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Ethical Implications of Technology at Work

Updated on May 28, 2012

Ethical Implications of Technology at Work

Information technology encompasses a vast array of issues and products. Some of these technological issues border the line of acceptable and ethical. One of those ethically questionable uses of technology occurs while people are at work and on the clock. There are a significant number of individuals who use their company’s network and computer equipment for personal email, gaming, and social networking. There have also been instances of security breaches by employees. These few examples raise ethical questions of acceptability for on the job network use, entertainment and social contact. The question is whether or not the personal use of company time and resources is ethical.

Ethics are left for individual interpretation, especially when the individual assumes that what they are doing is unmonitored. The laws of acceptable use regarding technological equipment and systems for employees have not been considered in all aspects; the technology is ever-changing, and difficult to anticipate. Employees and employers alike are left to decide the ethics of technology at work; it is likely that this situation will cause differing ideas. “Ethics then, are often very subjective, and connected to our emotions and our basic sense of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. This means that it can be difficult to define ethics rigorously (Rikowski)”.

Many companies use a computer network that is intended to facilitate communication among their employees. There are several options available for company networks, these include local area networks (LAN), wide area networks (WAN), and internet networks. LAN’s stay within one location, such as an office building. WAN’s connect a group of networks that all belong to one entity; many offices can be joined from various locations. WAN’s require outside contracts with a government licensed communications vendor. Internet networks are an accumulation of networks. Depending on the type of network, some personal activities and communication may be more accessible than others.

The user of a company network is responsible for abiding by company rules, and the company is responsible for the security of the system. An open network allows anyone in to do whatever they please, placing the blame of any illegal activities to the owner of the ISP. In a workplace setting the company secrets, personal information of customers and employees, and other confidential files can be at risk. These acts of using information for malicious actions is illegal, but has been attempted by disgruntled employees. There are instances of privacy invasion that are seemingly innocent such as snooping, and then to the extreme there is the theft of information for outside use.

Company network use is intended for company business. Using the company networks for personal reasons may not be illegal, but it can cross the ethical boundaries of acceptability. One recurring ethical debate asks if personal email is acceptable for employee use. Personal email use can be costly and time consuming. Some losses can be attributed to wasting company time or causing an information backup in the server, also wasting time and money. Many companies have begun to monitor every action and keystroke made, and has the ability to block questionable websites with filters when using the company computers or networks, cataloging these actions. This is done to protect company information and finances.

There is controversy regarding acceptable use and employee expectations. The many facets of expanding computer use leave interpretation issues, many that have yet to be made. Laws for acceptable technology use are new to the nation’s legal system. Technology evolves so quickly today, that many of the issues and problems stemming from their use are yet to be considered legally. Companies have the right to set rules or guidelines for their employees; the problem arises when privacy is invaded, or no rule is established beforehand.

Regardless of the legal implications, personal and social ethics should be heeded. It has been found that “25% of employees use the Internet for personal use during office hours for at least ten minutes each day. Thirteen percent of workers use the Internet for at least two hours per day (McKay, 2011)”. That is two hours of employer paid personal time. A retrospective look into the past would relate using work time for web surfing to what was once considered as using work time for taking scheduled breaks. One problem with personal email and web surfing on the job today is that it can be compared to those who are getting scheduled breaks with added email breaks. The employee output will suffer from the lack of actual work. Ethics will agree that excessive personal computer use at work, and while on the clock, is wrong.

Personal emails are not so personal when they are transmitted through an employer’s network, or sent using company owned equipment. The executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, Marc Rotenberg stated that there are “a lot of new issues that reflect the changing place of e-mail in the work place (Glater, 2008)”. Privacy cannot be expected when the company’s infrastructure is used for personal desires. Questions have been raised about personal emails that are not directly linked to the employer. Personal privacy rights can cloud some of these legal decisions. “People disclose all manner of personal information in e-mail messages, in the expectation — perhaps unfounded — that what they type will remain confidential (Glater, 2008)”. It has been seen that companies will state that all employee actions are subject to scrutiny. “But even so… employees may have a reasonable expectation of privacy (Glater, 2008)”, especially when using a personal outside mail server such as Yahoo or Google mail.

Email is only a small percentage of potential questionable acts involving the work computer network; other acts can include gaming, social networking, or surfing the web. These acts have caused a concern for the violation of company policy, so much so that several circuit courts have established laws regarding the act of exceeding authorized use of a company’s computer network. The California Ninth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals authorized punishment for intentional fraud or the attempt to obtain something of value while using a protected or unauthorized computer network.

Social networking can consume work time. Additionally, the use of networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter do not require hardware or software, and can bypass employer specified blocks. There are risks associated with social networks, including a breach of security and accidental leaking of private information. These resources can help a company as well as harm it; education is essential when information can be compromised.

