Internet abuse by employees can damage a firm but don’t do Big Brother says Steve Crabb

Internet misuse hit the headlines again this month with the news that Mike Soden, chief executive of the Bank of Ireland, had resigned from his 1.3 million euro job.
An internal audit had shown that Soden’s office computer had been used to view porn and visit an escort agency’s website, in breach of his own company’s policies.
Despite the widespread adoption of corporate firewalls that block access to inappropriate material, employers are facing new challenges all the time as employees find increasingly sophisticated ways to put their organisations at risk.
One of the most dangerous new developments, highlighted in the latest issue of People Management magazine, is “peer-to-peer file sharing”, where computer users connect up their computers direct in cyber-space to exchange music files or even entire films.
This can use up a tremendous amount of bandwidth and slow down essential corporate communications.
More worryingly, it also exposes organisations’ IT systems to viruses, worms and even to spyware.
There are thousands of spyware applications now in circulation, downloaded through peer-to-peer file-sharing or even online greetings cards. Most are harmless pieces of software meant to collect marketing data, but some are very nasty indeed.
The material that’s being downloaded is also a source of concern. The vast majority of people who download music files do so at work, because they usually have access to faster internet connections at the office. A great deal of the music that’s being downloaded breaches copyright laws.
And in the US, at least, record companies have started suing ordinary people who download illegal music files.
Ergo, employers who let this happen on their premises are potentially opening themselves up to serious liability.
According to the latest People and Technology survey from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, released this week, 64% of employers have had problems with staff misusing e-mail and the internet over the past two years.
A recent DTI report suggests the problem has doubled during that time.
But any employers tempted to emulate the latest reality TV series and install cameras everywhere to monitor their employees’ behaviour should think again.
Ben Willmott, employee relations policy adviser at the CIPD, says: “From an employer’s perspective, you need to be very clear about what you are going to monitor and how you are going to do it.
“You can’t afford any ambiguity. Employees need to know what they can and can’t do at work.”
The official Information Commissioner recommends that employers should conduct an impact assessment, looking at alternatives to surveillance, and warn employees in advance if you are planning to monitor their e-mails.
A recent CIPD study, entitled Pressure at Work and the Psychological Contract, showed that employees who are closely monitored are much more likely to have a negative attitude to work and suffer from higher levels of stress.
“If you are trying to foster trust, loyalty and commitment, Big Brother-style tactics are likely to be counter-productive,” Willmott advises.
As with most aspects of people management, there are no short cuts.
The best defence against internet abuse is to ensure you have a comprehensive policy in place and that all your employees are clear about what they can do - and what’s off limits.
n Steve Crabb is editor of People Management