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Cyberslackers Beware!

Someone could be monitoring your Internet activities

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Behind the walls of his cubicle at a global insurance firm, he spent hours on end surfing the Internet. As co-workers strolled busily by, he brazenly ogled porn sites, his monitor tilted so if anybody happened to stop by they would not immediately notice the naked women splayed on his screen. And if a visitor decided to linger, all he needed to do was close his web browser.

It went on for months, day after day after day. It was against corporate policy, and he knew it. But still, he found the illicit images too alluring to ignore.

What he didn't know — or knew and ignored at his peril — was that the tech staff at the company were logging every minute he spent online, as they were for every one of the thousands of workers in the company who had Internet access.

It wasn't long before his compulsion propelled him into the top five of web users company-wide, a distinction that quickly earned him notoriety with human resources staff who monitored the reports.

They had the tech staff watch the sites he was visiting and check his hard drive — the trail of porn was hard to ignore.

"He was in chat rooms, all kinds of inappropriate stuff — to the point that you had to wonder how was he getting his work done because he was spending so much time on the Internet," remembers Sharon Gerrits, who worked on the human resources staff and agreed to be interviewed on condition the firm's name not be revealed.

The man was fired. Two others who had accumulated scores of hours in personal surfing time at the office but not dabbled in porn or other banned sites were warned that further violations of company policy would not be tolerated.

As website use on the job has escalated, so has monitoring by corporate bosses fearful that surfing will not just erode productivity, but that inappropriate use could open the company to legal action and other headaches. According to research firm International Data, around 30 to 40 percent of lost employee productivity can be traced to workers' personal use of the Internet.

More and more, snooping software is being used to ward off potential problems such as harassment suits, protect against unfair-dismissal complaints, and guard against scandal.

Snooping software is what led Joey (not his real name), a former employee at an uptown Charlotte financial institution, to be shown the door.

"I was fired because they said I was spending too much time surfing the web," explains Joey. "It wasn't porn or anything, just a lot of different sites — travel, Amazon, some political blogs, stuff like that. They're right, though, I was spending a lot of time at work on the web, but if they'd ever given me enough work to keep me busy it wouldn't have happened. It turns out they were monitoring several of us and I got popped."

Joey's company knows that computing has made it possible to boost productivity in the office, but it's also opened the door to greater temptations for abuse: bored workers have more time-wasters at their fingertips, malicious ones have more options for undermining their bosses or colleagues, and employers can use the same technology to electronically spy on what their staff are doing.

As website use on the job escalates, so has monitoring by corporate bosses fearful that surfing will erode productivity and lead to legal action and other headaches.

Personal use of the Internet at work is often dubbed cyberslacking and is widespread. Instead of chatting over the water cooler, workers are swapping emails or instant messages. Instead of going shopping on their lunch hour, employees stay at their desks and hit their high-speed connections.

According to a survey done by the online career site Vault (www.vault.com), seven in 10 workers use the office Internet to hit news sites and one in four use it for shopping. A third engage in financial trading at their desks, while 13 percent download music and 4 percent surf for porn (or at least that's how many admitted it).

A third of all employees surveyed admit to an hour or more a day of personal surfing and another three in 10 confess that their web adventures and personal emails decrease their productivity on the job.

More than half say they have been caught.

The figures cited above may make it appear that employers have an airtight case for snooping on their employees' Internet habits, but a revealing study conducted in Maryland suggests otherwise. The survey by the Center for e-Service at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business and Rockbridge Associates, Inc. found that workers' relationship to the web is more complicated than many employers think. The Maryland study found that Americans actually spend more time on the Internet at home for work purposes : an average of 5.9 hours per week : than they spend on the Internet at work for personal reasons (an average of 3.7 hours per week). In other words, the Internet seems to have a net effect of shifting work to the home more than shifting personal activities to work. In any case, the study confirms what many sociologists have been saying for years: the line between work and home is becoming more blurred, especially in the case of Internet usage, making productivity harder to track or predict.In general, however, employers have turned up the heat on cyberslackers, and employee privacy has suffered. Old rules that determined what employers can and can't monitor have vaporized in a new atmosphere of routine observation and patchy legal protections.

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