The blurring lines: IT Acceptable Use Policy

by 11 Apr 2012

Many employers already have long-standing policies which deal with the acceptable use of company time and resources, such as email and the internet. Others have even further prescriptive regulation of areas such as the telephone, photocopy use, smoke breaks and refreshment facilities.

Initially, employers began with the policing of internet addresses, primarily to eradicate visits to porn sites – more because of its content than because of the time spent on non-work issues. The advent of social network sites has been largely regarded as an irritation by bosses, who have tried to be reasonably tolerant for the sake of the precious Generation X and Y intake, who they don’t really understand, but are told to make allowances for.

The cost of upgrading bandwidth to accommodate YouTube clips and other non-work material has sharpened the mind, and got many employers clamping down again – some trying to schedule “open” times for staff to use the bandwidth when not in competition with work requirements, others banning it outright.

The more conservative policies have now had to grapple with sites like LinkedIn, which are arguable not purely social at all, and prove to be very useful business networking sites, and can be valuable job search sites for corporate talent. This and other such online groups blur the line between work and personal use of technology. At the same time, some employers are horrified what is said about them in the CVs posted on LinkedIn. What does HR do if a current or past employee posts bold falsehoods on their LinkedIn profile? Have you seen some of those claims?

A tolerant attitude is seen to be progressive if you have an output-based work environment, but more than one company can attest to two thirds of their bandwidth being consumed by visits to PEST sites. There are some employees who spend literally hours passing on high resolution photos of pretty sunsets, cute puppies or parodies of Julius Malema – can you remember the increase of frothy email attachments during the World Cup? A block on executable files at the Firewall frequently reveals that less than 10% of such incoming files are work related. “So much for trust”, say the skeptics.

Of course, there’s the flipside. Blackberrys, iPhones & the like are ubiquitous and now blur the lines between working hours and people’s personal lives. It is wonderful for an employer to have their professional people on call without an on-call allowance, receiving and answering emails on vacation and at ridiculous times of the night. Some people even save their emails written during the day in their Drafts box, only to send them from a smart phone just before bed to create a workaholic impression. This never-off-duty syndrome freaks out the workplace wellness people, but it is the way of the world, and it is rare to see a professional ignoring their device.

Some employers have already made sure that overtime claims are regulated by policies covering those who are issued with smart phones, to avoid the kind of lawsuit now being faced by the Chicago Police Department which had issued its cops with smart phones, only to find them using their phone records to substantiate expensive overtime claims.

Then there are some sneaky (progressive?) employers who facilitate vendors selling healthy meals at the workstations, so that their staff do not stop working over lunchtime. This is all the more attractive in bad weather conditions or with unsafe streets outside, as staff are happy to stay indoors, enjoy the air conditioning and work right through – not good for ergonomics, but the medical aid will pay for the chiropractor!

Our personal and working lives continue to converge to a point where the lines are very blurred indeed, and I would venture that the employer is getting a better deal in respect of productivity and responsiveness, compared to when Dad used to leave the office and all his work on a desk at the end of the day. Conceding some personal technology time at work (often more fleeting than those long chats at the tea station which we never regulate) to an employee who has measurable deliverables is not soft – it’s just realistic.


About the author

Gary Taylor has worked in HR for over 30 years, in National Mutual of Australasia and Unilever, then as HR director at South Africa's largest health insurer Medscheme for 14 years, followed by three years at Wits University. In 2008, he was appointed to start up HR for a new University in Saudi Arabia, where he is now director of the policy office