Rules of the game for a wired workforce
It’s 4:55 p.m., five minutes to COB, and if you’ve got your
radio tuned to Mark and Dave on 1190 KEX, it’s time for the daily
work-waster — the part of the show where the hosts unveil the newest
avenue to dribble away the last few minutes of the work day playing games
on the computer while appearing to be a dedicated employee.
Tip: Mute your speakers. Game sounds are a dead giveaway. Also, try not
to yell “Woo hoo!” when you reach level four.
According to game developer PopCap Games, based in Seattle, one-quarter
of office workers and two-thirds of CEOs regularly play online games at
In the company’s survey, respondents said they played games to
relieve stress. Game makers say online games can refocus the mind and
actually increase productivity. Sort of like naps.
Be that as it may, non-work Internet use in the workplace is extremely
common, and it’s not just the gaming sites getting the action. Car
shopping, house shopping, Christmas shopping, YouTube watching, chatting,
blogging, reservation-making, car-renting, and bill-paying top the list
of common online workplace activities.
Then, there are the most troublesome ones: online gambling and online
Companies are fighting the battle a number of ways and for a number of
reasons. For some businesses, time and bandwidth waste is the biggest
concern, as cubicle-bound workers suck up company capacity watching streaming
content while deadlines loom large.
Managing email — a usually legitimate work activity — has
become such a productivity killer that “life hack” sites now
offer 12-step programs to cure email overload and, for those who become
overly fascinated with it, email addiction.
There are no reliable figures on how workplace Internet affects the bottom
line, but local businesses big and small say loss of productivity is only
one of a nest of problems that can crop up. Among them: social diseases
that infect the network.
Gaming sites and download sites are often associated with “malware,”
or malicious software that board your computer during an innocent game
and then spread across your company’s network, destroying data files
and hamstringing hardware.
Some data loss is survivable, and hardware can be repaired or replaced.
Something that can’t so easily be resurrected? Company reputation.
It’s among one of the more serious dangers lurking on the Web.
Social networking sites are full of workers anonymously gossiping about
their companies — and bosses — in unflattering ways, posing
for revealing photos, spilling company secrets, or flaming complaining
Online gambling habits lead to embezzlement.
Online porn habits lead to sexual harassment lawsuits.
It’s a jungle out there.
High stakes game
It’s such a problem that a new industry has grown up to address
it. Reputation repair companies monitor the Internet for inflammatory
or strategically injurious posts — like the release of new product
details or company plans — and work with companies on damage control.
How high are the stakes? The negative postings of a single disgruntled
employee armed with a blog can outrank a company’s own web page
and show up at the top of the list of search engine results.
Private companies are not the only ones needing scythes and pith helmets
to hack through the underbrush. Government, too, is finding the tech revolution
Last year in Ohio, a police officer’s MySpace page featured pictures
of drug-bust evidence and a cruiser’s speedometer at 100 mph. The
A year ago in Arlington, Ore., the newly-elected mayor was recalled after
photos of her posing on a fire truck in lingerie were found on her MySpace
Teachers posting inappropriate comments on social networking sites and
including their students as “friends” on their sites have
prompted statements from teachers’ unions strongly discouraging
any use of MySpace or Facebook.
Catherine Paglin, writing for the Oregon Education Association, the state’s
teacher’s union, advised in an article in April 2007 that teachers
avoid such sites, citing disciplinary actions taken against teachers all
over the country who spilled about their, um, personal habits on social
Indeed. In Phoenix, a television news report found questionable MySpace
pages posted by a number of local school teachers — pages that included
profanity and inappropriate photos.
Paglin warned Oregon teachers that “friends” who post inappropriate
personal messages to a teacher’s personal site can destroy that
teacher’s reputation. “Even if you go to the trouble of screening
all your friends’ comments before allowing them to be posted, a
visitor to your profile can follow the links to your friends’ sites
and might find information about you there that you would rather keep
private, such as photos or videos taken at a party or during a night on
the town,” she wrote.
An additional danger, she said, is casual social interaction with students
on the web, which can become inappropriate quickly.
The stakes are especially high for public sector workers, whose workplace
emails, blogs and even phone records are public record.
Trust and verify
The online behavior of employees is a new area in human resources, but
the toolbox is growing by leaps and bounds each day. Companies agree that
the first and most important tool in the box is education: Workers have
to know what’s allowed, what isn’t, and what will happen if
they violate policy, whether they’re blogging at home or playing
games on the work clock.
Most companies with internal computer networks have tools to monitor
their workers’ email and Internet use, and can easily summon a list
of sites visited online. Even erased messages can be reconstituted.
Amy Angel, an attorney with Barran Liebman, a Portland law firm that
specializes in labor law, said courts have held that employees using their
company network and equipment can have no expectation of privacy in their
use of that equipment. At the same time, she says companies must have
clear policies that inform employees that their online activities can
be accessed by the boss at any time.
