Porn sites remain hot in the workplace

American workers, if you believe the researchers, 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 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 Corp., 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, you'd think that the smut break has replaced the coffee break as employees' favored 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 companies small and large 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 Web-neophyte companies do.

Douglas Rice, president of Internet-based advertising agency InterActive8 Inc., in New York, said it was hard to imagine a worker in the 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 pornographic 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 firm, was typical: our workers aren't looking at sex sites on company time, but if they were, there'd be serious consequences.

"We don't believe we have a problem with that here, though if we did, we'd obviously take action to correct it," the executive said. The consulting firm 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 housewares 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.

These responses struck one Internet consultant as somewhat curious, however.

"This is a big problem, in spite of what some companies will tell you," said David Yip, VP of interactive services at consulting firm 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 women 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

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