A No Bulls*#% Manager’s Guide to Internet Use at Work

During a recent trip, I tried to access my blog from a company’s intranet and I was greeted with the following WARNING:

The site you are trying to access is forbidden.
Therefore, your access is being denied.

Wow, my very own leadership development blog…. banned, like some kind of porn site. I felt so sleazy.

I then read an interesting story by AP reporter Martha Irvine about how young workers are pushing employers for more online access. It’s one of the more balanced reports I’ve read on the topic, and got me thinking it might be fun to write another “No bull guide” for employee internet usage.

I’ve heard some of the most narrow-minded, asinine, and time wasting debates on this topic. I’m really sick of it. We’ve spent more time on the issues of employee access and how to prevent abuse that our employees could ever waste.
Like previous no-bull guides, I’ve written this as if I get to make up the all rules. However, there’s a good chance your company already has some kind of internet policy, so before you do anything, make sure you’re familiar with it. My guide is biased towards open access and trust, so if your company’s policy isn’t, I’d hate to get you or one of your employees fired.
1. Trust your employees.
How about if we start with the assumption that most of our employees are hard working, trustworthy, responsible, mature adults? Just because they have access to something does not mean they will all abuse it. It’s basic Theory Y vs. Theory X management. This assumption then forms the foundation for any policy or procedure, and you’re sure to end up with a very short list of rules.

2. Turn it into a perk that differentiates you as a great place to work.

Allow your employees access to their facebook sites, hotmail, gmail, twitter, blogs, or any other social networking sites they have grown up with. To many younger employees, these things are considered an important part of who they are. Send them a strong message that you understand this; that it’s perfectly OK to take a break from working now and then to check facebook or personal email, even if it’s not work related. You want them to know you appreciate that they are often called on to give it up for the company, and this is your way of giving a little back to them.
Like it or not, most employees are already doing this; they’ll figure out a way. Why not differentiate yourself from competing employers and make a big deal of allowing it, even encouraging it? It’s sure cheaper than hiring a masseuse, free food, building fitness centers, tuition assistance and some of the other things companies do to make their employees happy and attract top talent.
You may find, by the way, that your employees will use these tools to find innovative ways to learn, solve problems, recruit talent, and improve your company’s reputation. They might find ways to leverage these tools well before the “How to leverage social media” corporate task force does.
3. Educate every employee.
Make sure every manager and employee attend a series of three training programs:
– Online liability, privacy, and security
– Network management
– Responsible internet usage
Instead of having overly restrictive polices, or saying “no” all the time, make sure everyone understands the reasons behind the policies. You’re not behaving like a leader if you point fingers at your IT department for being behind the times, or unreasonable, if you have no clue about data security or network management.
For example, before you whine about your company’s unwillingness to allow you to share video files on your network, find out why they say they can’t. Just because Google does it, doesn’t mean your company can. In fact, it’s not as easy as it seems for Google to host all of those Youtube videos. That acquisition is a serious money loser for them due to the ever-expanding number of server they have to keep buying – some say they are losing as much as a million dollars a day!

Identity theft
is another real and serious issue that a lot of people just don’t get. Consider yourself fortunate if your company has a top-notch security geek responsible for your firewall. Take that geek out to lunch some day to learn what he/she does – you’ll be impressed.

4. Hang the offenders.
Once you have educated your employees and incorporated this training into your orientation program for new employees, set a “zero tolerance” expectation for internet abuse. Spell out the dos and don’ts and the consequences, and enforce them. For example, “you may not download porn. If you do, you will be canned. Period”. Or, “If you post company trade secrets on your blog, you will be canned”.
Actually, your company probably already has policies that govern these kind of stupid, unethical, unprofessional, or downright illegal behaviors, so you really just need to enforce what you have. The idea is to trust and reward 98% of your employees, and come down hard on the few offenders that ruin it for everyone else.
5. Use the teenager deterrent.
Make sure your employees are aware that anything they do on their computer or phone can be accessed by their manager or someone in IT and or HR (i.e., Mom and Dad). This is like the threat of a nuclear first strike. The fact that you would never really use it – and might not even be able to – doesn’t matter. It’s only for those borderline situations, in order to “help” your employees make the right choices.
I’ve always used the same policy with my kids; I’ve never snooped in their stuff (nor would I want to) … but I always let them know I could. Again, it all goes back to rule #1 – I trust them.

6. Mandatory access to Great Leadership for all employees.
Sorry, I just had to add this.

What do you think? Am I missing something here? What would you change or add, and why?

7/22/09 update: Just for clarification, I was at another company, not my own when I got the “access denied” message.