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Q&A: Technology & Privacy

Question:

Can we restrict employee internet use? We have had three viruses in the last few months and non-work related employee use is also causing memory and bandwidth issues.

Answer: Russell, one of our HR Pros says…

Yes, you can (mostly) restrict the non-work use of the internet or set guidelines for reasonable work and personal use. You can also routinely monitor internet and email usage patterns on the organization’s hardware, software, and internet connections to ensure employees are using the internet in accordance with your policy.

Generally, we recommend a policy that does the following:

  • Prohibits employees from placing any passwords or restrictions on any document, computer, or computer software without the prior permission of their supervisor or manager, and requiring that if passwords are created they are shared with a designated member of management or IT.
  • Prohibits the transmitting, retrieving, or storing of any communications of a defamatory, discriminatory or harassing nature, or materials that are obscene or X-rated.
  • Prohibits any abusive, profane, or harassing language and any illegal activities including piracy, hacking, cracking, extortion, blackmail, copyright infringement, and unauthorized access to any computers or email.
  • Prohibits the transmission of copyrighted materials belonging to entities other than the Company on the Company’s network.
  • Requires management approval for the streaming of any video, unless work-related, streaming of music, sending or receiving many large files, and sending email messages to an excessive number of users.
  • Requires employees to scan downloaded files for viruses and malware and to refrain from downloading plug-ins and apps without management approval.
  • Reminds each employee that they are responsible for the content of all text, audio, or images that they place on Company drives or send over the Company’s internet and email system and prohibits use which hides the identity of the sender or represents the sender as someone else.
  • Reminds employees that internal and external email messages are considered business records and may be subject to search at any time as well as discoverable in the event of litigation.
  • Allows the Company the right to examine, monitor and regulate email messages, directories, and files, as well as internet usage.
  • Includes a Section 7 savings clause, such as: “Nothing in the policy is intended to infringe on an employee’s Section 7 rights; should any portion of this policy be or become unenforceable, the remainder of policy will remain in effect.”

Be aware that the National Labor Relations Board (which is responsible for interpreting the National Labor Relations Act) has issued several rulings on the issue of solicitation and distribution and use of company email. Although each ruling is case-specific, the general takeaway is that employers cannot completely restrict the use of company email – employee use for a concerted activity must be allowed, though not during work time. The Section 7 savings clause offered above may not protect you from an unlawful termination claim based on an unfair application of the policy, but it will hopefully give managers pause so they think twice, and seek the advice of an HR Professional, before jumping to termination as a result of a policy violation.

 

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Russell has over 13 years of union and non-union human resources experience, during 10 of which he has held regional and director level HR roles in the healthcare, hospitality, property management, and engineering industries. He holds a BA from Indiana University and is an HR Specialist honor graduate from the US Army’s Adjutant General School. Russell has been a member of SHRM since 2004 and has worked as a pro bono HR Consultant, supporting small non-profit organizations.

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