Net abuse: real danger or hype?

The rise
in e-mail and Internet use has led to a policy-writing frenzy. But firms should
also trust staff, asks Martin Rosner

Without
doubt the most important new HR policies for the millennium cover Internet and
e-mail abuse.

Sordid
stories about sending personal e-mails and downloading disgusting material now
hit the news headlines at regular intervals. If you read the papers, more
employees are being sacked for this than anything else.

But
is it all hype or is there a real danger to the security of our organisations
and the morals of our staff? For years, we have been turning a blind eye – at
least in most cases – to personal telephone calls to book our holidays or buy
our car insurance, using company post to send a private letter and social chats
across a cup of coffee. We are even told that such chats are essential for our
sanity and are good for our business. They all involve company time and company
expense in one form or another.

So
why is it that e-mail or booking a holiday on the Internet are so uniquely
different? Why does e-mail cause us to rewrite our rule books and fear all
sorts of dastardly deeds to undermine the security of our organisation?

There
have been some high-profile cases that demonstrate the dangers of e-mails and
the unacceptable use of the Internet. But we don’t vet every letter that goes
out, nor do we generally monitor every phone call.

The
big benefit of all the publicity has been to highlight how easy it has become
to monitor what we write and to whom.

Staff
now know that the computer, an essential part of our working life, also keeps
the secrets that we would prefer our managers not to know.

We
also know how easy it is to “protect our backs” by copying things to everyone
under the sun and months later dramatically produce the evidence when someone
claims they did not know about something. I have done the same myself when the
unions claimed they hadn’t been consulted about a new policy and I was able to
produce the e-mail which “proved” that consultation had taken place.

Clearly,
the worst excesses of the Internet and e-mail – just like the abuse of the
company telephone system – cannot be tolerated by any organisation and staff
who abuse the resources at their disposal deserve to go, and go quickly.

Equally,
we need procedures in place to warn staff about what is acceptable and what is
not.

But
is it not unrealistic to prevent staff from using e-mail and the Internet for
private use at all times? Is it not far better to have a policy that allows
sensible use of these communication tools? Is it then not also important to lay
down clearly and unambiguously what they can never be used for?

In
summary, is it not better to trust our staff to use the facilities fairly and
reasonably, rather than treat them as the “enemy” just waiting to send a
private e-mail or download some porn as soon as you turn your back?

There
are, of course, other great dangers associated with the Internet and e-mail –
inadvertently entering into contracts, sending things to the wrong people,
viruses and security problems are just some of them.

Perhaps
we should spend as much time concentrating on these important issues as we seem
to do trying to root out trivial and harmless use?

Martin
Rosner is a senior manager at Hammersmith and West London College where he has
been responsible for putting together the College’s Internet and e-mail policy.
He is speaking at an IRS conference on e-mail and the Internet on 1 May in
London. More details on 020-7420 3500 or www.irseclipse.co.uk

Comments are closed.