Employee Internet Management: Now an HR Issue

By Erin Patrick
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Employee Internet access has become commonplace. Providing instant access to information and a vehicle for employee communication, the World Wide Web has been deemed a necessary productivity tool for most employees. Rightly so—much of the last decade's productivity gains can be attributed to the Internet.

However, while the Internet offers e-mail, e-commerce and research tools, it also opens more avenues for employee distraction, ranging from the innocent—entertainment and shopping—to the offensive, such as gambling and pornography. As a result, the web is fostering both lost productivity and more serious problems, among them hostile workplace lawsuits. This means the management of employee Internet access is shifting from a strictly information technology (IT) matter to an HR issue. And as the shift continues, HR professionals will need to take a more educated, proactive role in managing employee Internet use at work. How can you achieve a balance between company and employee interests, especially when the Internet is considered an employee benefit these days?

One answer is employee Internet management (EIM) software. This type of software, which has evolved from the simple porn-blocking products of the past, today can manage an organization's unique Internet needs flexibly and adaptively. With proactive leadership from HR, companies can implement an EIM solution, achieving a balance between professional and personal employee Internet use in the workplace.

Cyberslacking at Work

While Internet access has undoubtedly streamlined work processes, it also has opened the gateway to distraction at the click of a mouse. Entertainment, gaming and sports are just a few of the online temptations many workers have trouble resisting at the office. The trends are unsettling for HR executives nationwide:

  • 30 to 40 percent of employee Internet activity is non-work-related, according to IDC Research.

  • Workplace Internet misuse costs U.S. businesses $63 billion in lost productivity annually, according to Websense Inc.

  • Charles Schwab reveals that 72 percent of its customers plan to buy or sell mutual funds over the next six months, and 92 percent of these plan to do so online during work hours.

  • 70 percent of all Internet porn traffic occurs during the 9-to-5 workday, according to SexTracker. This means that one in five employees access cybersex at work.

  • 28 percent of individuals making gift purchases do so from their offices or cubicles, according to Pew Internet and American Life Project.

Unfortunately, this problem shows no signs of abating, as new content and technologies, such as streaming video and MP3s, become available online. According to recent research from Nielsen/NetRatings, fewer than 6 percent of Americans with Internet connections have high-speed access at home. Accessing new technologies like streaming media takes a high-speed connection, such as a T-1 or T-3 line, found most frequently in corporate environments—where it is free to employees. For HR, this means employees are spending office hours downloading and viewing content using corporate resources. For example:

  • People with high-speed connections are more likely to consume streaming media content, according to Nielsen/NetRatings.

  • Napster music-swapping software was found on 20 percent of more than 15,000 work computers examined, according to eMarketer.com.

  • The cost to business from Internet broadcasts of the October 1998 special prosecutor's report on President Clinton was in excess of $450 million, according to ZDNet.

Mission: Possible

While most HR professionals have played a proactive role in establishing Internet access policies (IAPs) within organizations, creating guidelines is only a fraction of the solution. After establishing a corporate policy, it is important for HR to implement a foolproof means of enforcing and managing the policy. And HR, more than any other department, is uniquely positioned to offer flexible options that both allow employees to access the Internet and prevent hostile workplace situations and productivity problems.

Like all HR decisions, employee Internet access is not a black or white issue. Workers are not just accessing inappropriate sites like pornography and gambling. As employees work longer and longer hours, they are finding it necessary to accomplish personal tasks online at the office, such as online banking and e-shopping. With more demanding work schedules and tighter deadlines, workers appreciate the opportunity for non-work-related web use.

Traditional Internet filters work by simply blocking or allowing access, but the latest EIM software solutions have emerged as the only alternative to achieving a balance between professional and personal employee Internet use in the workplace. Once installed and set up according to the company's particular Internet access policy, EIM software avoids both employee backlash and web misuse.

Employee Internet management software encompasses traditional Internet filtering, but involves additional adaptive management capabilities. Unlike filtering products that also target home, school and library customers, EIM software strictly focuses on the unique needs of corporate enterprises and government agencies.

EIM solutions adapt to support an organization's Internet access policy, allowing HR to transparently monitor, manage and report on employee Internet traffic. In addition to simply blocking and permitting access, EIM products offer flexible and customizable management options, such as:

  • Time-based quotas enable HR to permit employee access to non-work-related sites for limited, but appropriate amounts of time. For example, HR can establish 30 minutes of personal surfing time daily for each employee to use as necessary.

