more aggressive approach toward monitoring the workplace. Encouraged by the way many companies have coddled employees throughout a tight labor market, many workers have come to perceive a right to use the Net how they see fit, even in the workplace.
Not surprisingly, abuse of the privilege has grown: One out of every eight workers spends more than two hours each day writing and reading e-mail, shopping on the Web or using the Internet for outside interests, according to a survey conducted last year by Vault.com. An additional one out of nine spend another one to two hours in such pursuits. A survey from DataQuest found that about 35 percent of workers view job-hunting sites during work hours, and International Data Corp. estimates that personal use of the Internet at work is responsible for 30 to 40 percent of all lost worker productivity.
Because of the unprecedented sensitivity toward harassment in today's workplace, the legal pitfalls created by this problem nearly eclipse the productivity issue. More e-mails like Peter Chung's could be used to paint a picture of a "hostile environment" toward women, which is the basis for many of today's sexual harassment lawsuits. In 1995, for example, Chevron Corp. paid four female plaintiffs $2.2 million to settle a suit over just that allegation when an internal e-mail reached them about "why beer is better than women." Compounding this issue is that pornography also is heavily downloaded at work. About 70 percent of the traffic on Internet porn sites occurs during regular business hours, according to the Vault.com survey.
Strains of Chung hung in the air recently when a large service corporation fired an employee who was using the company's e-mail system to organize Friday night orgies with his friends. One week, the employee mistakenly sent the message to three of the company's customers. "They lost one customer and had to do some serious damage control with the rest," says Michelle Drolet, ceo of Conqwest Inc., a Holliston, Mass.-based workplace-monitoring consultancy.
With the ease in which information is transmitted through cyberspace, companies have grown concerned with loose-lipped employees who might be leaking industry secrets via e-mail correspondence. Increasingly, companies also are bumping up against the simple issue of straining the capacity of their Internet connections to keep up with soaring employee demand for bandwidth. It's easy to see why executives might want to use their robust Internet pipes to transmit engineering drawings to a valued customer rather than make sure the bandwidth is available for employees to buy Oxford shirts at LandsEnd.com.
Such are the reasons that Overland Park, Kan.-based Marley Cooling Technologies (mct) decided last year to monitor its employees' online activities while it overhauled its IT infrastructure. The company first cautioned Web-abusing employees with a policy warning against nonwork Internet use. It then encouraged senior managers to enforce the policy and monitor their employees more closely.
But the cautions did little to curb the problem. Last year, as mct was monitoring the extent to which employees were still abusing the company's high-bandwidth connections to check stock listings, look up sports scores, shop and chat, it exposed a handful of employees who regularly spent four or five hours a day online—and most of that at porn sites.
"Our hand was forced," says Gary Mitchell, mct's manager of network and technical services. mct fired one of the porn fans, he says, and the company was weary of possible litigation in the form of harassment suits. But concerns about productivity drove the issue to the forefront. "It's not that we want people devoting every second of every day to the company, but hours of surfing hurts productivity," says Mitchell. "And if you're using the bandwidth for surfing, then other applications can't be used."
Web cams have introduced another powerful tool to employers' monitoring arsenals. More and more companies are using Web cams to watch employees, including daycare centers and elder-care centers that are trying to soothe family members and to protect themselves legally by putting their caregiving on public display. And now that a London-based PR firm, mcc International, is planning to install a Web cam in its open-plan office as an exercise in corporate transparency, a wave of other workplace applications of the all-seeing eyes can't be far behind.
Also of growing utility for watching workers is "telematics," a technology that uses locating devices and wireless communications to determine one's precise location anywhere on the globe. It relies on the Global Positioning System, a network of 24 satellites girdling the earth that were launched by the U.S. Defense Department in the '70s. In 1984, a commercial gps receiver cost $40,000. But recently they have become cheap enough and small enough to be deployed in typical handheld devices. The new locating-services industry was born a few years ago when technology providers began combining gps capabilities with wireless communications, including OnStar, General Motors Corp.'s consumer system.
Business-oriented "asset-management" applications have been exploding as well, with the rationale that telematics give companies a powerful new way to track remote operations. For example, the U.S. Postal Service has been experimenting in Des Moines, Iowa, with a new system that has letter carriers swiping a bar code every time they deliver a letter or package, allowing the local postmaster to track when each letter reaches its destination. The National Association of Letter Carriers union has filed a nationwide grievance asserting that the scanners are just a way for bosses to peek over their employees' shoulders rather than actually to standardize when customers get their mail.
Trucking companies are among the most enthusiastic private-sector telematics customers. Dozens now use telematics not only to track the locations of drivers and rigs but also to monitor from afar performance specifics such as engine speeds. Owners also are especially grateful for the help in a business that remains plagued by an industry-wide shortage of responsible, skilled drivers.
For example, every several months a driver for Zita/nats Transport takes off in his rig to who-knows-where, or maybe abandons it at some truck stop and simply moseys off toward the horizon. These incidents were a huge and expensive management headache. "Days or months would go by before we would get our equipment back," recalls Dominic Zita, managing partner and co-owner of the Mississauga, Ontario-based carrier.
But last year, Zita/nats installed an asset-tracking system in its fleet that has had some success. When a driver lost his composure one night last winter because of family problems and left the truck in a Toronto suburb, the company was able to "track the truck right down to the spot he left it," Zita recalls. "Even though it was in the middle of a snowstorm, it took just three or four hours to get it back."
Many truckers, of course, don't like the notion of having big brother in the passenger's seat. "We don't want out-of-context monitoring of speed, braking or handling issues," says a spokesman for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which represents many truck drivers. Telematics system supplier Gravitate Inc., San Francisco, is trying to anticipate the rise of this issue by "focusing on how we can put privacy control in end-users' hands so [telematics equipment] can be turned on and off after, say, 5 p.m.," says ceo John Trobough.
It isn't just unions, however, that have grown concerned about the legal implications of telematics. "I've been involved in audits where we'll track credit-card billings, toll-mileage receipts, restaurant receipts and other pieces of information to show that, for example, a salesman was submitting falsified bills claiming he had lunch with customers on days that the customers weren't even at work," says Jeff Pasek, the chair of the labor and employment practice for Cozen & O'Connor, Philadelphia. "The company would know right away whether he was going to the racetrack or really going to lunch."
Experts are detecting more pushback about monitoring technologies from white-collar employees, many of whom are having trouble reconciling the notion of the worker-friendly, "free-agent economy" that held sway for the last decade and the growing feeling that their bosses don't necessarily trust them with the extra leeway. "The whole work-life balance issue is where it becomes more tricky," says Egnal, of Porter Novelli. "It's like: 'I'm spending the whole weekend taking cell calls for you, and now you're telling me I can't spend 15 minutes at my desk surfing the Web to try to make dinner reservations for me and my wife?'"