Some companies prevent problems by installing filters that prevent network
computers from accessing certain sites or from downloading certain kinds
of files — either because they consume too much bandwidth, they
might be inappropriate, or they may contain malware. Some companies have
programs that prevent certain emails from reaching their intended targets.
But given the steady stream of conversation, video and audio passing
through servers each day, such measures are often not enough. That’s
where monitoring comes in — and many companies get queasy about
eavesdropping on their employees.
In general, says Judy Clark, a consultant with HR Answers in Tualatin,
it’s good that employers pause before doing something particularly
invasive — for two reasons. One is practical: Tracking and monitoring
are time-consuming activities few businesses can afford to engage in unless
there’s a demonstrated problem with a particular employee. “It’s
just not realistic that employers can spend an inordinate amount of time
wandering around employees’ Google searches and emails. They ought
to have better things to do.” The other issue is employee retention:
“I just don’t know a lot of employees who respond well to
Clark says that while it’s possible for companies to ban all non-work
use of the Internet while on the job, it’s not practical and most
workers view it as unfair. “There is such a blurring of what’s
employment and what’s personal time these days,” she says.
“BlackBerrys, smartphones … People log-on to their email at
night and stay up with it and respond while they are on their personal
time. And, that’s probably only a quarter of the way it will be
in the future. It’s hard to advise a client to be really hard-nosed
with heavy monitoring of every activity when they benefit from this greater
amount of productivity. When your employee is plugged-in 24/7, well, that
calls for new thinking.”
And so, Clark says, if an otherwise productive worker chooses to make
a reservation for dinner online, or text her children to make sure they’re
home from school, a boss would be well advised to leave it alone. Another
good position, for those employees who want to shop online in extended
fashion, is to tell them they can use the company network for personal
use when they’re off-clock — either before work, after work
or on breaks, Clark says.
Some public sector organizations have exceedingly strict policies that
Clark says have led to workers being fired simply for making reservations
for professional conferences with office equipment. Draconian policies
make it difficult to retain employees, who like to feel that there is
some level of trust in the workplace, she says.
“If you go to the other end of spectrum, there are those who haven’t
got a clue how much time their workers spend in individual pursuits, like
fantasy football or holiday shopping, or whether they’re posting
pictures to MySpace or Facebook. And they have no idea whether the level
of productivity they’re getting is appropriate or diminished.”
Cops gone wild
Productivity is the least of the potential problems when cops run wild
on the Internet.
Brian Schmautz, spokesman for the Portland Police Bureau, says young,
techie cops have to be taught about what can and can’t be said —
and photographed — for Internet sites. “Occasionally you have
young officers who are more Twitter, Facebook, MySpace kinds of people
who have posted things about an investigation and we’ve had to squash
it,” he says. “We remind officers that there are a number
of orders, from showing pictures of evidence — you can’t show
crime scene evidence — to talking about criminal investigations
unless the case is adjudicated. What’s public record is public record
for cops also,” Schmautz says. “If someone confesses a crime
to me tonight, I can’t go home and blog about it. It would be prejudicial.”
Schmautz says the problem is a generational one. “People of my
generation say, ‘Why would anyone want to blog?’ We don’t
understand the point of blogging in life, but for this next generation,
it’s their way of processing their lives. And now everyone carries
a personal cell phone while working, so let’s say they take a picture
while they’re working and then show it to people in a bar, ‘Hey,
look at this!’”
The bureau does not attempt to look for its officers in social networking
sites or anywhere else because, Schmautz says, tracking the online activities
of 100 officers would be impossible. “We do have to monitor the
dispatch system because if an officer says, ‘Well, that guy was
a jerk, and I told him off,’ a defense attorney can use that. Even
if an officer texts another officer something — that’s all
One thing the department does do: It searches networking sites as part
of background checks for applicants. “I’m amazed at how many
people who want to get involved in law enforcement are on these sites
and fail the background check because they [post] about drug use and personal
life choices that are not consistent with being an officer.”
When play is part of the job
Curt McKay, senior project manager for Quango, a 20-employee, Portland-based
design and marketing firm, remembers the day the Line Rider game arrived
at the office after making the rounds on the Internet. This is the game
where you draw a hill with your mouse, then hit a button to watch the
scarf-wearing sledder attempt your hill and, inevitably, crack up and
lose the sled altogether.
Don’t ask us how we know this.
Far from filtering it out or restricting employees from playing games
like this one during work hours, McKay said the company encourages them
to find out what makes it tick and why it’s so popular.
“Someone developed this application and it found its way around
the world. And so we studied it … How easy is it to make? What can
we learn from it marketing-wise? It was super valuable to us. It’s
that kind of information that plays a part in how we help someone advertise
or market something,” McKay said. “Preventing employees from
playing it would hamper that.”
