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April - 2007 - issue > Cover Feature
BANNED at work
Vidya Balakrishnan
Saturday, March 31, 2007
Earlier this year, James Pacenza, a 58-year-old IBM employee based in Montgomery, U.S.A, was fired for visiting adult sites during work-hours. Pacenza, who had been with the company for 19 years, had logged in during his recess time of five minutes and was reported by his colleague at the next cubicle. Closer home, another software engineer in a small IT firm was axed for accessing a banned social networking site through proxy means while at work. The ousting of both employees is sending out strong signals about the seriousness of ‘Internet at work’ policies advocated by firms across geographies and sectors including IT firms, financial institutions, schools and media houses. According to a study by the American Management Association (AMA), 26 percent of firms fired workers in 2006 for misusing the Internet. Misuse included recreational as well as illegal instances.

In both the above cases, companies claim that the employees were previously warned about usage of Internet for personal use at work. However as stringent warnings turned futile and constant monitoring of employees’ personal purposes of the Internet began eating up into administration‘s resources, companies concocted another cure of doing away with the root cause: Ban Internet at work. World’s greatest invention has instigated a wrath in senior executives. But why block complete Internet access?

According to Stanford University’s nationwide study, 14 percent of computer users neglect work, school, families, food and sleep to use the Internet. Another study emphasized that 25 percent of Internet addiction happens at the work place. (Incidentally, Pacenza is suing IBM for $5 million, alleging that he is an Internet addict.) While the stats craft a strong contender, HR managers feel it affects three major factors at work: productivity, bandwidth and security.

“It encourages the employee into easy distractions,” says Laxman Badiga, Chief Technology Officer, Wipro Technologies. Wipro is among the bandwagon of IT firms in the country that provide Internet access only during a specific time period in the evening. Only staff above the ‘manager level’ is provided with Internet access by default. In their defense, the company provides cyber cafes with net connection within the campus, which can be accessed whenever the employee feels the need. An option that only some employees think suffice their Internet needs.

“However,” argues HR executive Srini Vudumula of Tavant Technologies “Internet is an integral part of an engineer’s daily work and banning it would mean affecting their research process.” Tavant allows 24-hour net access to all its employees. In fact, the employees are encouraged to blog regularly about their engineering projects and achievements. Contrary to belief, it does not encourage misuse of the net but instills in them a responsibility to act in a mature and professional manner. The trust factor is also huge, believes Vudumula. Chances are that blocking the net would affect employee morale and create a negative attitude in the workplace about not being trusted. At the end of the day, it is the employee’s duty to not allow the Internet affect their productivity.

“If an employee wants to indulge in other activities at work, blocking the Internet won’t help,” says Vishnu Raned, Country Manager Agitar Software. “He will find other means to distract himself.” This would indicate blocking certain sites rather than blocking complete Internet connection.

Blocking fearful five
While banning Internet at work is a road less taken by IT firms in majority, blocking certain sites have transformed into a unanimous practice. Meaning, it didn’t matter if you had an Internet connection either 24 hours or only in the evenings, it still won’t provide access to the ‘fearful five’___ pornography, personal mails, gambling, job sites and forms of online entertainment (social networking, music, videos and shopping). While techies do not mind the blocking of adult content, gambling and social networking sites, many feel that they should be allowed access to personal mail and web chat.

“Earlier when the internal messaging system was down, I used web chats like gmail to communicate with an onsite customer, but now it has become impossible to do that,” says Jaya Raman (name changed) from Infosys. The company, like many others, has blocked all personal mail and chat facilities even during Internet hours at work and campus cyber cafes outside work. Jaya is also peeved at the fact that she can’t access any sites for an MBA course as the company has blocked the keywords pertaining to jobs and further studies. Many HR managers feel that this is the best way to protect their company’s best assets: its people.

Vipin R Mohan, Manager HR, GDA Technologies, would beg to differ. His employees have complete access to job portals at work. His logic being, if one really wanted another job, blocking the sites would not be a hurdle in his quest. “Our focus should be on providing the right environment to retain employees and not by restricting them from looking at other jobs.” The employees at GDA enjoy an unrestricted 24-hour access to Internet with the usual platter of certain blocked sites.

The surprise package of the lot has been the ubiquitous ban on social networking sites. Orkut, Google’s brainchild and the most popular social networking site in India, has been either banned or been given the “not to visit” warning status in almost every IT firm in the country. “It has nothing work related,” feels Vudumula. “Furthermore, company information can be shared as it makes the network susceptible to spy ware.” A reason provided by many companies to their techies who in turn are upset at the sudden loss of contact with their friends. These techies, mostly the younger breed, don’t see the harm in scrapping occasionally as a respite from the constant work. What they might not be aware of is when more than a couple of employees log on to Orkut at the same time, it clogs up the bandwidth considerably and affect other’s work. Even in companies like GDA and NDS that otherwise provide access to majority of the sites have blocked Orkut. In companies like EMC, accessing Orkut more than three times a day would automatically send your IP address to the HR with stern action to follow.

Indian companies that have their base in U.S may have a little relaxed norm about web chats as it is the best way to communicate across borders at low cost. However, U.S applies the same policies when it comes to social networking. It is currently facing the same problem with an Orkut equivalent: MySpace. There have been several instances of employees being fired for accessing MySpace (comparatively higher than in India for Orkut). One employee in US was so enthusiastic about finding his way through the banned personal mail system by using MySpace that he accessed the site through proxy means almost two thousand times in 30 days before being shown the door!

While many HR mangers term these sites as ‘entertainment’, ‘frivolous’ and ‘unwanted’, there is a growing bunch of employees who think otherwise. “We put in overtime and work from home when the job demands it, so it is only fair that we are allowed some time of this ‘entertainment’,” feels Kavitha Kodandapani, at a leading IT firm in the country.

“It is not for us to question what the employee does as long as he delivers,” opines Mohan of GDA. “Whether he does it within six hours or three hours and then uses the rest of the time in other activities shouldn’t cause too much of concern.” Block bad employees, not sites!

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