In the Trenches: Caught in a web

Fine weather brings Acme a digital nightmare

By Acme has troubles with unauthorized computer use

A beautiful, storybook-quality summer day in Howe's Bayou caressed the only non-union Acme facility remaining in Louisiana, where the company was established in the mid-1940s. A warm sun peeking from behind drifting billowy clouds and a gentle temperate breeze from the north on the first day of work after the July 4 holiday is providing Acme with an Eden-esque environment. It's a day that stands in stark contrast to the hot, muggy, windless, breath-robbing, sweat-drenched weeks that always develop as the season matures.

Acme's conception of lean manufacturing is based on the dual programs the company so cherishes , lean capital spending and lean staffing. Not a single piece of major equipment in the 13-acre complex is newer than 1970 vintage, and not a single employee has worked fewer than 46 hours since about the same time.

In contrast, Acme's policy of universal employee access to the latest computer systems makes interoffice communication effortless and manufacturing a system integrator's remote-control dream. Every year, the company retrofits the newest generation of sensors and controls to the production equipment. The continuous improvement has been responsible for offsetting many of the potential age-related mechanical problems that could arise. In fact, Acme is now totally dependent on digital technology for its unlikely business success.

Just before lunch, every window in Acme's cafeteria was thrown open wide to the weather as the tables filled with workers of every stripe and rank. They drifted to their customary seats for a 30-minute respite from the rigors and frustration derived from what most call a sweatshop salt mine.

"Have you seen L.C. Derkowe lately?" asked Flora DeKiese, one of Acme's machinists, as she sat at her customary table in the back corner of the room. "I haven't seen her in several days. I hope she's not sick or something."

"Now that you mention it," said Mel Wahkey, a maintenance technician, "I haven't gotten any of her e-mails recently. She was a regular clearing house. Gosh, I miss my daily fix."

"How would you even know if hers are missing?" Flora replied. "There's so much spam getting through our system already. I don't know about you, but I delete at least 80 or 90 each morning. I doubt if L.C.'s contribution is but a tiny piece the total traffic the server handles every day."

"Well," added Mattie Gascar, a junior engineering intern in the product development group, "I don't have that kind of time to waste. I need a lot more bullet points for my resume if I'm going to get out of this one-horse town. Besides, I've heard that our system can record every keystroke anyone makes."

"That sounds like cyber-stalking," Flora said. "But, if it's true, maybe we all should start getting real familiar with the job hunting sites and online job forums."
"Don't be so paranoid," retorted Mel. "Who's going to examine the 10 billion individual keystrokes this place generates every day? No, it's not going to come down to mass firings, at least not here. Where are they going to find replacement workers for this dump?"

"Hi, guys," said a breathless Fran Gellico, the secretary in the maintenance department, as she sat down to eat her lunch. "Did you hear that L.C. was fired?" she asked of her dumbstruck lunchmates.

"No. What happened?" Flora asked.

"Do you remember those guys we saw last week in Joe Acme's office?" Fran asked. "Well, they were the Feds. They took L.C. and her computer with them when they left. She returned that afternoon, but the computer didn't. Then, when Joe got here this morning, it took him about five minutes to fire L.C. personally.
"What did she do that was so bad?" Mel asked.

"Rumor has it she was running a side business dealing in copyrighted music and videos on the Web," answered Fran.

"See, I told you," Flora said. "Nobody gets fired for passing e-mails. I was hoping that L.C. might have finally hit it big gambling online. If so, I wouldn't blame her for simply vanishing in a puff of smoke. Nobody here has gotten a raise in more than three years."

"I've got an easier way," Mel added, "for keeping up with the cost of living. I'm dealing on eBay. It's amazing what people are willing to fork over for some of the stuff I find at local flea markets. The problem is that I only have dial-up at home, so I do it here, but on my own time during lunch or before the shift begins."

"I've got to get back to work," Mattie said, as he rose and picked up his tray. "If you're not careful, you run the risk of finding out that something you did online was illegal. But you never know. Maybe you better start deleting all your e-mails, just in case."

How could this situation have been prevented? To what extent is it worthwhile for a company to track the minutiae of its employees' online activities? If computers make employees more productive and the work is getting done, should an employer even care? Would the conclusion be different if the employee used his own laptop and a private wireless connection?

An academician says:
Or how about the employee who spent much of the time at his desk trading stocks online using the company's computer? He claimed he always got his assigned work done and his trading activities didn't interfere, so what's the issue? Or the police sergeant  on graveyard-shift desk duty, who spent much of his time on the department's computer visiting pornographic sites. His argument was that the graveyard shift was extremely slow and boring, and the porno sites kept him alert. Thus, he argued, they enhanced his job effectiveness. Try that on your boss.