Quango’s overall policy is to look at results before clamping down
on employee behavior. “If you’re performing, we think you’re
an adult and you can do what you want with your time. If you’re
looking up personal email or shopping for a car, it’s okay as long
as work’s getting done. It helps to take a break. I’ve found
personally that it’s nice to be able to do some online shopping
while I’m at work. It’s a better work-life balance. I probably
do some work stuff at home, too. The thing is, I’m a big boy and
I can handle responsibility.”
Because part of the company’s mission involves, as McKay puts it,
“acquiring stuff” from vendors or clients, blocking downloads
would be a practical nightmare. By the same token, client materials are
under virtual lock and key to ensure that only authorized personnel have
For an extreme version of lock and key, there’s Mentor Graphics,
the Wilsonville-based high-tech company. Ry Schwark, spokesman for the
company, says there’s little policing of employees’ personal
business on the Internet and that “obviously, there may be some
of the work wasting going on, but on the whole, we’re trusting employees
to get the job done. So, they can check sports scores near the end of
the day; we don’t care. We’re not going to be Big Brother.”
That doesn’t mean the company’s security is lax. Because
intellectual property is precious in the high-tech business, the company’s
legal arm continuously reminds its workers how precious it is and how
important it is safeguard it. An online training program, company officials
say, is the first line of defense that prevents employees from spilling
But there are other protections.
The company employs security measures in every laptop and desktop that
blocks employees from downloading potentially dangerous applications.
Firewalls prevent hacker programs from gaining access through any virtual
door left unlocked by careless workers.
Ananthan Thandri, chief information officer with the company, says “hacking
happens to every company, all the time. That’s what the firewalls
are for, and we have them all over the world and monitor them from here
Even so, he says, “hackers are always a step ahead of us. We’re
always having to catch up.”
Nike officials would not comment to BrainstormNW about workplace Internet
use, but an employee blog mildly critical of the way some company officials
spend cash briefly went public in 2006 under the name Swooshblog. The
writer was astounded at one point that one of his fellow employees had
leaked internal information to an Oregonian reporter — something
he blogged that he would never do.
The blog ended when the writer conceded he was bored with the job —
the blogging job, that is. “There just isn’t that much to
write about … ” he wrote.
“I'll go back to work and be the guy that sits next to you,”
he wrote in his farewell post. “The guy you ride the elevator with,
the guy on the treadmill next to you, or even the guy that signs your
Blab, er, blog all you want.
It was likely the most enticing thing a high-tech company could tell
its employees, especially one as tightly held and message-controlled as
But there was a plan behind the company’s invitation — a
plan to join the bloggers and social networkers, because silencing them
was clearly impossible.
The idea: to use blogging as a way to connect with customers, create
relationships, increase brand loyalty and … fight negative postings
and reputation-destroying buzz with positive spin of their own. The method
had the added advantage of providing a channel for employees to contribute
in ways that might discourage them from starting anonymous — and
anonymously damaging — insider posts someplace else.
Sort of like telling your kid he can have a beer as long as he drinks
it right here in front of you.
Reputation repair companies say starting blogs of your own creates a
sea of positive pages that will counter — and likely drown out —
naysayer pages when search engines kick out results with your company
But like any other major corporate move, it wasn’t a simple one.
It meant creating a whole new arm of Intel, called the Social Media Center
for Excellence, to ensure that the venture wouldn’t result in a
free-for-all in the public domain.
Employees are drilled on the rules of engagement, the first of which
is to understand that they can’t separate their comments from Intel
and say they’re not representing the company. “They need to
understand if they blog things related to their job, they will be seen
as spokespeople for the company whether they are or not,” says Kelly
Feller, social media strategist for Intel. Other rules? Be respectful,
be honest, and don’t release private company information —
Feller says the company hopes the participation of Intel staff in the
blogosphere will have a “viral marketing effect” that will
create excitement about the company.
Other companies, including Nike and Microsoft, have started their own
efforts to rock the blogspots, but Intel’s venture is the most public
foray of the three: Its staff released a statement announcing the new
policy and asking for feedback.
Feller insists that employee posts are not previewed or pre-screened,
making the blogs more authentic, but also risky. “Is there inherent
risk in doing this? Yes. But we’ve realized that all of these online
conversations are already happening, and it does no good to stand on the
periphery and not participate.”
Another advantage of the strategy, from a company point of view?
With company staff engaged in blogs and networking sites everywhere,
at work and at home, the company will have eyes — and ears —
So, if you have an itch to, well, comment about Intel, don’t be
surprised if the next voice you hear or read is from inside Intel.
Talk about them and they will know.
PS. How about a game of Tic-Tac-Toe before you go back to work.
By Lisa Baker