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Workplace watching the norm

Is constant surveillance good corporate policy? 7/10 ReleVents hed: Workplace watching the norm dek: Is constant surveillance good corporate policy? By James Mathewson

Last month, I wrote a Newsletter Column about workplace surveillance. At the time, I suspected that the practice of spying on employee Internet use is pretty widespread. I didn’t have any statistics to back up my claim. It just seemed like common sense for two reasons: It’s pretty easy to monitor employee Internet use and the liability of abhorrent employee usage (porn and hostile workplace rules) is too high to not monitor and filter.

The gist of the column was that this practice is not without its problems. At the end of the article I polled our 21,000 subscribers–many of whom are network administrators–about how policing users affects the human side of their jobs. I got more than 100 responses. Every respondent reported some kind of filtering of obvious pornographic stuff at the proxy server. Some also reported more fine-grained surveillance along with some policing duties. But surprisingly few thought the policies adversely affected their job satisfaction. These are the rules. Employees signed documents agreeing with them. They should pay the consequences if they choose to deviate. That was the general tenor of the response.

A more scientific survey, described in a news item on our site today, corroborated my informal survey results. The practice is indeed widespread, and corporations have thus far resisted legislation that might limit it. The law currently gives companies carte blanche to set the rules on all use of company-owned equipment. I would be surprised if legislation is introduced, despite the loud complaints of privacy groups around the Net.

Though I am generally known to have strong opinions on everything, this is one area where I am still conflicted. One side of me thinks there should be rules that at least limit corporate surveillance. Sadly, many of us spend as much time on the job as away from it. It would be nice if during that time, we could have some autonomy to be ourselves and to pursue our interests (on break of course). This could extend to one’s computer, which is an extension of one’s personal space. Many corporations do not allow this; some make computers (or thin clients) into kiosks devoid of any personality.

The other side of me says the job market will dictate company policies. When jobs were relatively easy to get, corporate policies tended to be loose and flexible: casual dress, flexible hours, and the sense of one’s work computer as personal space. Now that unemployment is up, casual Fridays are history, flexible hours are gone, and the computer is just the company’s tool with no personal attachment allowed. Of course these are absolutes used to make a point; there is every shade of gray in between.

I guess what breaks the deadlock for me is my firm belief that managers will have happier and more productive employees if they take the loose and flexible approach. Managers should not tighten the leash just because the job market allows them to do so without huge retention issues. Those that continue with a casual approach will be more successful and success will breed more managers adopting the casual approach. The end result will be managers who monitor Internet use, but only call employees on obvious abuses. I think this issue will mostly take care of itself.

James Mathewson is editorial director of ComputerUser magazine and ComputerUser.com.

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