The general rule is that while you're at work and on the company payroll, your time is their time. It doesn't make any difference if you are using the company computer or your own laptop, or using the company phone or your own cell phone. Your contract with the company is that you will devote 100% of your working time to the company and 0% to anything else, period. End of discussion.

Yes, I know we sometimes make personal calls to arrange doctor appointments, to check on the baby's health, or maybe to arrange a dinner date. Most companies look the other way at that. It's seen as an unofficial perk, which doesn't cost the company much with respect to money or employee time, and which may contribute a bit to employee morale. But, technically, those examples are also in violation of the contract.

All of this should be spelled out in the employee handbook and covered in employee orientation meetings. If you think it's a problem, post the policies on the company bulletin board or discuss them at department meetings. Is it worth tracking the minutiae of employee online activities? Probably not, unless you suspect the policy is being violated. In that case, yes, do it.

Prof. Homer H. Johnson, Ph.D.
Loyola University Chicago
(312) 915-6682
hjohnso@luc.edu

An attorney says:
Computers undoubtedly have made workplace communication easier, but they also have produced a new set of nightmares for employers. This month's Acme scenario is not atypical. News reports of 30 and 40 employees losing their jobs in one day, without any warning, due to unauthorized use of company computers, are legion. In addition to the shenanigans of L.C. and Mel, employees have been known to spend their work hours inviting colleagues for dates, visiting adult and child pornographic Web sites, participating in chat rooms, commenting on the physical attributes (or lack thereof) of their female coworkers and denigrating various racial, ethnic and religious groups.

Studies have shown that employees spend a significant amount of time each day on the Web for non-work-related purposes. Because employers provide computers to their workers to facilitate business communication, they understandably become upset when employees devote working time to non-work-related activities.

Employers need to have an electronic communication policy to address these issues. The policy should inform employees that the purpose of every form of electronic communication, including voicemail, is to facilitate business communication. It should clearly prohibit any illegal activity using computers, including sexual, racial or any other type of unlawful harassment. A third important function of any policy is to alert employees that the company reserves the right to monitor employees' usage of electronic communications equipment, at any time and for any reason. Lastly, the policy should let employees know whether and to what extent personal use is permissible.

Employers generally take one of two approaches in this regard. Some ban the personal use of computers altogether. Under this type of policy, Mel's dealings on eBay would be prohibited. Other policies permit the personal use of computers outside regular working hours , before and after work and during lunch and breaks. This type of policy would allow Mel to engage in his side business on eBay. But that raises another question. Should company policies also prohibit employees' use of company electronic communication media for their own profit or personal business ventures?

Perhaps Acme prefers to allow its employees to engage in side businesses on company computers rather than giving them raises.

Julie Badel, partner
Epstein Becker & Green, P.C.
(312) 499-1418
jbadel@ebglaw.com

A corporate consultant says:
If I sound like a curmudgeon on this one, tough. I'm exasperated with the extent to which employees take advantage of their employers , and this case exemplifies what I consider to be a perfect example.

Acme employees complain about how awful their working conditions are , yet think nothing of availing themselves of the luxury of the company's high-speed Internet connection for personal use.

Acme employees complain about what is expected of them, and yet waste their own time, and the time of their colleagues, by sending spam.

Acme employees complain about the hours they have to put in , yet they have time to gamble, shop and otherwise play online. Did they wait to clock in until after they had finished using the computer for personal reasons? Did they clock out at the end of the day before making personal use of the computer?

Employees who come in early and stay late enjoy the perception of being exceptionally devoted workers when, in this case at least, they're actually using that time to play online.

It's not the responsibility of an employer to enable the personal online activities of an employee anymore than it's the employer's responsibility to pay for  the food consumed at lunch time. It's unfair and unethical for employees to make personal use of the company's Internet connection during paid time. Even if "personal online playtime" using company equipment is engaged in during non-paid time, this still generates a host of problems in the workplace. No matter what time of day one is playing online, one can claim it's break time.

In my opinion, the only fair approach, assuming the company is willing, is to have a break room with computers in it, available for employees' personal use. One would go to this room to conduct personal business on the company dime.
I'll bet this may appear unreasonable, impractical and harsh to most readers. But you know what? If it were your company, and you were paying salaries, and you were relying on worker productivity, and you were paying for equipment, and you were liable for some of the ways in which your employees could be using the Web illegally, it wouldn't seem so unreasonable. 

Francie Dalton
Dalton Alliances Inc.
(410) 715-0484
fmdalton@daltonalliances.com

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