Surveillance: Net surfing could get you sacked

Use the Net or email at work? Read this... but if you're in the office, be careful.

Employers are using Net surfing as an excuse to sack hundreds of people according to one expert. Others believe employers are panicking over how to protect themselves from litigation and wasted man-hours.

In June Lois Franxhi, a British IT manager was sacked for using the Internet to book a holiday. This month Philip Cooke, director of Leisure at Gloucester City council resigned after the council began disciplinary action following a "a sustained period of Internet use".

Both sackings made the headlines and one expert suggested to ZDNet that there's more to them than employers' are prepared to admit. Robin Chater, director of the Personnel Policy Research Unit, believes Internet misuse is being used as a smokescreen by employers keen to get rid of staff. "Employers are burying the real reasons for sacking staff in Internet misuse," he said.

Robin Bynoe, partner with City law firm Charles Russell, claimed more sackings related to Net use are inevitable. "There are hundreds of cases of misuse of the Internet not coming to court. I am surprised how many there are." But Bynoe believes there is a less sinister motive to sacking over Net use at work. "Many of the firms involved are banks and City firms and they are terribly concerned about their names being associated with porn sites and the like," he said.

Firms are still trying to work out how to cope with having the Internet in the office, according to Bynoe, who said some companies are panicking. "There are some very silly guidelines. Some firms lay down no recreational use of the Internet or personal email is allowed. Employers are panicking," he said. But if panic is surrounding Net use, Byone believes the use of email at work is potentially more damaging. "On the one hand people using email expose employers to liability and breach of confidence. It's another area of concern," he said.

But abuse of equipment at work has always been a problem for employers, whether it be a long-distance telephone call to an old friend or stealing the office paper-clips. The Internet is proving a new distraction for employees. According to analyst firm IDC, companies can lose up to £3m a year in wasted time and bandwidth from employees surfing the Net on office time.

Employers worried about the amount of time spent surfing the Net are scrambling to install software to monitor Internet use and produce guidelines on acceptable parameters. The Data Protection Registrar is due to issue employer guidelines next year.

For trade unions, monitoring of employees raises issues of privacy at work. While the TUC (Trade Union Congress) is not opposed to the idea of monitoring staff at work, it does feel a clear distinction needs to be drawn between monitoring and spying. "The most efficient workplaces are where employees feel trusted, not where employers spy on staff. We are not opposed to surveillance if there is a genuine need but we feel that any policy on use of the Internet should be drawn up with consultation so it is not management-imposed," a spokeswoman said. "It is also important that everyone knows the policy exists."

Take me to Surveillance.

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