awkrsAmerican workers are finding a whole new way to slack off: surfing for smut.

A study of 185 companies conducted between November 1996 and this month by consulting firm Digital Detective Services, of Vienna, Va., found that a quarter of the companies’ workers visited pornographic Web sites.

Media Metrix (formerly PC Meter), the top Web-traffic analysis company, reports that 19 percent of users at work visit smut sites (compared with 69 percent for news or information sites).

And a Nielsen Media Research study earlier this year claimed that staffers at IBM, AT&T Corp. and Apple Computer Inc. made 13,000 workplace visits to the Penthouse magazine Web site during a single month.

From these numbers, it appears that the “smut break” has replaced the coffee break as employees’ favorite way of letting off steam.

But human resource managers and other company executives tell a different story, getting decidedly nervous when asked whether workers at their companies are getting sidetracked by visits to off-color Web sites.

A random survey of large and small companies outside the information technology industries revealed that few have policies against improper use of the Web by employees. All said they have not had to discipline employees for workday porn surfing. And most would not allow their names to be used.

One thing is clear, however: Officials at some companies that use the Web as an integral part of their business said they fear workers getting sidetracked by personal surfing less than companies that are new to the Web.

Douglas Rice, president of Internet-based advertising agency InterActive8 Inc., in New York, said it was hard to imagine a worker in his company’s very open offices spending much time on a porn site.

“We have such an open environment here. There are hardly any separate offices,” with many staffers in a large, open room, Rice said. “I think people stay away from the porn sites as much out of fear of ridicule as anything else.”

What’s more, the company’s 30 employees are savvy enough to realize that displaying porno-graphic images on their monitors could be construed as sexual harassment and could put them on the receiving end of a lawsuit, he added.

Other executives interviewed expressed doubts that they will ever be faced with having to discipline a worker for X-rated work habits. This response, from a senior executive at a New York-based management consulting company, was typical: “We don’t believe we have a problem with that here, though if we did, we’d obviously take action to correct it.”

The consultancy has no policy against improper surfing because company officials don’t believe the problem is ever likely to arise, he said.

An official at a Boston-based houseware products manufacturer said that since his company is still in the process of moving workers to the Web, the company has no workday surfing policy, although the idea hasn’t been ruled out. There isn’t a big concern about the conduct of the 50 or so workers who are now, or soon will be, on the Web, the official said.

A big problem?

These responses struck one Internet consultant as curious.

“This is a big problem, in spite of what some companies will tell you,” said David Yip, vice president of interactive services at consulting company Marknet Communications Corp., in Boston.

Yip, who has spent three years at Marknet helping companies get on the Web and build online storefronts, said he’s seen some eye-popping things on workers’ computer screens at some of his clients’ sites.

“In some of these places, people spend their entire lunch hour on the Playboy site,” he said, especially in companies with comparatively few female employees.

Workers are always amazed to find out how easy it is for their surfing habits to be tracked by company management, Yip said.

“Many people don’t realize that companies can watch everything employees do. On the Web, everything is traceable,” he said.

Marknet recommends to its clients that they put a surfing policy in writing to avoid potential legal problems if an employee ever has to be disciplined or terminated for improper Web use, Yip said.

Some companies might even want to consider taking measures to block workers’ access to certain Web sites, while putting in place technology that records the URLs that workers try to access–even if they’re on the “access denied” list, he said.

Related article: New Software Helps Combat Porn

The swelling number of users surfing the Web for pornography in corporate America is sparking a new market for products that let employers make sure their employees are productive during work hours.

“It’s a productivity issue,” said Bish Turlej, marketing manager for Tinwald Networking Technologies Inc., of Mississauga, Ontario, which makes monitoring software. “Managers need to know where their employees are going on the Web.”

Tinwald’s Internet SnapShot allows corporations to monitor how their Internet connections are being used, letting them know exactly where employees are clicking.

According to Digital Detective Services, of Vienna, Va., quite a few users are going to adult Web sites. The agency, which works with Washington-area law firms and corporations, revealed recently that one in four corporate computers contains some form of pornographic materials, including some instances of child pornography.

For Internet blocking and monitoring software makers, this means business. In 1996, only 1 percent of the approximately 94,000 companies with a direct connection to the Internet actively censored specific Web sites, according to Giga Information Group Inc., in Cambridge, Mass.

Giga expects that number to increase to 23 percent of more than 2.3 million companies by 2000. Company officials warned that blocking sites and monitoring employees is not a stand-alone solution.

“Creating and communicating an Internet access policy should be an essential component of [a company’s acceptable-use] plan,” wrote Ira Machefsky, an analyst at Giga, in a report.

Software makers, however, are coming up with solutions. One is monitoring usage with programs such as Tinwald’s. However, in a cyberworld sensitive to privacy issues, monitoring has been labeled a “Big Brother” technology.

“Corporations have to articulate these issues to their employees,” Turlej said. “Most of the time, though, the question is moot. A lot of times, companies can’t monitor their employees because it takes too much time.”

Yet many times, the software’s revelations come as a surprise.

“Most companies do not have a clue as to who is using the Internet and where they are going,” said Bob Perez, director of product management for Internet administration software maker Sequel Technology LLC, of Bellevue, Wash.

Once unacceptable sites are identified, managers can use software such as Sequel’s Net Access Manager to block employees from accessing them.

“Once a policy is defined,” said Perez, “blocking is a good way to enforce it.” By all accounts, a solid acceptable-use policy is essential before using such software in the workplace.

For Sequel, this is part of its business. “We are not in the business of blocking or being Big Brother,” explained Perez. “We help our clients enable whatever policy they decide upon.”

Policing the Internet: A template for corporations

The company has software and systems in place that can monitor and record all Internet usage. Our security systems are capable of recording (for each and every user) each World Wide Web site visit, each chat, newsgroup or E-mail message, and each file transfer into and out of our internal networks, and we reserve the right to do so at any time.

We reserve the right to inspect any and all files stored in private areas of our network in order to assure compliance with policy.

The display of any kind of sexually explicit image or document on any company system is a violation of our policy on sexual harassment.

The company uses independently supplied software and data to identify inappropriate or sexually explicit Internet sites. We may block access from within our networks to all such sites that we know of.

This company’s Internet facilities and computing resources must not be used knowingly to violate the laws and regulations of the United States or any other nation, or the laws and regulations of any state, city, province or other local jurisdiction in any material way.

Any software or files downloaded via the Internet into the company network become the property of the company.

5 Replies to “The Web Invites Trouble For Employees”

  1. I cannot help laughing while reading the article! It is because I can relate. Not that I watch porn during breaks but because I know of a few colleagues who do the same. I guess it does not matter as long as this does not interfere with their jobs.

  2. I surf the internet while at work but definitely not porn sites! I am more into social networking sites. This is a form of taking away stress which I know my boss will not approve of.

  3. I cannot imagine myself doing this at the office. I think it is very unprofessional. You have a lot of free time at home. People should do that where there are ones trying to focus on their work.

  4. This is kind of a hilarious email when you consider the privacy invasion yet to come by the US Government! Censored websites be damned! Our phone calls were being monitored.

    Anyway, a nice window into a different time. I thank you for that.

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