Managers Crack Down
On Digital Dillydallying
By JOAN INDIANA RIGDON
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
It's crackdown time in cyberspace, as employers move to curb frivolous
workday use of the very digital tools that were supposed to make the troops
so much more productive.
That workers are wasting time with electronic mail and the Internet is
undisputed but hard to quantify. One analysis of computer logs by Nielsen
Media Research Inc. in New York found that employees at
International Business Machines Corp.,
Apple Computer Inc. and
AT&T Corp. together visited
Penthouse magazine's World Wide Web site 12,823 times in a single month
earlier this year. Based on an average visit of 13 minutes, that comes to
more than 347 eight-hour days.
It's no surprise, then, that companies are resorting to stern warnings,
disciplinary measures and even new surveillance software in an effort to
keep wired employees focused on their jobs. More is at stake than worker
productivity. The same technology that fosters collaboration and allows the
lowliest clerk to send electronic suggestions to the chief executive also
makes a company vulnerable to leaks. Any employee can send out a memo on a
company's digital letterhead, making it appear to be corporate policy. Or,
employees can pirate confidential memos or spreadsheets, attach them to
e-mail, and send them to friends, competitors or the Internet at large.
Computer Corp.'s 17,000 employees log onto the corporate network,
a warning flashes on their screens that "improper and illegal duplication"
of corporate data will be punished. It also notes that Compaq reserves the
right to read all messages sent over the network, including e-mail. This
year, Compaq fired 12 workers at its Houston headquarters who had visited
sexually explicit sites on the Internet. Compaq's objection "wasn't the
content," a spokeswoman says, but rather the way "the company's resources
During production crunches at the end of each quarter,
Sun Microsystems Inc. closely monitors employee use
of its computer network and the Internet, so "we can use the resources of
the network to get the product out the door," says Scott McNealy, Sun's
CEO. Previously, Sun had shut down Web access entirely during busy periods,
but relented when employees protested.
More help for managers is in sight. SurfWatch, a unit of
Spyglass Inc., makes new software that allows
companies to block employee access to any Internet site. SurfWatch
originally developed it to allow parents to control their children's use of
the Internet; demand from customers like
Lockheed Martin Corp. has
encouraged it to turn to the corporate market.
E-mail is a stickier problem -- and a bigger security risk. To find
unauthorized personal messages, employers have to monitor the server
computers that store all the company's e-mail, a daunting prospect. Though
employees determined to leak secrets have always been able to purloin
documents or computer disks, "the fact that you can e-mail it and in the
blink of an eye it's gone -- that's definitely a concern," says Jay
Friedland, founder of SurfWatch.
He says his company may develop a version of its Internet software that
can be set to prevent employees from attaching documents to personal e-mail
-- the easiest way to relay them outside the company. But the software
wouldn't prevent someone from retyping information and sending it out.
New York apparel retailer J. Crew Group Inc. discovered employees were
abusing e-mail when it found a profusion of electronic chain letters on its
server computer. The company declines to comment on the incident, but
scolded employees in a recent internal memo: "The messages have a snowball
effect on our disk capacity and are a tremendous waste of time." As for
employees who were using e-mail to sell concert tickets and rent
apartments, J. Crew proposed a low-tech alternative: the office bulletin
The legality of e-mail surveillance is murky. A U.S. District Court in
Pennsylvania ruled in January that Pillsbury Co. had the right to read
employee e-mail if it is sent over company systems -- even if the
monitoring is done without the worker's knowledge. That case arose from
Pillsbury's dismissal of a manager who had used e-mail to make derogatory
comments about his bosses. But privacy experts argue that under the
Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986, employers are permitted to
monitor phone calls and e-mail only for business reasons, as when a phone
company eavesdrops on its operators to check how they handle calls.
Still, the sheer volume of corporate e-mail makes it all but impossible
to police. Some 45,000 pieces of e-mail each day are sent and received by
Netscape Communications Corp.'s 1,800 employees, for example.
Inevitably, sensitive company documents occasionally get an unwanted public
Wired Ventures Ltd., a San Francisco multimedia publisher, was an
apparent victim last month, when an embarrassing internal memo from Chief
Executive Louis Rossetto Jr. was published on The Well, a Sausalito,
Calif., on-line service. The memo, attacking the media as "clueless," may
have placed Wired in violation of Securities and Exchange Commission rules;
it was published during the required "quiet period" before its planned
initial public offering. The IPO was later dropped, although Wired says the
memo wasn't the reason.
Dimension X, a San Francisco maker of Internet software, has also seen
the dark side of e-mail. Last year, one of its contractors used company
e-mail to insult another company -- one that happened to be in talks with
Dimension X about forming a business alliance.
The insult carried Dimension X's digital signature, and as such "carries
the whole weight of the company," laments Chief Executive Karl Jacob. He
says the other company forwarded a copy of the e-mail to him with a note:
"Is this the way that your employees conduct themselves?" Mr. Jacob fired
the contractor and says the business alliance fell through for other
While he cautioned employees to be careful of what they write on company
e-mail, Mr. Jacob says Dimension X has no plans to screen messages,
believing it to be an invasion of privacy. To defend against such problems,
"ultimately you have to build trust," he says.
Though companies are growing more vigilant, most stress that the
advantages of e-mail and Net access outweigh the risks. After
Edify Corp. went public in May, employees at the
Santa Clara, Calif., software maker spent so much time on-line checking its
volatile stock price that CEO Jeff Crowe jokingly threatened to fine
abusers $5. But Mr. Crowe isn't especially concerned about excessive
Net-surfing by employees. As he puts it, "We find they get bored pretty