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Workplace Policies

Navigating Technology – Workplace Policies

Many industries have set standards for privacy, documentation, and compliance. But most businesses have one thing in common – they are using technologies that create unique challenges in these areas that did not exist before the Internet.

The purpose of the Internet, when broken down to its most fundamental level, can be summed up in one word: communication. It is the medium of information in today’s world far more than any other, be it television, radio, or even print. In business, it means that negotiations, contracts, and even simple courtesies are at least as likely to occur online as they are by phone, fax, or in person. And so there is a need to establish common sense protocols as with any other interaction between employees, vendors, and clients.

My approach when I assist companies to develop technology policies is to address very specific areas, and consult with them to help them choose (and implement) the rules that make the most sense for the way they do business.

The first (and most commonly necessary) area is appropriateness. In general, should employees be allowed to use the Internet for non-business purposes? Consistency is the key. For example, are they allowed to make personal calls? This is not a black-and-white area … unless you want it to be. Whatever the rules are, an employer must clearly set them and make sure the employee is aware of them — in writing. Remember, an employee is a reflection of the company, especially if it’s a company’s email address being used.

Specific restrictions, even if they may seem obvious, should be laid out in writing. A particular area of concern is the viewing, and particularly the sharing of questionable content, meaning anything that may be offensive or constitute harassment. Again, common sense from other methods apply. Would you let someone blast fax a dirty joke to their favorite vendors?

The second area is employee privacy. There are many ways to track an employees use of the Internet, not just in archived email, but everything from chat logs to browser caches. Some industries even require this by law. Employees should be made aware of what monitoring is done and they sign off that they are aware, and therefore knowingly responsible for their activity.

One common special consideration for privacy and use is in relation to loaned hardware. If an employee is given a laptop or mobile device they can take home with them, there should be a clear understanding of what they may and may not use it for. If they use their own computer for work, things can be even more complicated. Sometimes, ownership of the data must also be addressed, just as the question of ownership and use of any contracted intellectual property should be dealt with before there is a dispute.

The last issues, and perhaps most important, is that employees need to be aware that electronic communications such as email and instant messaging (IM) are considered written contracts, because they can be documented digitally as text. Many business people do not know this, but should. Just because communications online can be much faster does not mean they should be thoughtless or too casual. In fact, for this very reason, people must be aware of the potential rashness of the medium and spend the time saved by fiber optics to use their own neural pathways a little more.

The bottom line is that many people — especially the “non-native” computer users of older generations — have not given enough consideration to new media to consciously apply common sense. And it falls to the employer to bring such things to their attention through clear and specific guidelines. In the end, a written policy, detailing the conditions of the use of technology as discussed above, should be drafted, reviewed by a lawyer, then signed by all employees that may use the Internet for communication of any kind within the course of everyday business. This protects the employer, the employee, and all related parties from all those troubles you don’t want to worry about after the fact.

The solution summarized: If your company does not have a written employee technology policy, get one.