  • Continue/defer lets users choose to "continue" surfing blocked sites they deem work-related or "defer" personal sites to non-work hours.

  • Time of day establishes filtering options set up by specific time of day. For example, access to shopping can be blocked during business hours, but permitted at all other times.

  • Customized access allows Internet access by user, group, department, workstation or network. For example, access can by customized by job function, such as management vs. accounting, or by individual, such as the CEO or receptionist.

Using EIM software to flexibly manage employee Internet use relieves HR professionals of the anxieties and liabilities surrounding employee Internet use at work. There are, however, significant differences in the EIM software available so it is up to HR to identify and select a solution that works best for the organization's culture.

Identifying Flexible Solutions

From 100-person companies to global enterprises, organizations worldwide are implementing employee Internet management solutions to effectively manage workforce web use. Of the multitude of Internet filtering software available, three companies primarily focus on the EIM market space:

    Websense Inc.'s Websense Enterprise uses a sophisticated application with the largest proprietary Web site database (consisting of 2.5 million sites). Websense can be configured to the unique culture of a company with eight different management options and more than 60 customizable reports. As a result, Websense boasts of more than 14,000 customers worldwide, including 250 of the Fortune 500. The cost of the software is roughly $10-$15 per user per year. Additional product information can be found at www.websense.com.

Elron's IM Web Inspector is one of many Elron products targeted towards the Internet management arena. The company's approach is focused primarily on reporting Internet misuse rather than enforcing Internet policy. However, Web Inspector can block sites based on "smart" content filtering that looks at each page as it passes through the network, which can sometimes affect network performance. Based on 1,000 corporate users, IM Web Inspector is $15.60 per person. Additional product information can be found at www.elronsw.com.

Secure Computing's SmartFilter manages and monitors Internet access via the SmartFilter Control List, a list of web sites that is updated on a weekly basis. SmartFilter's focus has been on being a "porn blocker" with limited policy and management capabilities, but various technology integrations have driven some success in the corporate market. Based on 1,000 corporate users, SmartFilter is $3.90 per person. Additional information can be found at www.securecomputing.com.

Future Trends in EIM

As employee Internet access has become standard in the last decade, the original goal of Internet filters and Internet access control products was to block all non-work-related web access. However, as both the workplace and the Internet evolved, employee Internet management software evolved to accomplish the unique needs of changing office environments.

Because the Internet is both a benefit and a distraction, many EIM products now offer flexible management options, allowing HR to accommodate both employee and employer web concerns. Future trends include even more flexibility and adaptability, meaning that HR will have to become even more involved in the process. However, no matter how the web and the workplace evolve, HR is still the critical link that bridges the divide between employees and management, researching and recommending employee Internet management software that suits an organization's culture and needs.

Erin Patrick is a public relations spokesperson with Websense Inc. in San Diego, CA. She can be reached at epatrick@websense.com.

This additional information was taken from iLinX eXtras—a new supplement to the bi-monthly newsletter. Check out the Reports for Techies and the New Briefs, which will be updated monthly and only available online.

Employee Internet Management

Software manufacturer Websense has products and resources for monitoring employee use on the Internet, http://www.websense.com/products/resources/hr/index.cfm.

The following sample Internet use policies are provided by Websense:

General Policy: Computer Network and Internet Access PolicyDisclaimer

Strict Policy: Computer Network and Internet Access Policy

The Privacy Foundation, http://www.privacyfoundation.org/workplace/index.asp, has several documents about employee privacy and Internet monitoring, including a Foundation study that says 13 million employees are under surveillance at work. Failing to inform employees about the monitoring system and computer use policies beforehand could give disciplined employees enough ammo to sue the government for monetary damages under a federal law, according to a recent Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision involving judges who ordered the dismantlement of an Internet monitoring system installed by a federal agency, says the Privacy Foundation's Richard Smith. Smith comments on the decision and it's implications for employers who monitor their workers' Internet use.

The Houston Chronicle looks at the security risks that resulted from the decision of the Ninth Circuit Court judges to pull the plug on Internet monitoring software, http://199.97.97.16/contWriter/cnd7/2001/07/05/cndin/9617-0447-pat_nytimes.html.

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