Most employees have used their work computers to check personal email, post to their Facebook pages or maybe indulge their curiosity about news stories or celebrities.
A minute here. Five minutes there. No big deal. Or is it?
When workers use employer-issued technology for non-work purposes and for extended periods of time, reprimands sometimes follow. On occasion, in fact, there are dismissals — or even legal actions.
Companies are increasingly taking advantage of new technology and issuing notebooks, tablets and mobile devices so that their employees can work from home and on the road. But with the benefit of mobility comes concern about how company devices are being used — particularly when the employee is outside a conventional office. In fact, many businesses have installed monitoring (sometimes called “awareness”) technology to not only make sure their employees are properly and ethically using the devices but also to minimize the chances of non-employees (spouses, children or even hackers or thieves) using those devices.
They are doing so with various tools, including Web-filtering software, data-loss prevention software and keyword searches.
Though such monitoring may seem Big Brother-ish, some companies say it’s necessary to prevent abuses and safeguard security.
“Approximately 30 percent of employees’ time is spent on non-work-related activity,” said Julie May, president of Nashville-based technology provider Bytes of Knowledge.
May said some violations are “more flamboyant” than others.
For example, if an angered employee tries to send confidential information to a competitor or shares inappropriate information through social sites, monitoring technology can intercept the information before it is sent, and the device is locked to the employee. Such technology protects a company’s physical and intellectual property, enhancing peace of mind. These steps could ultimately save businesses time, money or even legal fees.
“Employers need to make sure they have social and electronic communications policies in their handbooks,” May said.
May called the problem of employer-issued technology being compromised “fairly significant.” For example, she noted, laptop thieves are known to strike business travelers at airports.
Some incidents are simply the result of circumstance and not due to inappropriate employee behavior. “Let’s say I have a teenager who is 16 and curious and decides to go to [an illicit] site without my knowledge, and my mobile tablet is monitored by my employer,” May said as an example. “The next thing I know, I have a meeting with the HR department.”
John Pfeiffer, vice president of technology and chief information officer at Corrections Corporation of America, said he simply tries to make sure that CCA-issued devices are as defensible as possible. He uses virus and malware protection, along with firewall software.
“I am far more concerned about the hacking and the non-intentional threats like viruses [as opposed to employee misuse],” he said.
“I got a call one night from a CCA executive whose smartphone had been stolen, and within five minutes I located it, deleted its stored information and killed its service,” Pfeiffer said. “Had I not taken device management into account, we don’t know where the phone might have ended up.”
Pfeiffer (pictured) said he knows of officials at various companies who take a draconian view and monitor everything employees do, and others who opt for a more hands-off approach.
“A lot of it depends on the corporate culture,” Pfeiffer said, adding that CCA provides notebooks and smartphones to about 60 percent of its headquarters staff and provides smartphones to the senior leadership of its facilities.
Andy Naylor, an attorney with the Nashville office of Waller Lansden Dortch & Davis, said no more than five years ago, accessing the Internet from a mobile phone, for example, was not a consideration.
“Employers are forced to update their social media policies,” he said. “The social media policies that were drafted two to three years ago could be obsolete today. There are employers who do a terrific job in anticipating problems and avoid them by crafting good policies. Another group has a ‘Wild West’ approach.
“At the end of the day, the employment law issues are not keeping pace with technological advances,” Naylor added. “Employers are having to play catch-up.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, there is the occasional legal fight.
“We do see lawsuits, but they tend to be related to non-exempt employees (that is, those paid by the hour) who use an iPhone for what can be company business during their off time,” Naylor said. “It depends on what the conversation is about. For example, if they spend an hour off and on during the weekend talking to their bosses about what they will do for Monday morning, that would likely be considered work-related and paid time.”
In the end — and legal battles notwithstanding — employees must be reasonable.
“Generally, employees don’t have the same appreciation for security that IT departments have,” Pfeiffer said. “Most people probably don’t know that their Android is hackable.
May put it more bluntly.
“Everybody is afraid of Big Brother watching,” she said. “But when employees are being paid to work and be productive, they should be working with integrity for the company.”
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