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Are Employees Using Company Computers to Work or Shop?

The holiday season is just around the corner, and busy employees are increasingly doing their shopping at the world’s gigantic electronic marketplace, located conveniently on their office computer. Careless e-mail use can end up as a huge lump of coal in an employer’s stocking — in the form of evidence used against it in litigation. As a result, it’s important for you to take a moment for a holiday check-up on your entire Internet policy — not just online shopping — everything from e-mail to ensuring that employees know the consequences of careless online use.

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Check it twice
When the busy holiday season begins, employees may be looking for ways to fit it all in: work, holiday parties, and shopping for gifts. One way many employees save time is by shopping for gifts online. That becomes a problem when they start to do their online shopping at work, which means that instead of working, they are shopping and using up precious Internet bandwidth at the same time. What can an employer do? Have your company make its own Internet holiday list.

Your list for the holidays should include ensuring that your Internet policy is clear and used. Making sure that your policy is easy to understand and is being followed will ensure that employees know what kind of rights they have when they use e-mail and the Internet at work.

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Tailor your policy to your business
When making your Internet list, remember that your policy is your own. It should be tailored to your company’s specific business. There are a few issues, however, that should be addressed in almost all Internet policies. First and most importantly, if you implement a policy, stick to it. A half-hearted or partially enforced Internet policy is as good as not having any policy at all.

Second, employees should be required to sign an acknowledgment that they have received your company’s policy and agree to abide by it. Make sure your company keeps copies of those signed acknowledgments as well. Include the policy in the employee handbook, and remember to redistribute it on a regular basis. Additionally, consider having the policy appear on the computer each time e-mail is accessed.

Third, have your company provide instructions to your employees about when, if at all, e-mail and the Internet may be accessed for personal use. That’s especially important during the holidays when shopping online and e-mailing family and friends are more prevalent. You should make it clear that any violation of the electronic communications or technology use policy may result in disciplinary action up to and including termination for repeated or serious infractions.

Finally, provide notice to your employees that their electronic communications can be monitored. Just the knowledge that they can be monitored is enough to deter most employees from improper Internet use.

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Never thought you’d see it in court
A related, important issue is making sure that employees are aware that whatever they do online can come back and haunt not only them but also your company. A survey by the American Management Association and The ePolicy Institute revealed that one in five employers has had e-mail subpoenaed by courts and regulators and another 13 percent have battled workplace lawsuits involving employee e-mail.

You should consider implementing a document retention policy that takes into consideration federal and state regulations mandating document retention as well as business policies relevant to the retention and destruction of documents not covered by regulations. It’s also a good idea to have a policy in place that applies to the suspension of document destruction when litigation is anticipated.

Electronic communications may be used as evidence during litigation. Unfortunately, many employees aren’t as careful with e-mail communications as they would be with more formal types of written communications. The result is that e-mail the sender thought was deleted may be produced during the exchange of evidence and may be admissible against the employer at trial. Therefore, when you do Internet training, talk to your employees about what subjects and formats are proper for company e-mails and which aren’t.

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Final note before you log off
Although the topic is relevant to the holidays because of the upswing in online shopping and increased Internet use, a sound e-mail and Internet policy is a smart idea for every season. Implementing clear policies can reduce employees’ expectation of privacy in their own computer use and will better allow employers to maintain a productive working environment. Just be sure that your policies are clear, tailored to your business, and regularly enforced.