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Beware the Wandering Mouse

How to Avoid Inappropriate Internet Use

Beware the Wandering Mouse

Richard (not his real name) was a rising star at a Fortune 100 company. His immediate supervisors and the CEO for whom he worked were highly satisfied with his work.

One day, when Richard was coming down with the flu, he decided to just stay at work and cover the telephones. He also decided to surf the Internet. When an X-rated site popped up during a search, Richard curiously opened it. Before he knew it, he had clicked through several pornographic sites, and his career at the company was doomed.

Two weeks later, Richard's supervisor called him into a conference room and dropped a sheaf of printouts onto the table. Richard immediately recognized them as lists of URLs he had visited. He owned up to viewing the sites and agreed to sign an admittance of guilt and a letter of reprimand to keep his job.

“I have never been so professionally and personally embarrassed in my life,” Richard says. “I found it hard to look anyone in the eye for weeks, and I couldn't find a new job soon enough.” When Richard's annual review came up a few months later, his supervisors marked him low in virtually every category even though the CEO, who knew nothing of the incident, gave Richard rave reviews.

Like Richard, many of us log on the Internet as easily as we pick up the telephone. But logging on for personal use at work, even for seemingly innocent activities, could get you into big trouble.

Stealing Time

“Most of us are watching out for ourselves and put ourselves first,” says Michael Foster, founder of the Foster Institute, a Dallas technology consultancy specializing in managing high tech employees and preventing Internet misuse. “We're at work and we think, 'Gee, I need to check my email,' not, 'I need to steal some time away from my employer.'”

But some companies are beginning to look at it that way. A survey by Websense, an employee Internet management company in San Diego, found that more than 60 percent of American businesses have disciplined their employees for misusing the Internet; more than 30 percent have fired workers for it.

Consider the following before surfing the Web at work:

The Policy

Internet access policies (IAPs) are becoming increasingly common. According to the Websense survey, 82.6 percent of US companies have IAPs outlining appropriate and inappropriate Internet use at work. They may state you cannot send or receive personal emails through your work address, or they may confine personal surfing to lunchtime and breaks.

These points, indicative of many company Internet access policies, come from a major firm's rules on Internet use:

  • Use of the network is for company purposes only. Casual personal use is OK if limited.
  • Users cannot use the network to run a personal business or in any manner that violates the law.
  • This company has the right to monitor all online communications.
  • This company has the right to block users from accessing specific sites.
  • This company has the right to take disciplinary action against users who violate these policies.

Make sure you understand the parameters of your company's IAP before doing any personal Web surfing.

The Culture

If your company doesn't have a formal IAP, don't assume it's a free-for-all. Ask your manager for some basic guidelines. If you don't get any clear answers, consider the corporate culture.

“Every company is different,” says Kimberly Young, PhD, founder of the Center for Online Addiction in Bradford, Pennsylvania, a treatment clinic and training center specializing in cyber-disorders. “There are open corporate cultures that don't even have policies. Then there are the more traditional, Old Economy firms that have upgraded to the digital economy and are trying to put parameters around employee Internet use, and nothing is tolerated. Sending one personal email can be fireable.”

Common Sense

Regardless of your company's policy, it's wise to consider the ramifications of where and how you spend your time online. Your conduct online and language in emails should always remain professional. “[People] should avoid pretty much anything they wouldn't want to print out and hang up on their cubicle walls,” Foster says.

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