George, your Customer Service Representative, sits at his desk actively sending out personal E-mails, and text messaging, all on your dime. To make matters worse, he occasionally sends off-colored jokes and sexually explicit material. Jane, the Receptionist, plays cards and shops on the internet for up to three hours per day.

Recent surveys indicate that almost 30% of on-the-job computer usage is unrelated to work. Non-job related computer use such as internet surfing, personal E-mails, text messaging, and computer games are major distractions to employee productivity, costing you thousands of dollars.

To help address these distractions, some companies monitor their employees’ computer usage at work. Employees, on the other hand, expect some level of privacy sending emails and instant messages, especially when discussing private matters unrelated to work like medical information.

Computer Usage & Privacy Policy

Charles H. Wilson, attorney for Epstein Becker Green Wickliff & Hall, P.C., provides the following advice on monitoring and creating a computer usage policy:

How far an employer can go in monitoring and disciplining, employees for inappropriate personal emails and instant messaging largely depends on whether the employer has a clearly defined and well-worded computer usage privacy policy.

Employers mistakenly believe that mere ownership and control of a computer or laptop entitles the employer to unchecked surveillance or monitoring of an employee’s emails and instant messages say Charles. This is not necessarily the case, especially if the employer does not have an appropriate computer usage policy or has one that eliminates any expectation of privacy.

Several recent court decisions have rejected an employer’s right to inspect an employee’s computer in the absence of clear policies and practices informing the employee that no expectation of privacy exists and that the employer retains the right to review emails and instant messages.

What to do:

To avoid potential liability for monitoring or reviewing private employee emails, employers should create and implement policies that eliminate any expectation of privacy. Employers should also train their employees on the policy. More importantly, employers must practice what they preach and must not utilize a strategy that gives rise to the expectation of privacy or allow too many work distractions.

At a minimum, a workplace computer usage policy and strategy should include the following:

  1. An introductory statement that an employer’s email and instant messaging system belongs to the company at all times and is a company resource provided as a business tool. Make sure the employees understand the emails and instant messages they send belong to the company, not the employee.
  2. A statement that the use of company email and instant messaging for inappropriate personal use may result in discipline including termination. Although, realistically, there will be some personal use allowed, ensure that employees are aware that any and all personal use may result in discipline.
  3. A statement that emails and instant messages sent or received may be monitored by the employer. In this regard, the employer must only review emails or instant messages already sent and saved to the network. It is illegal to intercept emails as they are being transmitted.
  4. A statement informing the employees that their emails and instant messages are not considered private and that by using the employer-provided email and instant message service, they consent to be monitored by the employer.
  5. A statement that all passwords belong to the company and that they must be provided to their supervisors. Avoid giving employees unchecked power to password-protect their computers, which can contribute to an expectation of privacy.
  6. A warning prohibiting the employee from using a code, accessing a file or retrieving any stored information unless authorized. Be careful to explain, however, that such provision does not preclude the employer from accessing the employee’s own stored emails.
  7. A provision prohibiting the communication of messages prohibited by the employer’s harassment and discrimination policies.

Mr. Wilson concludes his recommendations stating that “Implementing and practicing a carefully worded email and instant messaging policy will eliminate any expectation of email privacy and provide the express or implied consent the employer needs to monitor and review emails sent or received by the employee in the workplace”.

Eliminating Distractions

Establishing an effective policy is only half the battle in eliminating work distractions. The following steps will help you get employees focused on their work at hand:

  1. Set the expectation that personal use of computers, cell phones, and other distractions during company time is unacceptable. Where possible, allow personal use of these devices during scheduled breaks and lunch periods. Establish the policy and discuss it in group meetings or one-on-one.
  2. The supervisor is the key in implementing and addressing misuse of the policy. Leaders should be in daily contact with employees, monitor performance, and address issues as they arise. Anytime the leader is surprised by a misuse of policy or performance, he/she should address the issue with the employee. Look for patterns in dropped performance and investigate to get to the root cause, which may or may not be distractions.
  3. Catch employees doing things right! Notice and reward those who continually set the type of examples desired and who perform at higher than expected performance levels. Notice achievements and positively recognize when appropriate.
  4. Those who continue to abuse distraction policies or do not meet performance requirements should be addressed with your corrective action process.

Managed effectively, organizations can create a positive workforce and have fun at work, while at the same time eliminating costly work distractions of personal E-mails, text messaging, computer games, excessive talking and cell phones.