Employers Split on Personal Use

Employers Split on Personal Use

If you are having trouble deciding whether or not to allow personal e-communication, you are not alone. According to the ‘‘2001 Electronic Policies and Practices Survey,’’ 40 percent of employers allow staff full and unrestricted personal use of office e-mail; 21 percent allow full personal use with prior management approval; 7 percent restrict personal e-mail to emergency situations; 4 percent allow communications with spouse and family only; and 23 percent totally ban all personal e-mail.

Employers also are divided on the issue of placing time restrictions on personal e-mail use. Twenty percent of organizations place some sort of time limit on personal e-mail, restricting when and for how long employees may use the business e-mail system. Of that 20 percent, half restrict personal e-mail use to nonbusiness hours only; 8 percent place specific time duration limits on employees; and 2 percent restrict personal use to specific times during business hours. [1]

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Real-Life E-Disaster Story:
650 ‘‘Shockingly Explicit’’ Personal E-Mails Lead to Termination

In April 2002, six employees of the Washington State Department of Labor were fired for using state-provided computers to transmit an excessive amount of personal e-mail, including messages with a sexual content.

One terminated employee had sent 650 personal e-mail messages in less than thirty days. In the agency’s termination letter, this employee’s e-mail was described as ‘‘shockingly explicit, vulgar, and very offensive.’’ [2]

The erroneous assumption that an instant message vanishes when its window closes, coupled with the quick, abbreviated nature of IM may lead some employees to think that casual conversation, including off-color chat, is no big deal.

Stop this problem before it starts. Establish clear and comprehensive personal use policies and content rules to guide your employees’ IM use. Should a violation occur in spite of your IM rules and policies, follow the State of Washington’s lead. Terminate the offender(s) immediately, and be sure to let the rest of the staff know exactly why the IM policy violators were fired, and how remaining employees can steer clear of a similar fate by adhering strictly to the organization’s written IM rules and policies.

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[1]‘‘2001 AMA, US News, ePolicy Institute Survey: Electronic Policies and Practices,’’ conducted by the American Management Association, US News & World Report, and The ePolicy Institute. Survey findings available online at www.epolicyinstitute.com.

[2]Andrew Garber, ‘‘L&I Cites ‘Excessive’ E-Mail Traffic of Fired Employees,’’ The Seattle Times (May 2, 2002), B2.

Determining the Personal Instant Messaging Policy That’s Right for Your Organization

As you draft your IM policy, you’ll need to give some thought to personal IM use in the office. As with personal e-mail, you have a variety of options to consider.

  1. Ban personal chat altogether. Some organizations opt for a 100 percent ban on all personal IM. After all, the organization provides IM for business purposes, and instant messages are business records that may be subject to review by legal opponents, courts, and regulators. Therefore it makes sense to outlaw all personal nonbusiness use, right?

    Perhaps. It may be true that a ban on nonbusiness IM will eliminate (or greatly reduce) the risk of personal messages triggering litigation or being discovered in the course of an investigation ( provided your employees actually comply with your policy). But it is also true that, for one reason or another, many employees need to engage in a certain amount of personal communication during working hours. For some employees, IM may be the quickest, most convenient and effective way to communicate with children, spouses, and babysitters, for example.

    A decision to strictly prohibit personal IM may negatively impact employee morale and even drive some employees to seek employment at an organization that is more flexible and family friendly.

    A ban on IM use may also aggravate clients who are accustomed to conducting business via IM. Your clients’ ability to receive immediate, personalized attention is likely to increase customer loyalty. Remove the real-time customer service capabilities that IM offers, and your clients may take their business elsewhere.

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    Sample Personal Use Statement

    Instant messaging is provided solely for business purposes. Employees accessing this service are representing the Company, and must use this tool in a lawful, professional, productive, and ethical manner.

    Personal use of the Company’s instant messaging system is banned. Under no circumstances may employees use the Company’s instant messaging system for personal communication with family, friends, domestic partners, or other outside parties.

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  2. Allow a ‘‘limited’’ amount of ‘‘appropriate’’ personal use. It’s never a good idea to draft policy that is vague or open to interpretation. To management, a ‘‘limited’’ amount of ‘‘appropriate’’ personal use may mean fifteen minutes a day spent chatting with children or family members. To an employee who happens to have an active social life, it could mean five hours of daily communication with friends, romantic partners, and former fraternity brothers.

