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Caution: Big business is watching employees

Keep your privacy and your job

By Kate Lorenz

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If you're reading this at work, someone may be watching.

Studies by the American Management Association (AMA) and ePolicy Institute found that three out of four major U.S. companies record and review employees' communication activities on the job -- including phone calls, e-mail, Internet connections and computer files.

If that's not enough to scare you, 25 percent of those surveyed said they had terminated an employee for inappropriate use of the company's e-mail system.

Yet despite the growth in electronic monitoring and frequency of disciplinary actions, just a little over half of the organizations surveyed train employees about the risks, rules and policies pertaining to e-mail and Internet usage.

What exactly is inappropriate usage? Although each company's policy is different, most allow staff to use company e-mail systems for what they call reasonable personal use, such as coordinating evening plans or checking up on a child at school.

Anything outside of that may be considered inappropriate.

Management information system experts say the most common forms of inappropriate use include computer games, personal correspondence -- including forwarding jokes to friends -- and online shopping. (According to Nielsen/Net Ratings, online shopping at work accounts for nearly half of all Internet shopping activity!)

Another common misuse is inadvertent, such as sending confidential work documents to a home e-mail account, perhaps to work after hours, where other family members could see them.

One of the most embarrassing misuses is downloading and distributing pornography. The senior human resources executive of a major institution says he has fired several employees for forwarding off-color photos to co-workers. He adds that this practice not only lowers productivity, but creates a huge workplace liability.

10 rules to follow

How can you stay clear of trouble? Management information experts offer these tips:

1. Know that Internet monitoring software can capture, log and make screen snapshots of what you are reading, looking at or typing into your computer at any given moment.

2. Check to see if your company has a policy on e-mail/Internet usage. If there is nothing in writing, contact your human resources department to find out your company's definition of improper usage.

3. Find out exactly what your employer is monitoring. Although it is not a legal requirement for them to communicate monitoring activities to employees, if you contact your human resources department, people there will likely tell you.

4. Let family and friends know that your e-mails are monitored and warn them not to send you e-mails at work that could be considered improper.

5. If you receive an inappropriate e-mail at work, delete it immediately.

6. If you need to work on confidential documents from home, see if you can borrow a laptop.

7. Don't do any personal Web surfing at work.

8. Use your cell phone for your personal calls.

9. Don't use your personal e-mail account from work.

10. Don't write anything in an e-mail you wouldn't want your boss to read.

Kate Lorenz is the article and advice editor for She researches and writes about job search strategy, career management, hiring trends and workplace issues. Other writers contributed to this article.

© Copyright 2005. All rights reserved. The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast or otherwise distributed without the prior written authority
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