It wasn’t that long ago that Internet use in the workplace was rare. Few employees needed to get online in order to do their jobs, while the rest were able to use internal applications and resources. However, in recent years it has become increasingly common for all company employees to be given some degree of Internet access—and with that change, there is an undeniable need for companies to come up with policies to govern Internet usage.
Having an Internet policy is as essential as having a company policy to govern dress codes, sick leave, and disciplinary action. The fact that the Internet is accessible from your employees’ desks means that the probability is high one or more employees will abuse the privilege. Here are some suggestions to help you come up with a workable Internet policy.
- Begin by assessing the needs of your employees when it comes to Internet usage. Who needs the Internet for their jobs? It may help to use a tool to monitor usage and get a clear picture of which sites are being visited most frequently.
- Decide how much personal use is acceptable. Most companies don’t have an issue if their employees access a personal email account for a few minutes or listen to music as they work. However, it is certainly not a good idea to let employees get away with spending hours each day using social media or watching videos.
- Consider the possibility of extending your Internet policy to outside computers, especially if you have employees who telecommute some of the time. If they are using a company computer at home, you still have the right to put restrictions on them in terms of what they can do.
- Make sure to include social media in your policy. Several high-profile stories have revealed the damage that ill-considered social media posts can do to individuals—and the companies who employ them. When employees list their workplace on a profile, they can end up causing you real problems if they post something inappropriate. Explain clearly what you consider to be proper and acceptable—and what you don’t.
- Announce that you intend to put a formal Internet policy in place and solicit management and employee feedback. It is best to request feedback at this stage—before you have formalized your policy—so you can get an idea of potential problems that may arise.
- Using your own observations and the feedback you received, draw up a policy. Make sure to be specific not only in terms of what your policy is, but what the consequences for violating it will be. You should include a list of things that are prohibited, including:
- Using a company computer to do outside work or run an outside business
- Posting any inappropriate content online
- Violating time limits in terms of social media use or other personal use
- Introduce the new policy to employees, both verbally and in writing. It is essential to explain the policy and walk employees through it so you can be sure they understand and you can clarify any questions or misunderstandings. Every employee should sign a document stating that they understand and accept the policy. The policy and signatures will be the basis of any disciplinary action you need to take in the future.
- Have a trial period between one and three months when you continue to observe Internet usage. If you notice that a particular site is a problem—for example, if employees are spending an inordinate amount of time on Facebook—you can do one of two things:
- Amend the policy to limit the amount of time people may spend on social media
- Ban sites that become a problem
You may want to strike a balance by telling employees that they are spending too much time on sites that are not related to work and giving them a grace period to get it under control before you ban the site. Of course, you may also want to block certain sites from the start. You might get some push back from employees, but ultimately the choice is yours.
- Follow up with managers and employees to see how the policy is working. Be sure to take appropriate disciplinary action where needed. It is imperative to be both firm and consistent when it comes to enforcing your policy.
As is the case with any company policy, your Internet policy should be reviewed regularly. Job descriptions and obligations change all the time, and as new applications become available an employee who had little need for the Internet may find that using it is essential to doing her job properly. It is your responsibility to put a common-sense policy in place and then keep it up to date so it works for you and your employees.Opinions expressed here by Contributors are their own.