Surfing the web at work is another controversial use of employee technology. This too is an issue of time and privacy. Many corporate policies forbid the use of company time and resources for personal and inappropriate uses. Inappropriate use of company resources can cost an employee their job, reputation, and money. Computer surveillance technology is commonly used by employers to monitor the amount of time, and the type of content being accessed while people are at work. Employers have the ability to “thoroughly monitor the Internet usage of all of their employees down to the keystroke (How Do Employers Monitor Internet Usage at Work?, 2011)”. These issues have caused questions of ethics in regard to the employer and employee rights.

Employees may delete information or actions that were performed or received on the company computer to hide their search history or personal messages; however this information is still retrievable by administrators in many instances. An employer ethically should inform their employees of computer surveillance, but privacy rights do not always pertain to the workplace. Current laws protect personal information such as bank and credit account information, regardless of where this information was accessed. Employers have a right to protect their property, information, and finances, and can use these rights to reprimand employees regardless of the innocence of the content they access.

Some good advice can be heeded when acceptability is questioned; think of surfing the web as real actions in the real world. If there are places out in the real world where an individual would not want to be seen by their boss, they should avoid those places “in the virtual world as well. You may think that you can travel around the Web anonymously. You could be wrong… Imagine how embarrassing it would be (McKay, 2011)” to be in that situation. Every email or web search should be written or done as if the company were reading or looking at every act or word.

Some have argued that surfing the Internet boosts productivity at work. Research studies from the University of Melbourne have attributed the ability to use the outlet of personal Internet use while at work as a tool for greater focus upon work. Considering the results from this study, Dr. Brent Coker stated that “"People need to zone out for a bit to get back their concentration… Short and unobtrusive breaks, such as a quick surf of the internet, enables the mind to rest itself, leading to a higher total net concentration for a day’s work, and as a result, increased productivity (Cheng, 2009)". Moderation is the key and not a good idea if the user is addicted to the Internet. A mental break can rejuvenate the worker.

People are unique, and use the Internet and email in a like manner. Web-based breaks can rejuvenate some individuals, but not all. Some people work better without any distractions, while others need frequent breaks. This can make the establishment of a group guideline difficult. There are etiquette guidelines in the workplace, as well as in the virtual world. The rules of etiquette can pertain to both locations. Some examples of what can be considered civil behavior include not wasting the time of others, not taking up network storage space, and not looking at the files of other users. These are basic rules of etiquette; the employer can require more extensive guidelines, as they see fit.

Not all jobs have the ability to limit Internet use; a large number of jobs today are based with a need for computer technology and Internet use. This makes the monitoring and enforcing of some rules difficult. There will always be people who when given the opportunity, will abuse the trust of their employer. In Pittsburg Pennsylvania, the city employs 1,300 individuals. They decided to eliminate the ability of time wasting on the job. A web-filtering program has been installed on the city employee’s computers; this program will restrict Internet use to 30 minutes a day. The software program saves tax dollars and increases the level of service to the community.

Lessons have been learned from previous actions and intentions that did not have specific or clear company network guidelines and restrictions established. Employers have learned that computer use policies need to be put in place. Those policies should be clear and leave nothing for interpretation. The do’s as well as don’ts need to be specified. Passive actions from the company should be avoided when polices are broken. If one person gets away with breaking the rules, others may follow suit. A passive response can encourage more problems.

Employees have also learned lessons about company computer use policies. Employees have learned to make sure they read use policies before agreeing to the guidelines. If there are questions of acceptable use, the employee needs to bring those issues to the attention of the employer. Misuse can lead to the termination or even criminal prosecution of the offender. This is an important reminder, considering that many people do not read acceptable use guidelines before signing in agreement.

In any establishment, there will be some form of technology misuse. A pre-established policy can help set a precedence of expectation and help in dealing with indiscretion. Employees know what is expected; a fair system has been put in place before a problem occurs. This can help keep productivity and morale in place. Instances of Internet misuse include viewing pornography, computer crime, acts of espionage, lost productivity, sexual harassment, and security breaches. Sixty-three percent of U.S. companies monitor the computer use of their employees.

Acceptable use policies are a necessary part of an employer employee relationship. The policy establishes rules that an employee must abide by to remain in their job position. Some policies included in the acceptable use policy include mandatory regulations that are a laws or policies, such as racial or religious discrimination, and mandatory email archiving. Also included are company ethics and expectations that cover a broader scope than just technology. The policies established help justify the termination or discipline of those who violate the policy.

The acceptable use policy should include knowledge of technology monitoring; employees should be made aware that anything they do on the employer network is public information. This includes any information deleted, created, stored or recorded on the employer’s property and network. The most important part of an acceptable use policy is the signature of the employee; that signature is a binding contract that sets expectations and guidelines of ethical behavior.

Information technology is a reasonably new problem for the workplace; problems and solutions change quickly, but the anticipation of actions is difficult to judge. Some of these technological issues can be considered unacceptable and unethical. Employees are at the mercy of their employer when they agree to an acceptable use policy. Issues of technology involve networks and computer equipment that belong to a company, but is used by an employee for extracurricular activities. The personal use of company time and resources is ethical as long as it fits within the acceptable use policy; a company can set any ethical standards they see fit, as long as they obtain the signature of the employee.

Ethical Implications of Technology at Work



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