BUSINESSWEEK ONLINE : JULY 10, 2000 ISSUE
BUSINESSWEEK LIFESTYLE

Someone to Watch Over You
More employers punish those who violate e-mail and Net rules

When it comes to privacy in the workplace, you don't have any. Time and again, courts have sided with employers when it comes to spying on employees. Your boss can monitor the time you spend on the phone and can eavesdrop on your voice mail. Employers can review your computer files and copy and read your e-mail. They can secretly tag along when you're surfing the Internet. They can even put video cameras in washrooms--though not in the stalls.

Employee surveillance has mushroomed recently, and you can blame it on the Internet. Nearly three-quarters of U.S. companies say they actively monitor their workers' communications and on-the-job activities. That's more than double the number four years ago, according to an American Management Assn. poll of its members (table), mostly midsize-to-large organizations that together employ a quarter of the U.S. workforce. Some 54% track individual employees' Internet connections; 38% admit to storing and reviewing their employees' e-mail. Three years ago, only 15% monitored e-mail.

What's more, companies are increasingly willing to punish offenders. In December, The New York Times (NYT) fired 23 employees for swapping off-color e-mail. Xerox (XRX) last year dismissed 40 employees for violating its Internet policy after some had surfed to pornographic Web sites. All told, 45% of the companies surveyed by the AMA had disciplined workers (16% went so far as to fire employees) for misuse or personal use of company e-mail, and 42% for transgressions on the Internet.

So that you don't end up as a statistic in next year's report, it's a good idea to understand your company's e-mail and Internet policies and why the boss feels they're necessary. Chances are, however, that the years-old executive memo that human resources forwards to you--about banning all personal use of e-mail, for instance--will be so outdated that it isn't really enforced. Or the policy will be uselessly vague. ''A company that uses terms like 'reasonable' or 'inappropriate' might as well have no policy at all,'' says Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute, a Princeton (N.J.) advocacy group.

JUST ASK. If you really want to find out how your company checks up on workers, ask your buddies in the info-tech department about what kind of monitoring goes on, and sound out co-workers to see if they've been reprimanded. And check with your boss. Muster up your best nonconfrontational manner and ask that the rules be explained to you in theory and practice. Ask for examples of what a transgression would be. At worst, your boss may keep a closer eye on you for a while. More likely, you will get the powers that be to rethink and clarify their policies.

Employers are mostly worried about two things: their legal liability and your productivity. Companies feel they must monitor your e-mail and Net activities to minimize their exposure to breach of contract, trade secret, and defamation lawsuits. They also worry about copyright-infringement suits based on material employees download, including pictures, music files, and software.

The biggest concern at most companies, though, has to do with sexually explicit, racist, or other potentially offensive material that could lead to charges of a hostile work environment as defined by harassment and discrimination laws. You already know the litany here. Avoid visiting sites or trafficking in e-mail that include anything that would offend someone on the basis of race, age, sex, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability, or political beliefs. A quick test: If you wouldn't post it on your office door, you shouldn't put it in e-mail.

Companies use all kinds of monitoring technology--from physically storing and reading employees' e-mail to software that looks for and blocks e-messages with inflammatory keywords. According to the AMA survey, 29% also use filters that impede surfing to forbidden sites on the Internet. More recently, some employers have installed programs that capture and record every keystroke on your computer--including those half-finished thoughts that you deleted when you decided they shouldn't be put in e-mail.

You can use technology to avoid leaving a permanent trail of personal correspondence on your company's system. It's a good idea to keep personal and business e-mail in separate accounts. The easiest way is to sign up with one of the many free e-mail services on the Web, such as Microsoft's Hotmail (www.hotmail.com), Excite (mailexcite.com), or Yahoo! (edit.yahoo.com). Incoming and outgoing messages are composed and stored on those companies' servers instead of your company's. A particularly good choice is ZipLip (www.ziplip.com). It lets you scramble your messages and requires that recipients go to its Web site to pick up mail instead of getting it in their mailboxes. That way, your e-mail can't be traced back to your company.

More controversial is the use of encryption programs such as HushMail (www.hushmail.com) or Pretty Good Privacy (www.pgp.com) to mask the content of your e-mail messages. But some types of encryption software must be downloaded and stored on your computer, which many employers don't allow. And no personal e-mail program can protect you if your company is keeping track of every keystroke.

Another way to cover your tracks is to surf through a so-called anonymizer Web site. Typically, these sites strip out information that identifies you to sites that you visit. Anonymizer (www.anonymizer.com) goes a step further. The paid version of its service ($50 a year) encrypts the names and addresses of the sites as well. If you're afraid your surfing habits may inadvertently reveal details you want to keep secret, such as visits to cancer or AIDS information sites, for example, it might be worth the price. Your boss may learn that you spent a lot of time at anonymizer.com, but that's the extent of it.

Some companies, however, still have an outright ban on personal use of e-mail and the Internet on the theory that it cuts your productivity. ''We saw similar policies when companies adopted telephones at the turn of the century,'' says Mike Godwin, a lawyer and author of CyberRights: Defending Free Speech in the Digital Age. ''I tell people faced with a very restrictive policy to try to follow it and don't cheat.'' But lots of companies in today's tight labor market boast that high-speed Internet access at work is a company perk. If yours isn't one of them, maybe it's time to start looking for another job.

By LARRY ARMSTRONG

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