Web Surfing at Work? It Could Cost You Money

You know that violating corporate ethics policies with inappropriate e-mails or Internet use can cost you your job, but did you know that seemingly innocent shopping online and e-mailing friends at work could cost you big bucks?

This is a warning for all of you who surf the Net on personal business while you're at work: Up to 80 percent of employers monitor their workers -- your e-mail and the sites you go to, everything from your online shopping to your dot-com dating -- all while you're on the clock.

As a boss, I can tell you that odds are pretty good that someone has monitored your surfing. But first, a confession:

For a weeklong experiment I conducted on "Good Morning America" with four of my employees at Women For Hire, we found that each employee spent an average of two hours a day on personal e-mails and Internet activity. Since I know that all these women are highly efficient and produce great results, I am not concerned about their time management.

Plus, as I told them, I'm just as guilty, if not more. As I juggle a variety of "real" work on company time, I'm very busy online throughout the day chatting with my husband, making play dates for my kids, gossiping with friends, shopping for all sorts of stuff and researching the latest available treatments for my mother-in-law, who has lung cancer.

That said, there are new trends you should know about to protect your job, your reputation and your wallet.

Too much personal information revealed.

We always aim to put our best foot forward in the workplace -- from the way we dress to the way we interact with our peers. We want to appear professional in all ways. And so when your employer reads your e-mails or sees the Web sites you've visited, they often learn a side of you that you might not want them to see -- that you're unhappy in your job, miserable in your love life or that you're a wild party animal who hits the nightclubs until the wee hours of the morning.

While they might not take immediate action, that type of information definitely has a long-term impact on your boss's perception of you. Would you promote someone who constantly complains to his friends about the baggage and bitterness he faces outside of work? Wouldn't you think twice about rewarding someone who spends an awful lot of time shopping when she could be contributing to the workplace? Excessive personal e-mail and Internet distractions raise questions about your commitment and motivation -- and in a competitive workplace that is most definitely held against you, even in subconscious ways.

Periodic versus persistent? A fair measure for determining what is reasonable and what is excessive is an employee's results and productivity. If an employee is meeting agreed upon results and accomplishing their work in a satisfactory manner, then Internet usage should really be considered appropriate. However, if the employee struggles to meet deadlines and consistently underperforms while personal Internet and e-mail usage is persistent, then it could definitely be considered excessive. Your personal usage should be periodic, not persistent.

Employers are now starting to establish their own acceptable use policies, or AUPs, to explain exactly what type of personal Internet and e-mail activity is acceptable, including the amount of time to be spent on such things. After all, it's difficult to penalize someone if they don't know what the boss considers OK or not OK.

Most companies are still without these policies because they fear a backlash from employees who will complain about big brother tactics. But it's obviously much smarter and more fair all around to give employees a set of rules to adhere to than to penalize them for going with their gut instinct.

New penalties might force you to pay up.

There are three steps that a growing number of employers are starting to take:

   Limiting access to sites: Employers are using software to block your access to specific Web sites, such as job search sites and personal e-mail accounts. However, if it's determined that you're visiting shopping sites too often, they have the ability to add them to the list of blocked sites, thereby cutting off your access.

Suspension of Internet privileges: If it's determined that your personal Internet and e-mail usage is excessive, expect your employer to suspend your privileges, especially if e-mail and Internet aren't essential to your job.

  Monetary fines: This is perhaps where it hurts the most. I spoke to dozens of employers who say they already impose fines -- or will begin imposing them -- starting at $1,000 per violation for abuse or excessive use of Internet and personal e-mail.

All these sanctions are designed to prevent you from wasting company time and engaging in excessive personal business on its watch. The emphasis used to be on catching you; now it's shifting toward prevention. And if you knew that spending hours shopping or goofing around would cost you $1,000, you'd think long and hard before doing it at work.

Assume you're being watched, because you probably are.

Obviously, life happens while we're at work. We all have to do some amount of personal stuff on company time. But just as you might do errands on your lunch break, your Internet and e-mail activity should be limited to a specific and reasonable amount of time.

Don't send personal e-mails that you wouldn't feel comfortable copying your boss on. Don't visit Web sites unless you'd do so right in front of your boss.

If you feel comfortable with your activity -- and would be comfortable if your boss were physically watching those e-mails, instant messages, surfing -- then you're probably in a safe zone.

And finally, put yourself in your manager's shoes: Consider how much time you'd want your employees to spend on nonwork related activities. Make your actions consistent with what you'd consider an acceptable amount of online time for others.

For more information on strategies and events for your career advancement in 2006, or to connect with Tory Johnson, visit www.womenforhire.com.