In the Trenches: Caught in a web

Fine weather brings Acme a digital nightmare

By Acme has troubles with unauthorized computer use

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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.

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