What’s the limit? Limiting computer, internet, & email at work

Due to technical nature of technical communication (I know, big surprise!) we, as professionals, must address ethics and how they’re related to technology.  Clearly, ethical concerns arise in any field of work, but they relate to technical communication differently than other areas.



I think many of us who currently work for any (type of) company that requires the use of computers, the internet, and/or email, have had to sign an “acceptable use,” “internet use,” or “email use” agreement.  (If not, stay tuned.  I’m sure one will be coming to you soon enough.)  Acceptable use policies are becoming more common, as employers are limiting what employees can and cannot access at work and protecting themselves in case of the possible reprimand of an employee.  The reason employers have to limit the use of the internet is that the internet is everywhere.  Compare surfing the internet to watching a TV show.  What do these activities have in common?  Both are entertaining activities that you can partake in at home.  What’s different?  You can surf the internet at work, but you cannot watch TV at work (unless it’s part of your job, obviously.  However, I don’t think most of use sit around with a TV readily available at work).  Engaging in internet use is something people can do anywhere and, as a result, companies have created policies so their employees know the expectations of acceptable use of computers and the internet.  Although Katz and Rhodes seem to abandon the idea of limiting employees’ use of the internet and email, I think this is a fair ethical standard as long as the policy is consistent, clearly stated, and frequently mentioned.  I work as a teacher for a large school district and the acceptable use policy in my school district is stricter than strict, but the Human Resources department does a good job of communicating expectations to employees.  My school has signs posted in every area used predominantly by teachers informing us that they are monitoring us via email, internet, and video surveillance.  Furthermore, the Director of Human Resources sends out periodic emails informing employees that they will subject to investigation for inappropriate email and internet use.  I know of teachers who would probably engage in inappropriate technology use if they weren’t so fearful of being investigated.  However, the Director has definitely scared most of us enough to leave our personal business at home.

Katz and Rhodes discuss the idea that many companies expect employees to use email for “neutral” purposes, or messages that do not contain any incriminating information.  Is it possible to separate an employee’s necessary work from the internet?  What if employers only allowed employees to communicate with coworkers in a “neutral” way when talking f2f, too?  I don’t think limiting the way employees interact with one another through email is a fair ethical standard in the workplace.  As a teacher, I am explicitly told not to communicate with the parents of students in any that they would consider questionable.  If I need to contact a parent about grades or behavior, the administrators at my school encourage teachers to contact the parent by telephone because, unless the parent records the conversation, it cannot be used against the teacher later.  Due to the number of schools and teachers getting sued, this is what email communication as a teacher has boiled down to.  I think society has taken a turn for the worst in this regard.  I don’t think teachers should be fearful of backlash based on their communication via the internet, especially when the communication is work-related (about their child).  Sadly, I have to edit myself when emailing parents and usually just step away from my computer and pick up the phone.  I don’t mind calling parents, but I think I should be able to email them if I want to.  In my opinion, I should not have to worry about the details of an email message when communicating with my students’ parents, but with lawsuits and teacher investigations, that is what teachers of today must consider.

In technical communication, and in every area of work that uses email, the internet, and computers, we must consider ethical issues.  In the future, I would like to see the standards change.  I think that some limitations on computer, internet, and email use is acceptable to some degree, but I think trust in a competent employee can be much more powerful than constantly monitoring every aspect of an employee’s work life.

Posted on November 16, 2013, in Workplace and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Very interesting discussion about your email work situation. In your case, it might be fair to say that the Internet is actually making your life harder. I can see why school districts would be jumpy about that sort of thing, given the litigous world we live in, but it does seem a shame that communication is so stunted by these concerns.

    I’m not sure if it’s because I’m at a university or not, but I feel like we’re much less guarded in our communication via email. Of course, we don’t have the concern that we’re dealing with underage children and their parents, which probably gives us more freedom. I’ve been part of some pretty hotly contested email exchanges since I’ve been here.

    I have also seen a couple of emails by people written in the middle of the night and the use of language was such as to suggest the person might have been imbibing. In fact, one person did get fired for some screeching, inappropriate emails.

  2. It’s funny you mention TV at work. At one of my previous jobs there was a lady that would sit and catch up on her Netflix Instant Queue at work. Every time you walked by her she was streaming something. People took this to mean she wasn’t working, but let me say, she never missed a deadline. I know when I work from home I’ll put the TV on in the background. I’m not actively watching it, but I think there’s something that makes me more productive in a more relaxed setting.

    I think it’s interesting when you say what if employers only allowed employees to communicate in a “neutral” way when talking F2F. I agree with HR type of concerns that people shouldn’t say things that can offend people, but there are plenty of ways to talk to people that show you’re a person, instead of that robotic type of email/conversation because you’re not “allowed” to be personable. I think some companies lose the fact that their employees are people.

    I’ve learned, just like you have with your example of emails that everything can, and will be, used against you. It’s a cover yourself kind of world, and it’s a shame that it has to be this way.

    • Your last paragraph really sums up my approach to company email and instant messaging. Some people use it for personal use, but I try to restrict it to work use and very tame chitchat. I avoid communicating sensetive or incriminating information on IM and email because I know that the my supervisor can gain access to it if they choose. The phone is a safer option because it isn’t recorded, but people can overhear the conversation.

    • Wow! I’m all about background noise, although this might be the first Wednesday in a long time that I don’t have the Castle TNT marathon on while I do these comments, but Netflix is a bold move! Did she have headphones on? At several jobs I’ve had that’s what was restricted the most rather than what was on our screens!

    • I think this lady now works at my company! At first, she would read a book at her desk so she got talked to about that. After that, people started to notice noise coming from her office that sounded like a TV was on…she was streaming TV shows on her computer. Not sure what she was watching, but one of the problems with this (other than the fact that it looked like she wasn’t working), but it was eating up our bandwidth like crazy. Because of her misuse, a stricter policy was put in place. Some of us used to stream Pandora music to listen to while we work and that ended with the new policy. It wasn’t the end of the world, of course, but I know some people were pretty ticked off about it. I was fortunate because my officemate had a satellite radio for us to listen to.

      This lady now plays games on Facebook during the workday…which isn’t too smart because she is FB friends with the boss. I worry that our Facebook access will be restricted next. That would not sit well as we use Facebook to frequently connect with our clients.

  3. I do this at my job. I will stream hulu on my computer when I am in the middle of a big project, but its running in the background and I don’t watch it, just listen. We are actually encouraged to take 5-10 minutes every once in a while to recharge. We all look at computers all day and it gets draining.

    They do block a few websites, like gambiling websites and things like that, but at this point they have not limited our use of social media.

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