

  10. I think there are additional reasons why companies crack down on computer use.

    One, they can: it’s easier to track than the time pissed away by people going for a smoke, or yammering about the game, or plotting to take credit for someone else’s work, or working backwards from the projects actually completed in order to rewrite this year’s goals.

    Two, some decision-makers believe in the bogeyman. So using “the internets” and especially those creepy blogs is bound to hijack your monitor, erase your hard drive, and change voting results in the Virginia primary.

    More seriously, I think that what makes up work — and especially what leads to results — is changing in ways that are harder to grasp, especially for those in more structured organizations.

    Many professionals can build their knowledge and skill by participating in informal communities of practice, and those communities sometimes (often?) reach outside the employing organization.

    As a specialist in training and performance improvement, over the long haul I can learn more and build a more effective professional network that way. Besides which, it’s damned hard to make a case to attend a real-life conference (unless you’re in sales, in which case you get both conference and golf).

    That’s not to say “spend the whole day reading blogs.” But fewer and fewer of us have a job polishing the burrs off flanges (an easier job to define and to oversee).

    I don’t think there’s all that much new about the individual running an eBay business at work. Think of the Avon salespeople or someone like my former coworker, a sergeant major in the National Guard. He spent at least 20% of his time arranging comfy assignments for other employees in the Guard, many of whom were several management levels above him. A stint at the Pentagon for one AVP gave Sarge job immunity for at least four months.

    The 30-minute rule of thumb (combined with “make sure your work is done”) is refreshingly sensible. You can tell, because it will annoy both the congenital corner-cutters and the lifelong hall monitor types.

  11. Ah, my last anonymous friend, you think you have busted me for slacking off at work. Except that I don’t work on Wednesdays.

    I’m in a job share.

  12. Employees, at least those with any kind of responsible position, are usually expected to do a considerable amount of work at home, to respond to phone calls and emails in emergencies and pseudo-emergencies, etc. If the barrier between “work” and “home” erodes in one direction, why shouldn’t it erode in the other direction as well?

    If you want to run an 8-hour-a-day-rulebook-based shop, you can do so. If you want creative, dedicated, and hard-working people, then go easy on the rigidity.

  13. Ok, so I’m the IT guy and we have a zero tolerance policy in writing that everyone signed an agreement to.

    The office manager has an unwritten policy that everyone can goof off on the internet for 30 minutes a day. The owner is completely unaware of this.

    The office manager has asked me to stop tracking the internet usage, because “it is taking away time from my other duties” and the employees are online an average of 4 to 7 hours per week. Many are running their ebay stores or finding other ways to supplement their income and the office manager doesn’t seem to care.

    I am working on attaining a level of apathy towards this, but I am the only one with the ability to track this so I feel a bit responsible for not keeping this in the dark. I mean, should we throw out the entire policy manual if the office manager is going to arbitrarily enforce policy or not at all?

    I don’t really have enough faith in my own HR department to handle this, so I am hoping someone has some perspective for me.

  14. By the way…

    As an IT guy, I can comment on the passwords thing. Most programs your IT dept. tracks with can only get your password if you are not logging into a secure site. However, they could be using a keylogger to track every keystroke. Most keyloggers trip a warning on most anti-virus programs. Most anti-virus programs have an ignore list to allow a keylogger to work without notifying the user. There is also the hardware based keylogger than connected between your keyboard and the computer, but these require physically retrieving the hardware to pull the log so they are tedious to use. The IT departments I have worked for/with do not want that level of information for liability reasons.

    Sorry for the “Most” tennis match, but there are exceptions to nearly everything and, if there aren’t, someone is working on the program that will be the exception.

    So the short answer: yes, it is possible, but it is also unlikely.

  15. The same people who waste time on eBay at work also waste time of “work-related” blogs because responding to everything makes them feel smart. I have to laugh when I see some HR forums with users having 2150 posts in the last three years.

  16. I'm writing a paper about this topic. I have to take the "pro" internet use at work position. Two pages. All of you hooked me up with some awesome ideas. Thank you so much. Been stressin' about this one.

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