Employers Tightening Controls on Employees' At-Work Computer Use

July 12, 2006 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - Twenty-four percent of US organizations had employee e-mails subpoenaed last year, and 15% of companies have gone to court to battle lawsuits triggered by employee e-mail, according the authors of a recent survey.

According to the survey by the American Management Association and the ePolicy Institute, employers have been clamping down on employees’ computer privileges and reprimanding them for misuse, with 26% of employers having terminated employees for e-mail misuse; 2% dismissing workers for inappropriate instant messenger (IM) chat; and nearly 2% having fired workers for offensive blog content, including posts on employees’ personal home-based blogs.

Another survey released in June by messaging company Proofpoint, Inc. found that employers are increasingly hiring people to monitor outgoing emails, with 38% of companies with 1,000 or more employees hiring staff to read or analyze outgoing email and 44% of companies with more than 20,000 workers employ staff to scan these messages (See Survey: Outgoing Messaging Increasing Risk to Companies). The same survey also found that one-third of companies have investigated an e-mail leak of confidential or proprietary information and 36.4% investigated a violation of privacy or data protection regulation in the past year.

“Employee bloggers mistakenly believe the First Amendment gives them the right to say whatever they want on their personal blogs,” said Nancy Flynn, executive director of The ePolicy Institute, in a release. “The First Amendment only restricts government control of speech, it does not protect jobs,” she said. “Bloggers who work for private employers in employment-at-will states can be fired for just about any reason–including blogging at home on their own time or at the office during work hours.”

The survey found that 76% of organizations have written policies on e-mail usage and content policies, and 68% have policies in place to control the use of personal e-mail. However, 34% of companies have written e-mail retention/deletion policies in place, in spite of the fact that 34% of employees don’t know the difference between business-critical e-mail that must be saved and insignificant messages that may be purged.

Apart from e-mail, 35% of employees use IM at work, but only 31% of organizations have an IM policy in place, and 13% retain IM business records. The survey found that half of IM workplace users download free IM tools from the Internet–a dangerous practice that 26% of employers aren’t aware of–the lack of written IM rules opens organizations to tremendous risk.

The same caution toward e-mail and instant messaging has not yet caught on with the same urgency in respect to blogs. The survey found that:

  • 9% of employers say they have a policy governing the use of personal blogs on company time;
  • 7% have policy govern employees’ business blog use and content;
  • 7% have rules govern the content employees may post on their personal home-based blogs; 6% use policy to control personal postings on corporate blogs;
  • 5% have strict anti-blog policies banning blog use on company time; and
  • 3% have blog record retention policies in place.