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Internet Usage at Work: Privacy vs. Policy

Updated on December 29, 2017

Technology and the internet have had a positive impact on our ability to do more work in less time. Remember when cell phones were just for talking? Now cell phones are basically pocket sized computers. Of course we have also moved on from dial –up internet to broadband and wifi internet connections. Texting and email have all but replaced the landline telephone conversation. The ability to do more has resulted in increased demands at the workplace. Performance expectations have increased due to the enhanced abilities to complete reports, develop presentations, and communicate on the go. Advances in technology have allowed employees to be able to keep up with these increased demands.

There is always a chance of some negative impact with any advance in technology. Use of the internet for personal business is one of those negative aspects for employers. Personal internet usage at work is a major issue that employers have to deal with in an effort to maintain productivity. Employers now have to guard against employees wasting precious time (and money) on the job. Checking personal emails, shopping online, fantasy football and internet games all contribute to time wasted in the workplace. Social networking has also played its part in lost productivity. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are great sources for information and news but have also been used as a source of workplace entertainment. Unfortunately, employees have also used the office computer for online dating and watching adult content. It all adds up to hours upon hours of wasted time and productivity. It also translates to millions of dollars of lost profits.

In addition to lost revenue and productivity, inappropriate internet activity can also pose major liability issues for employers. Clicking inappropriate links and websites as well as passing on questionable emails can put computer systems at risk for viruses, which can cause a loss of confidential information and serious damage to computer systems. Irresponsible employee behavior can also be costly because they make companies vulnerable to lawsuits among other forms of disciplinary action for offensive behaviors.

Privacy vs.Policy

Most employers don’t mind if employees spend a little time on the internet for personal reasons (emphasis on “a little” time). However, a clear policy must be established to prevent abuse. Employers also have the right to put measures in place to prevent or reduce employee waste. These measures are supported by the Electronic Communication Privacy Act (ECPA). These measures also provide employers with the authority to take disciplinary actions against employees for violating company internet policies.

So do employees have any privacy rights at work? Most court cases involving employee privacy rights in regard to internet privacy seem to lean toward the side of the employer. Employees should anticipate that everything they do on the computer will be monitored and is subject to being reviewed.

Electronic Communications Privacy Act

The Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 or ECPA was originally proposed to offer citizens protection against unlawful invasions of privacy. It is the only government act that protects employee confidentiality. However, there are a couple of major exceptions to this act that allows employers the freedom to monitor workplace electronic communications.

The first exception allows employers to monitor employee activities for work related issues.

The second important exception is that companies have the authority to monitor electronic transactions when employees are informed that they may be monitored. These loopholes have basically eliminated any reasonable expectations of workplace privacy. Courts have consistently ruled in favor of employers in cases involving email and internet monitoring.

Smyth vs. The Pillsbury Company

This case involves an employee who was fired after sending a series of threatening emails. Smyth sued the Pillsbury Company for wrongful termination. Smyth alleged that the company informed him that his emails would be private. The court dismissed the case and found that there should be no realistic expectation of privacy despite his employer’s assurance of email security. The employer’s right to protection from liability took priority over the employee’s right to privacy.

Blakey vs. Continental Airlines

This case emphasizes the importance of monitoring employee activity. The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that the company could be held responsible for sexually inappropriate emails sent on a company’s network. The court also asserted that the company’s computer network was considered an “extension of the workplace” and that organizations have a responsibility to ensure that the work environment is free from harassment.

Cases like this make it critical for companies to monitor employee behavior and take action before it gets to this level. A clear set of policies and procedures need to be established to manage computer activity and make employees accountable for their behavior.

Freedom of Information Act

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) asserts that anyone may request to obtain records from any federal agency excluding records that are specifically protected from the public. Keep in mind that FOIA requests can also be requested from state and local agencies. Any email or internet activity by public employees is subject to public exposure. The news media often makes these requests when there is a high profile case involving public officials and employees. Any electronic communications or documentation may be requested. It is especially important for public employees to be careful about online activities, as public employees tend to receive more scrutiny than employees in private companies. It’s important to emphasize that all electronic communication is subject to FOIA request. This includes private instant messages (which really aren’t private) and text messages. They can be pulled and included in an investigation.

My advice is if there is any doubt, wait until you’re outside of the office. In this age of smart phones and tablets, there is really no need to even take the risk of using the office computer for personal use.

Employers also need to develop a clear computer and technology usage policy. Initial training during the hiring process and ongoing training should be offered as a constant reminder. Employers should also have employees sign off and acknowledged that they were informed of the policy for future reference. Once employees are made aware of the monitoring policy, they knowingly give up any protection from privacy on a workplace computer.

Do you agree with employers monitoring all of your computer activity at work?

See results

© 2013 Martin D Gardner


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    • mdgardner profile imageAUTHOR

      Martin D Gardner 

      7 years ago from Virginia Beach

      Thanks. I appreciate the comments. The internet is definitely tempting. As much as people may dislike it, I agree that there has to be some control in place.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 

      7 years ago from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado

      As much as I would like to goof off at work all day on the computer, I believe that the employer has every right to get their money's worth out of their employees. The problem with the Internet is that it is far too intoxicating, and its usage really does need to be controlled in the workplace. Great hub!

    • mdgardner profile imageAUTHOR

      Martin D Gardner 

      7 years ago from Virginia Beach

      Yes it's amazing how some people just forget about basic common sense.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      7 years ago from The Caribbean

      In the case of Smyth versus Pillsbury, Smyth seemed to trade common sense and interpersonal skills for his right to privacy. Integrity on the job is paramount, no matter the incidental laws. Thank you dealing with this issue.


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