Watched At Work

Time: Employers, looking for a solid return on their payrolls, are increasingly relying on software that tracks their workers' online travels.

April 17, 2003|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

When you're at work and take 10 minutes to post an item for sale on eBay, view the latest scores on ESPN or see how your stocks are faring, you probably don't think anything of it.

Perhaps you should.

Increasingly across the country, employers have been monitoring what their employees are doing with technology while they're on the clock -- everything from what keystrokes they make to Web sites they surf to where they drive company-owned vehicles. And while workers nationwide aren't losing their jobs en masse because of "playing" when they should be working, it does happen.

The most common way employers have been monitoring employees, many people monitoring the invasion of employee privacy say, is by tracking their Internet usage.

"I think employers ... are really concerned about whether employees are using their time wisely or effectively," said Frederick S. Lane, author of The Naked Employee, to be released May 1. "For instance, if it takes you, say, 20 minutes to select a DVD online and have it sent to your home, and two other employees do that, all of a sudden that's a lost hour of productivity for the employer."

Costly distraction

Lane, a former attorney who lives in Burlington, Vt., said it's easy for someone to lose track of time online. But in the long run, he said, it's employers who lose out.

"The issuance of the Kenneth Starr report [about then-President Clinton] cost the American economy something like $250 million in productivity with people going online, etc., to read it," Lane said. "That's the kind of issue that employers are worried about."

Yet it's no secret most companies that monitor employees' Internet usage are looking primarily for one thing -- whether workers are accessing pornography or other offensive material through the Web.

Mark Cheskin, a Miami employee lawyer with Morgan Lewis & Bockius, a national law firm that has more than 300 lawyers in its Washington office, said he advises companies to be upfront with employees about their monitoring practices.

Of course, not all employees heed warnings.

Cheskin said one of his clients, a commercial real estate developer, with operations in nearly all 50 states, distributed a policy to employees about two months ago that said Internet usage would be monitored "because it has come to our attention that some of you are using it for pornography."

Just a week later, Cheskin said, a human resources manager who worked in California for the company was discovered to have visited more than 100 pornography sites.

"They said starting Monday we're going to start looking at Internet usage," Cheskin said. "Tuesday through Wednesday, he visited the sites. I think 90 percent of companies tell employees what sort of monitoring they're going to do. If you tell people upfront, they can't complain when they get caught. But I think the point of the policy is to stop it, not to catch people."

Cheskin said he thinks most employers are reasonable when it comes to employee monitoring. "The boss is doing it too," Cheskin said of an occasional non-work related Web search or telephone call.

"If someone is making a five-minute banking transaction on the Internet or a two-minute personal e-mail, they're not going to be in trouble," Cheskin said. "But if they sit there and do it all day, they're going to be in trouble. It's the same thing with personal telephone calls. We all know some people abuse it."

Barry Steinhardt, director of the technology and liberty program for the American Civil Liberties Union's national office in New York, said that while his office has gotten calls about employee monitoring for years, there really aren't too many laws protecting employees.

"The ugly reality is that there are really no laws that protect employees from having employers spy on their Web usage or their e-mail," Steinhardt said. "Employers should exercise some common sense here and should respect the privacy rights of employees and be much less intrusive about what they're monitoring. We're all operating on a 24-7 schedule, now, and people who engage in some personal business on the job do it because their personal time is increasingly limited. At a minimum, employers should notify employees that they're being monitored, and what employers monitor should be kept to a minimum."

Cindy Cohn, legal director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a California-based civil liberties organization that works to protect people's rights in the digital world, said she thinks most employers notify employees in some way of the monitoring.

"I think somewhere in the packet of information you get when you first join the company or when you first log on," they tell you, Cohn said. "It's easy to do. I suspect there are some companies that are sloppy, but most well-advised companies give you notice."

Cohn said her company hasn't really taken much initiative on the issue of employee monitoring.

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