Although the Internet can improve your company's productivity, it can also be abused. Internet use policies help to define acceptable online behavior and limit the company's liability when inappropriate actions are taken. For example, an employee sending lewd e-mails through the company's email server could expose the company to liability. The policies should give employees clear direction on how the company's Internet access can be used.
Acceptable use policies are the backbone of most workplace technology standards. They describe what employees can and can't do on the Internet. For example, the employees aren't allow to access illegal or inappropriate sites, such as gambling or pornography. If employees are visiting such sites, the company can become liable in any lawsuits that result, although having employees sign acceptable use policies helps to reduce that liability. Such policies help employees as well, such as protecting them from having to see pornography if another staff member constantly looks at porn and tries to show it to other employees. These policies should also clearly describe how much personal time employees can spend using the company's Internet and what sites are acceptable, such as personal e-mail or social networking sites. The amount of time varies by company. A creative marketing company might allow employees to surf the 'Net randomly in search of ideas, while an information security company might not allow any personal Internet use. Periodically monitoring employees' Internet use helps to ensure that policies are being followed.
E-mail opens the door to abuse unless you have strict policies. Unlike face-to-face or phone conversations, there's a level of separation when you send an e-mail to someone. The convenience of e-mail makes it necessary in the workplace, but your Internet use policy should address the proper way to use e-mail. Employees should use work e-mail accounts strictly for work communication, not personal communication. The policy should spell out items that are unacceptable in e-mails, such as sexual comments or profanity, as well as negative comments about the company or co-workers. E-mails are often backed up and stored for years, leaving a trail if inappropriate behavior is reported. Let employees know their e-mails can be monitored. This helps to ensure that employees can't make the company look bad to outside clients and can limit internal harassment.
Downloading files off the Internet or from e-mails requires a strict set of rules. If an employee accidentally downloads a virus, it can infect the entire company system. Internet use policies should be very clear about what files are acceptable to download, from what sites, and the proper procedure. For example, saving it to the desktop instead of opening a file straight from an e-mail can run it through anti-virus software during the download.
Employees need to know what can happen to them if they don't follow the Internet use policies. A standard reprimand schedule, such as a verbal warning for a first basic offense followed by a written warning on the second offense and firing for the third, gives employees clear expectations of the consequences. Many companies include more severe penalties for what they consider major offenses, such as sexually harassing e-mails sent from a workplace computer. For these offenses, the employee might be fired on the first offense. Each employee should sign the policy to prove he understands the acceptable use of the company's Internet. Internet abuse can make the work environment uncomfortable for employees who have to deal with others who blow off work to spend personal time online or who visit inappropriate sites in open view of others. Putting use policies in place sets the same expectations for all employees to make them more productive and more comfortable in the workplace.
- Sans: Information Security Policy Templates
- GFI: Internet Usage Policy Implementation in the Workplace
- Information Systems Audit and Control Association: Best Practices for Establishing an Effective Workplace Policy for Acceptable Computer Usage
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Workplace Email and Internet use: Employees and Employers Beware
Based outside Atlanta, Ga., Shala Munroe has been writing and copy editing since 1995. Beginning her career at newspapers such as the "Marietta Daily Journal" and the "Atlanta Business Chronicle," she most recently worked in communications and management for several nonprofit organizations before purchasing a flower shop in 2006. She earned a BA in communications from Jacksonville State University.