Internet Surfers Beached for Misusing Company Time

The Internet can bring a big boost in productivity for companies, but it can also download a brand- new set of workplace problems.

Cybersmut is one, but the loss of both time and money loom even bigger.

Companies find that virtual reality also means virtually unlimited access to computer games, shopping, sports, investments, even looking for another job. And it all happens while employees are at their desks, quietly intent on their computer screens. In other words, creating the appearance of work.

"Cyberwaste" can also launch a company's phone bill into orbit and even restrict Net access for legitimate use. Many companies spend a bundle to build a high-speed "pipe" to the Internet, faster and more direct than a phone line. But unofficial business on the Net can clog the pipe, slowing or even blocking it.

By some estimates, employees who go online spend one-third of their time on non-business activities.

And that has the boss bristling.

Compaq Computer fired more than a dozen workers in Houston last year after they registered more than 1,000 visits to sex sites from work.

Lockheed Martin Space & Missiles discharged two employees last year for similar activity and for making online financial transactions.

Companies are also beating a path to softwaremakers selling programs that monitor Internet use.

"We're buried" with orders, says Albert Behr, a vice president at Sequel Technology, a Bellevue, Wash., maker of Internet monitoring software. "In the financial arena, securities arena ... you name it, everyone's installing this thing."

And it works. Once employees know the boss is watching, non-business Internet use typically falls from one-third to well under 10 percent, Behr says.

Industry experts also recommend a proactive approach, establishing a policy for going online that covers the type, timing, and frequency of use. Rather than cutting off access to certain sites, corporations are better off instituting a set of ethics guidelines and letting departments police themselves, they say.

"You have to treat people as mature and as adults and let them know what's going on," says Waverly Deutsch, director of computing strategies for Forrester Research, a technology research firm in Cambridge, Mass. "And you know what? Magically, they stop" doing the wrong things.

Sequel, the softwaremaker, recommends a sample policy that reads in part:

"Internet service and e-mail are company property, and their purpose is to facilitate company business....

"The company e-mail and Internet access may not be used for transmitting, retrieving, or storage of any communications of a discriminatory or harassing nature or materials that are obscene or X-rated. Harassment of any kind is prohibited."

Does this mean that you can't play an online game at work? Within reason, analysts say, but on your lunch hour or after work.

But while the Internet can waste time, it can also make workers more productive.

When Forrester Research surveyed Fortune 1000 companies last year, 60 percent said worker productivity increased. Only 6 percent reported a decrease.

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