  3. Allow unrestricted, unlimited personal use. It’s dangerous to assume that all employees will show good judgment and respond to this type of wide-open policy with a sense of maturity. Open the door to unrestricted and unlimited personal IM use, and you are likely to find some employees devoting eight hours a day to personal chat. How can you object? Your written policy allows it!

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    Real-Life E-Disaster Story:
    Personal Use Brings Down the Company E-Mail System

    In 1999, Xerox fired more than forty employees for spending up to eight hours a day on pornographic Web sites. The downloading of porn videos was so pervasive that it actually choked Xerox’s computer network and prevented employees from sending and receiving legitimate e-mail. [3]

    Don’t assume that all of your employees will exercise sound judgment when determining for themselves what constitutes appropriate personal use of the organization’s IM system and other computer resources.

    Protect your organization’s assets, credibility, and future by establishing clear and consistent written rules and policies for personal IM use.

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  4. Allow personal chat with family only. As noted above, employers must take care to be specific and avoid language that is open to interpretation of any kind. Spell out exactly who qualifies as ‘‘family’’ under your IMpolicy. Are you limiting instant message communication to children and spouses? What about domestic partners, romantic friends, parents, in-laws, and extended family?

  5. Allow personal, nonbusiness chat with colleagues only. What’s a more productive use of an employee’s time: using IM to schedule lunch with colleagues, or visiting coworkers in their cubicles to set up lunch dates? The answer probably depends on the size of your facility, and the amount of time it takes one employee to reach another’s desk.

    If you allow personal IM use among colleagues, clearly spell out the rules and terms of your policy. Under what circumstances, for what length of time, and at what times of the day are employees allowed to send instant messages to one another for nonbusiness reasons?

    Be sure that your employees adhere to the organization’s content and confidentiality guidelines, regardless of whether they are chatting internally with a coworker or externally with a third party.

  6. Extend authorized personal chat to include colleagues, family,-and friends. You can combine options four and five and give employees permission to engage in personal chat with coworkers, family, and friends. If so, be sure to explain—clearly—who management defines as a family member or friend, and what exactly is meant by ‘‘authorized’’ personal use.

    Also, instruct your employees to keep their business contacts (clients and coworkers) separate from friends and family.

    Employees should maintain separate buddy lists, to ensure that a business associate is never included in an informal personal chat with a friend or loved one.

  7. Limit the amount of time (minutes or hours) employees can spend on personal IM. In addition to spelling out with whom and under what circumstances employees may hold personal IM conversations, you also may want to set specific time limits for employees’ personal IM use.

    For example, use your written policy to notify employees that they may spend no more than twenty minutes a day instant messaging immediate family members about personal matters. As always, remind employees that all instant messaging use, personal or business related, is governed by the organization’s comprehensive rules and polices.

  8. Limit the time periods during which employees can engage in personal IM. If you want to allow staff the freedom of some personal IM use without adversely affecting productivity, consider imposing restrictions on the periods of the day during which employees may make personal use of IM. For example, you might restrict personal IM use to the lunch hour, break times, and before and after normal working hours.

  9. Specify the circumstances under which employees may hold personal IM conversations. Another alternative is to limit employees to personal IM only under certain circumstances (for example, during weather emergencies, to arrange child care, to check on the safety or whereabouts of children, and so on). Be specific about authorized circumstances and audiences. Also consider adding a stipulation that employees must seek management approval before using the IM system under these or any other circumstances.

  10. Standardize your IM system to simplify the decision-making process. If you decide to standardize IM with enterprise software, then your decision about personal use becomes somewhat less complex. Enterprise IM restricts employees to internal chat. The only decisions you’ll need to make are whether, when, why, and how often to allow employees to chat with one another about personal matters unrelated to company business.

  11. Understand that once you open the door to a little personal IM use, some of your employees will kick it wide open. Keep your risks in check by drafting clear, consistent rules that are not subject to personal interpretation. Cover personal use in your IM training sessions. Have employees sign and date a hard copy of your IM policy, acknowledging that they have read it, understand it, and agree to abide by it, or accept the consequences—up to and including termination.

[3]Keith Naughton, ‘‘CyberSlacking,’’ Newsweek (November 29, 1999), 63.