Last reviewed 2 March 2016

The beauty of online data is, of course, that we can access it from anywhere. We can log on to our social media accounts, our purchasing accounts and, indeed, anything else online from whatever computer or phone we have to hand. This makes life much easier in most respects, but it can also mean that the temptation to sneak a peek at Facebook or check our emails, for example, when we should be working is too great for some to resist. It can also, says Gudrun Limbrick, give rise to suspicions that our at-work online activity is not always as savoury as it should be.

Arguably the most common problem of internet access at work is the amount of worktime wasted on personal online browsing. A 2013 study by K3 Managed Services found that an astounding 64% of UK workers waste an hour a day at work — half of which time is spent on personal use of the internet. Further, they found that up to 14% of workers were wasting three hours of each day — nearly half the working day. For an employer, this is not just money wasted on salaries but the opportunity cost of this time wasted could be enormous — while the worker has his or her eyes on his or her smart phone, for example, a potential customer could wander away, a mechanical or safety problem could go unobserved and, of course, other workers may simply follow suit.

Every employer needs to have a fair usage policy to establish what is reasonable in the workplace. For example, personal mobile phones are to be switched off until break times, personal internet browsing is limited to lunchtimes and so forth. These policies need to be included in employee contracts and communicated to employees with the consequences for overstepping the stated mark clearly outlined. A company that does not have a set and strictly adhered to policy, may find itself in a difficult position when trying to curtail one individual’s personal internet use.

Another issue that can arise when an employee is on social media at work is that negative or unwelcome comments may be made public about the place of work. It is natural for us to vent about frustrations at work to our friends. These days, there is a temptation to do this through social media, perhaps forgetting that this can be public. An employer needs to tighten policies — and communicate these clearly to all employers — that badmouthing a company, or a brand (and perhaps colleagues) on social media amounts to a disciplinary offence, whether or not it is carried out in work time or on a work computer. When a company has such clear policies relating specifically to social media, it is much easier to discipline an employee who says something that offends the company. Incidentally, under the guidance relating to whistleblowing, employees cannot use social media for making such revelations but must instead report the matter to an official body or the company itself. A moral imperative to blow the whistle cannot be used as an excuse to bad mouth an employer in such a public fashion.

However, what if an employee’s online activities are just unsavoury and unwelcome? It has recently been revealed, for example, that in a single year, there were nearly 300,000 attempts to access websites described as pornographic within parliament. Certainly, looking at porn has gone way beyond the top shelf magazines and videos on which it used to be focused.

There are some clear cut cases in which an employer has to act. For example, school children witnessed pornographic material their teacher was viewing on his phone. However, other cases may not be so clear. A recent case in Italy, for example, after protracted legal arguments found that a company was wrong for sacking an employee for watching a pornographic DVD in his break time on the grounds that his time was his own to use as he wished.

Again, any employer needs to have clear policies in place which dictate what they deem to be beyond the limits of acceptability. For example, the following could be put in place.

  • Work machines (computers and phones) cannot be used for material that could be considered as pornographic.

  • Work premises cannot be used to view pornographic material.

  • Work email addresses, WiFi, etc cannot be used to download or distribute material which could be considered to be pornographic.

The consequences of contravening each of these needs to be explicit and clearly communicated to employees.

The picture changes when an employer suspects (or it is reported as such to her or him) that the material being watched, downloaded or distributed is illegal rather than inappropriate. Instances of this too would appear to be relatively common. A recent worldwide survey of police officers, for example, found that more than three-quarters of police officers surveyed had dealt with cases of employees looking at illegal material such as child abuse on their work computers or phones.

Should an employer suspect that illegal material is involved, the first action to take (before talking to the individual concerned) is to contact the police and let them dictate what happens next and investigate the matter. Never share the material with a colleague (or anyone else) to see whether that colleague, for example, thinks it is illegal.

To safeguard against matters ever coming to this sort of stage, an employer should ensure that all policies relating to internet use and viewing pornographic materials are not only up to date but also continually reviewed to ensure they keep track with the law and with developing technology.

There are also practical options such as physically limiting what employees can access on work equipment and disabling the introduction of external materials on external hard drives, DVDs, memory sticks and memory cards.

An employer can legally monitor an employee’s internet activity (as well as phone calls and emails) if the equipment supplied is for work. Software is readily available for this. All contracts should state that this may be the case and the employer should be clear on why this is happening — to check for misuse, for example. Contracts may include a “no expectation of privacy policy”.

An employer must be clear on what will constitute a breach of contract and what the consequences will be and, of course, these consequences must apply to all employees equally, no matter who they are. This sort of monitoring may be particularly useful for workers who are off-site (perhaps home workers) for whom there may be no other way of checking if they are working or not. In terms of home workers, it is far easier to develop and impose workable policies if the employees use only computers and phones that are supplied by (and owned by) the company. The whole area can be much more problematic if they use their own equipment.

Most employees are, of course, entirely trustworthy and would no more think of downloading illegal materials than they would decide to murder their grandmother on the factory floor. However, it is those people who are not so honest for whom we have to develop policies and practices. The bottom line is that if bad practice is allowed to carry on in a company, it is the employer who is likely to bear the financial consequences.