The Right Point Of Attack?
Many companies have already implemented some form of Acceptable Use Policy (AUP) when it comes to the Internet. Restrictions are placed on employees so that only work-related matters (including e-mail) get access to the Internet. Potentially harmful sites and downloads are blocked and certain activities curtailed. Monitoring software often silently polices your employee's activities including any clumsy attempts to beat the system and walk on the wild side. Concerns about such policies rarely question the rights owners possess to insist on a fair day's work for a fair day's pay. I question the acceptable use strategy and blanket controls because it's unclear if restrictions and monitoring are the right point of attack. It is akin to padlocking the pantry in order to improve the eating habits of your family.
If you are committed to developing a policy like this, try swinging for the fences by integrating other nagging personal use vs. professional use hotspots (telephone, electronic messaging systems, e-mail, computer files, etc.) into one larger umbrella statement. In recent years these policies have become more prevalent and proven out through judicial review. Organizations of all sizes have made unequivocal declarations about expectations of privacy by telling staffers that all files, communications, personal passwords, etc. were company property and to never expect otherwise. Is it legal and entirely defensible to take this stand? The courts say yes. Is it fair and right and, most importantly, appropriate for adults that you otherwise trust with your very livelihood? Here's where it gets sticky.
Abusers And Bad Apples
In asking you to consider a different viewpoint, we need to acknowledge the role of workplace abusers and the decidedly low-tech tools they've used over the decades to spoil bunches of good apples for us all. Spoilers spoil things by going over the line, taking too much or taking advantage. Spoilers busy themselves by wrecking things for the rest of us. I will, however, be the first to admit that the Internet offers some unique, far out, occasionally perverse and hard to foresee ways of stealing time and starting trouble. But the fact is, spoilers were here causing resentment and disturbing the peace long before binary code and Bill Gates arrived — when there was no such thing as the Internet. They created their own ingenious ways to steal your time without the help of a gambling Web site or a stripper-cam.
The telephone was introduced and it was a great productivity killer in the hands of an abuser (and still is), but we didn't respond to the personal phone call abusers by restricting everyone's access or installing equipment to monitor every employee's calls. Did we under react then or are we over reacting now? Were there less alarming articles about telephone abuse? Were studies performed that showed productivity losses due to misuse of telephones?
Owners and work groups throughout the 20th century were always beset by some minority of selfish employees (and loafers) who seemed unconcerned with improving productivity, fairly dividing the workload or shielding company property from unacceptable personal use by employees. We had compulsive shoppers long before Amazon and eBay, ordering by telephone during working hours and essentially converting the warehouse into their own personal shipping point. Cleaning people always seemed to discover the crumpled evidence of the guys who stuffed their old-fashioned paper porn into the backs of their desk drawers. We have had inside salespeople more committed to hitting the goal numbers in the sale of candy and raffle tickets for their kids. Other folks burned your time by spending hours energetically organizing a group lottery purchase or coordinating a co-worker's birthday celebration.
It seems every company had one person spending half of their working hours making, drinking and remaking coffee — it was their life. Serial job seekers didn't emerge from their shell in the year 2000; they've always been here delivering the slacker's equivalent of a coup de grace by always betraying one employer (and taking their paycheck) while courting the next. They did it without Monster.com. Instead, they used an everyday prop — the newspaper folded just right to hide the red-circled classified ads of their next victim.
Then, there were the real snakes in the grass: the professional spoilers, looking lost in thought at their desk, walking through the shop with a clipboard and a highlighter, staring at the same technical manual for hours, chatting up the boss purely for political gain, etc. A bum? You bet. However, it was rare that everyone felt the sting of a company wide restriction solely because a bad apple or two misused a company asset. We have historically handled these people directly through personal intervention, warnings, job reassignments and dirty looks. Corporate America did not outlaw newspapers or coffee at work, and the compulsive shopper's catalogs and credit cards were not confiscated at the front door.
When You Treat Employees Like Adults
Sometimes restrictive policies can create their own psychological backlash you'd never expect. Adult workers, who are also parents, can find it particularly distressing to be confronted with a rule or new law at work that reminds them of their own recent parenting actions.
The worker, as a parent, might have recently outlawed Internet access for his own children and your new policy becomes a target for turbocharged resentment. A transference happens and a rattled employee might not even be very aware of why they suddenly believe that management is comprised of meddling snoops and rats. Suddenly they are the 14-year-old kid. Simply put, when you treat employees like adults, then they will tend to act like adults. Do your best to hire people with an actual work ethic and common sense. You will see those adults attempt to move heaven and earth to make you money. When a firm implements a very strict Internet usage policy, morale can be really hurt, prompting people to spruce up their résumés and test the waters of the job market in search of friendlier and less controlling policies.