Personal Internet Usage at Work: Where’s the Line?

Most of us have been guilty of it at one time or another.  Somewhere in between finishing up that data report and the start of our next conference call, many of us take a peek at the local news site, check the weekend weather, or maybe send out a couple personal emails to Mom.  With such a wealth of information literally at our fingertips, it is hard to resist the temptation for a midmorning web surf to break up the monotony of the day.  Depending on your employer, some have extremely regimented internet usage policies which police every click of the mouse, while other employers may allow a longer leash and a little bit of leniency to browse the web as long as it is not interfering with your work.

You may think the idea of someone sitting at a computer monitoring your browser history as a little “big brother,” if you will, but it is important to adhere to whatever policies your particular company has set out.  The prominence and ease of monitoring internet usage also means it has never been easier for you to get caught with your hand in the cookie jar (literally– the internet cookies don’t lie) with spending a little too much time on the TMZ website.

So what is the line between appropriate internet usage and excessive?  How much time?  What kind of sites?  Again, we will defer back to the tried and true advice of specifically seeking out the policies of your current company; what may be okay at your last company might not be the same at your current, and while your friend might be free to browse Facebook over lunch, at your company that may be something that will send you straight to the supervisor’s office for a bit of wrist slapping.  Below are some rules of thumb on internet usage at work from an About.com article by Dawn Rosenberg McKay, but remember to always consult your own HR department or direct supervisors to brush up on your company policies.  Does your company have a policy?  What is it?  What are your tips on monitoring your own internet usage at work?

Many People Use the Net at Work

Do you do your online shopping while at work? Do you check and send personal email? How about checking stock quotes? Well, many of you must have answered yes to those questions. An article on emarketer.com reported on the results of a survey conducted by Vault.com. According to the survey, 25% of employees use the Internet for personal use during office hours for at least ten minutes each day. Thirteen percent of workers use the Internet for at least two hours per day.

How Much is Too Much?

Your first hint should be your company’s policy on Internet use. Do they have one? Many companies do. Even if your company doesn’t have a written policy limiting Internet use, they may frown upon it. According to the survey cited above, “… 35% of employers think personal web time should be limited to 30 minutes per day.”
Company policies aside, it isn’t wise to spend a lot of time online. After all, aren’t you getting paid to do your job? You may argue that you only spend time doing non-job related activities, i.e. surfing the Net, when you finish your job-related ones. You may not want to use that explanation with your boss though. The question that follows may be “Why don’t you have enough work to fill your day?” Your boss may decide that there isn’t enough work to justify your salary.
Not all employers want to eliminate your time on the Net entirely. For example The Chief Information Officers Council, a (U.S.) government-wide committee of senior technology executives proposed that Federal workers be allowed to spend some time conducting personal business online just as “agencies let employees use telephones to make a reasonable amount of personal calls” (CIOs: A Little Personal Internet Use Is Ok. Govexec.com. March 22, 1999.).
Unless your company prohibits personal use of the Net entirely, you should limit your time to checking a stock or two, and perhaps checking your email. And of course use common sense. If there’s work to be done that certainly should take precedence.

Surf Wisely

Even if your boss doesn’t care if you spend time online, does that mean you can do whatever you want, visit whatever sites you want, and send email to whomever and about whatever you want? The answer is no. You must surf wisely. There are certainly some sites that are off limits. Think of this in terms of the real world. Are there places out there at which you would feel uncomfortable running into your boss? Then you should stay away from those types of “establishments” in the virtual world as well. You may think that you can travel around the Web anonymously. You could be wrong. Some companies utilize software that keeps track of Web sites their employees visit. Imagine how embarassing it would be if you got caught in, let’s say, a compromising position.
Take caution when sending email from work. “Always assume they’ll end up in the last place you want to see them,” according to Bob Rosner, who writes the Working Wounded column on ABCnews.com (Stepping on E-Mail Eggshells. ABCnews.com.). Rosner also gives this wise advice: “Write every e-mail as if your boss will eventually read it.” A friend of mine wanted to send a somewhat off color joke to some of her friends. She accessed the wrong mailing list in her address book and inadvertently sent it to several directors in her company, who luckily had a good sense of humor.  Had it been a less understanding audience, she could have easily lost her job.

http://careerplanning.about.com/cs/bosscoworkers/a/net_at_work.htm

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