Workplace Internet and e-mail use

March 1, 2009
Today we live in a world based on technology. In fact, large numbers of today's workforce have never known a world without computers, Internet, e-mail, text messaging, cell phones, etc.

by Bent Ericksen and Tim Twigg

For more on this topic, go to www.dentaleconomics.com and search using the following key words: workplace Internet use, e-mail, text messaging, technology, Bent Ericksen, Tim Twigg.

Today we live in a world based on technology. In fact, large numbers of today's workforce have never known a world without computers, Internet, e-mail, text messaging, cell phones, etc.

As dental practices incorporate technology for the improvement of services and efficiency, a common dental workplace dilemma occurs as employees utilize the technology for personal use.

More and more dentists find that employees are using the office computers, Internet access, e-mail, and other technology for personal use, along with their cell phones to carry on personal conversations, when they should be working.

This sets up a tricky balancing act — expectations of the employees vs. the needs of the business.

In a recent survey, nearly 84% of employees indicated that they regularly send e-mails or use the Internet for nonwork-related activities. In fact, almost 57% of these same employees acknowledged that personal Internet and e-mail use decreased their efficiency and productivity.

Aside from the obvious misuse of paid time, if employees write personal e-mails on your computer or send personal text messages, not monitoring such activities can have serious consequences for employers. These include compromised data, identity issues, and/or the introduction of computer viruses, spyware, adware, or other malicious programs.

For example, an employee e-mailed risqué jokes to the homes of other employees and to the staff in a referring dentist's office. The consequences to the dentist were severe. He lost a referring dentist and therefore incurred a loss in production. He was charged with sexual harassment and the resulting litigation and settlement was costly. As the word spread throughout the community, his professional reputation was damaged and several of his employees were either discharged or quit.

This is just one of many examples of the type of problems improper use of office computers can cause and where the employer can be held liable even though he or she did not know it was happening. Yet, most dentists do not actively monitor employees' Internet activities, nor have they taken proper safety measures. With these types of potential consequences, it is important that employers have proper policies and procedures in place to safeguard the practice and monitor activity.

Computer use

Many employees mistakenly believe that their use of the Internet and e-mail at the workplace is private and confidential, and employers should not be permitted to review such private communication.

What employees don't know is that courts have found no reasonable expectation of privacy in such use and the law permits employers to monitor employees' Internet and e-mail use, especially when the employees have consented to such monitoring.

Among the legitimate reasons for monitoring employees' activities are:

  1. Maintaining the company's professional reputation and image
  2. Maintaining employee productivity
  3. Preventing and discouraging sexual or other illegal workplace harassment
  4. Preventing possible defamation liability
  5. Preventing employee disclosure of confidential information
  6. Preventing employees from illegally downloading software, etc.
  7. Preventing the spread of viruses throughout the office computer system
  8. Preventing postings to bulletin boards, news groups, or discussion lists

It is prudent that employers adopt and enforce a written policy that prohibits employees' computer use and Internet access for personal activities. Employers should have employees read the policy and sign an acknowledgement that they agree to adhere to the policy.

Call our office and we will gladly provide you with a sample of such a policy. Among other things, the policy should prohibit:

  • Unauthorized use of instant messaging (IM), e-mail, Internet file transfer (FTP,) telnet, Web browsing, and Usenet or newsgroups
  • Sending, receiving, or storing offensive, obscene, or defamatory material
  • Sending uninvited e-mail of a personal nature or annoying or harassing others
  • Using passwords that are not authorized by the employer
  • Obtaining unauthorized access to any computer system and using another individual's account or authorization code
  • Attempting to test, circumvent, or defeat security or auditing systems
  • Distributing or storing chain letters, jokes, solicitations, offers to buy or sell goods, or other nonbusiness material

The policy should also include a statement that employees should not expect privacy with respect to any of their activities using the practice computer, and the employer reserves the right to review any files, messages, or communications sent, received, or stored on the practice's computer systems. Furthermore, inform employees to keep passwords confidential and to adhere to HIPAA guidelines relating to confidentiality of electronically transmitted patient information.

To help decrease this problem, many practices have a computer with Internet capability that is not on the practice's main network, in an area such as the lunch room, specifically for staff to use before and after work, during breaks, or during lunch.

Cell phone use

It can safely be said that most employees have cell phones. These phones are often used for personal calls while working and most employees have great arguments for doing so, such as communicating with kids. On the flip side, most employers claim that too much time is spent on personal calls and the job is not getting done.

In addition to the loss of paid time, many of the extra features on today's cell phones can create serious problems for employers. The ability to take photos, record voices, and create videos provides several avenues for employees to use technology against the employer.

An employee could take videos or photos of confidential documents and use them for various illegal purposes and/or set in motion HIPAA violations. Since confidential information and trade secrets can be easily photographed, then the practice is vulnerable to costly litigation. Issues of invasion of privacy can also arise from other employees when their picture or video is taken without their knowledge or consent.

Although personal cell phones are employee property, the employer can establish policies regarding how and when they may be used within the practice. Call our office and we will gladly provide you with a sample of such a policy.

The policy can include language that requires personal cell phone and/or integrated camera use to be handled away from any work area, especially where confidential information is stored, and only during meal or break periods. The policy can require that cell phones be turned off when the employee is not on a meal or rest break and that the employee can be contacted through the office in emergency situations.

As with any policy, the rules are only effective if they are enforced. Employees violating the Internet or cell phone policies should be subject to discipline, up to and including discharge. In addition, under certain circumstances, employees may be subject to civil liability and criminal prosecution.

Summary

Even though the world may be becoming highly technological and people are taking advantage of the technological advances, employers should not think they have to take a back seat to controlling their employees' time while working. Employers should determine how they want to manage their business, establish policies so that employees understand the parameters, correct employee behavior, and enforce the rules. It may not be easy, but it is possible to have the best of both worlds — technology and acceptable employee behavior.

Bent Ericksen is the founder and Tim Twigg is the president of Bent Ericksen & Associates. For more than 25 years, the company has been a leading authority in human resources and personnel issues, helping dentists successfully deal with the ever-changing and complex labor laws. Both authors are members of the Academy of Dental Management Consultants. To receive a complimentary copy of the company's quarterly newsletter or to learn more about their services, contact them at (800) 679-2760 or at www.bentericksen.com.

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