June 1, 1998

When Should Companies Restrict Employee Net Access?

By Steven L. Telleen

Q: Should our company actively block employee access to specific Internet sites?

Advisor: A number of providers of site- and content-specific blocking software for schools and homes are now targeting their products at corporations. They believe that corporate concerns about the Internet's effect on liability and employee productivity are on the rise, and that corporations will find a technology solution-one that filters and limits access to non-work-related content-preferable to the traditional policy and management solutions used with previous communications media. 

Is this a solution you need? It depends. The first step is determining if you have a problem. Your Internet gateway server keeps logs that can be analyzed. Before you proceed, make sure you have usage patterns that show a significant problem. While liability and productivity are legitimate issues, so are the employee privacy and morale issues that can arise when a filtering and blocking solution is implemented. 

If you have a problem, consider all the alternatives before you jump to a technology solution. Do you have written Internet usage policies? Are these well publicized and regularly reinforced? Are your managers trained to spot and react to violations? Do you have an internal marketing campaign to increase employee understanding and awareness of the issues and consequences? These are all good management techniques that should be established before implementing a technical solution. 

Remember, blocking technology affects all employees, even if only a few are responsible for the problem. Many employees see blocking technology as a lack of confidence in their professionalism. Several decades of organizational development research shows that workers' reactions to technical controls reduce both productivity and commitment. The higher the education and skill levels of the employees, the more likely they will be demoralized by technical controls. 

Some companies have taken a very limited approach to blocking. For example, National City Bank only blocks a few sites-Playboy, Hustler, and ESPN. Because the number of sites is small, they do not use a specific blocking application. Instead, they filter the IP addresses on the proxy server that all users pass through on their way to the Internet. And traditional management techniques still remain the primary approach for dealing with inappropriate usage. 

"I believe our people need to learn to use the Internet responsibly. The sooner we weed out the few bad apples, the sooner our company can take advantage of what the Internet has to offer," said Ron Aderhold, senior vice president of Internet and Electronic Commerce Technologies at National City. 

Also, be aware that no software can capture all undesirable sites. Bill Ragsdale, who teaches computers at Harvest Park Middle School in Pleasanton, Calif., has experience with blocking software. He finds that keeping curious students busy with directed activities (a management technique) does a better job than blocking visits to forbidden material. 

If you do decide that wide-scale blocking technology is appropriate-or unavoidable-then a number of products are available to assist in the customization and management of the blocking capabilities. 

Look for products that run on the gateway or proxy server rather than on individual clients. Other features you want to look for are differential blocking based on both individual and group definitions, differential blocking based on the time of day, and category and site update services. 

Blocking software does add another option in the management of employee behavior, but it is important to realize that it is only one of the options. It is neither foolproof nor without potentially serious organizational side effects. 

Date: 19980601
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