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Restrict Employee Use of Work Emails?

Submitted by  on February 7th, 2011

Some employers get upset when certain employees use the company email system for private use. And the same goes for employees surfing the net for reasons unrelated to their job. Should your company block internet access for surfing and sending emails for all employees that don’t require it for their job? Should you ban some web sites? Should you restrict the amount of time that each employee can use your company’s systems for private purposes?

These are all reasonable questions and valid areas for concern. Allowing employees too much liberty can drain company resources (for example, downloading large video files will cost in bandwidth and may limit connection speed for other users). A liberal policy may also distract some employees from their paid job. For some, the temptation may be too great as they spend most of their day on Facebook and Twitter connecting with friends.

My approach is this. An overly strict policy may only serve to demotivate employees, overweighing any proposed gain in efficiency. How can removing or overly restricting or monitoring internet access lower morale and productivity? Firstly, such a policy and practice can send a message that you do not trust your employees. This feeling of distrust can then be reciprocated to the point where their mistrust of management can lead to poor customer service, withholding of vital information and bad business decisions.

Secondly, since the Global Financial Crisis hit, employers are expecting the employees that survived the cost cutting to do more with less. Even before the GFC, work was not limited to business hours for many workers. Work and personal time is blurred, with many workers taking work home, being on call 24X7, and so on. Employees in this taxing environment may need to catch up with personal contacts and meet private commitments during normal working hours. Withdrawing or limiting their lines of communication may be seen as breaking the psychological contract that allowed the give and take.

Thirdly, if you want your company to be seen as family friendly and as an employer of choice, overly restrictive polices and practices will see prospective employees run the other way. If you want to attract the best talent, then your company will need to recognize that every employee is a complete person and not just a resource to be used. Every employee has a private life with challenges, problems and interests that do not evaporate when they arrive at your front gate. Treating them as automata and overly restricting their access to the outside world may encourage them to see you as an employer to avoid.

As an alternative to over-policing your workforce, get them engaged by providing them interesting and challenging work, setting goals and monitoring progress and giving accurate and timely feedback on performance. Focus your efforts on positive engagement instead of on punishing the many for the transgressions of the few.

My comments here are very general and outline my approach to private internet usage. Note that I’m not saying don’t have internet usage policies and rules. For many companies, having rules in place to protect company assets and reputation is vitally important. Whatever specific policies and regulations you put in place will depend on the nature of the work, the maturity of your employees and the types of information systems you have in place. However, be wary of scatter-gun approaches that constrain and punish everyone for the violations done by a minority. Choose your internet usage policies and practices wisely.

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