Computer Consult: Don't play solitaire, and other office computer rules

February 7, 2003

The trick is to discourage employees from visiting casino Web sites, without overmanaging.

 

Computer Consult

By Robert Lowes

Don't play solitaire, and other office computer rules

• Good policies will maintain productivity and safeguard software and hardware.

• Software can monitor and regulate employee Web use.

• Be prudent, but don’t create a climate of fear.

 

An employee in front of a computer may look busy, but, unfortunately, she might be busy reading the news, buying clothes, or playing solitaire—for a long time. The average Joe or Jane with Internet access spent 8.3 hours a week visiting Web sites unrelated to work, according to a survey of companies conducted by Harris Interactive on behalf of Websense, a company that makes Internet filtering software. Harris studied companies with 25 or more employees.

Cyberslacking is just one reason why medical practices need dos and don'ts for employee—and physician—use of information technology. Good policies will maintain productivity, safeguard software and hardware, and keep you out of legal trouble. Here are some basics your computer policy should cover.

Eliminate the expectation of privacy. It's your equipment, so you have the right to access any information an employee sends, receives, or stores on the computer system. You can exercise that right—and avoid or beat invasion-of-privacy lawsuits—as long as employees know this policy upfront, says Nancy Flynn, executive director of The ePolicy Institute in Columbus, OH.

Define Web privileges. One employer in five forbids employees to surf the Internet for anything other than business-related purposes, according to a 2001 survey by the American Management Association, The ePolicy Institute, and US News & World Report. It's easy to justify such a tough stance. Besides wasting time, personal Web surfing can increase your system's exposure to viruses and other forms of "malware."

And naughty online pictures can expose you to a lawsuit. Daniel Bindler, a St. Louis CPA specializing in health care, says he has encountered two medical practices where employees—including a female office manager—were discovered visiting pornographic Web sites. "If another employee happens to witness this, he or she could sue on the grounds of sexual harassment," says Bindler, a partner with RBG & Co.

Despite these pitfalls, most businesses permit some form of personal Web surfing. "It can improve office morale," notes Bindler. To be on the safe side, he recommends declaring inappropriate Web sites off-limits, and you're the one to decide what's inappropriate. Banning sites with explicit sexual content is an obvious choice, but what about online retailers? They're taboo for 13 percent of businesses that limit Web privileges. Likewise, 26 percent outlaw game sites. Whatever the specific subject, just remember that it's your decision.

Define e-mail privileges. Again, you can be draconian and outlaw personal e-mail, but does that make sense if you allow employees to use the phones to check on a sick child or call an auto mechanic? Your policy should prohibit only excessive personal e-mailing and messages that conflict with other personnel policies (a salacious e-mail can be construed as sexual harassment).

Consider filtering software. You may want to install software that monitors where employees go in cyberspace and prevents them from visiting undesirable or virus-infected sites. Two leading companies in this category are Websense (www.websense.com) and SurfControl (www.surfcontrol.com). SurfControl also sells a program that blocks incoming or outgoing e-mail that violates your acceptable-use policies. An office with three doctors and 10 or so employees would pay a one-time fee of $2,700 for SurfControl software that regulates both Internet and e-mail usage and $700 a year afterward for updates. Websense software for Web surfing would cost that same practice $1,495 each year.

Ban games and other personal software. Don't let doctors and staffers load their favorite games from home on an office computer or download them off the Web. Besides killing productivity, these programs may harbor viruses. And any personal software you install can alter files affecting business programs, creating serious glitches. That sometimes happens when physicians bring home a company laptop and install America Online on it, says Ryan Haislar, a manager with Computerease, a computer services company in Collinsville, IL. "AOL likes to take things over, and it can interfere with your office Internet connection," says Haislar.

Your prohibition should extend to file-sharing programs that let you chat online with others in real time or download free music from the Web. They open you up to viruses and slow down transmitting and receiving other data—wasting bandwidth, as a techie would say. Furthermore, downloading copyrighted music without paying for it is generally considered against the law.

Warn about software piracy. Taking a computer game from home and installing it on an office machine is illegal—and punishable by six-figure fines—since software licenses generally apply to only one device. If you illegally install office software on more computers than you're licensed for, a disgruntled employee could turn you in, adds Daniel Bindler.

Eat, drink and be careful. An utterly foolproof policy would prohibit anyone from eating or drinking at a computer terminal; spilled Coca-Cola can render a keyboard useless. On the other hand, keyboards are relatively cheap to replace, and these accidents aren't everyday occurrences. Loretta Silkwood, manager of information systems at Alton (IL) MultiSpecialists, says she recalls only one keyboard spill in the last four years. And isn't it cruel to deprive staffers of their caffeine fixes? For the sake of morale, you might want to imitate Silkwood's group and limit your policy to "be careful." However, laptops, tablet computers, and PDAs warrant extra caution, notes Ryan Haislar, because a wayward beverage would damage critical computer components beneath the keys.

Like any other personnel policy, your computer rules should spell out consequences for violations. Have every member of the practice read a detailed description and sign the policy.

Enforce it consistently, no matter who's visiting the porn sites. Otherwise, you'll have a hard time making your policy stand up in court as a basis for terminating someone.

Be prudent, but don't create a climate of fear. Computer consultant Rosemarie Nelson in Syracuse, NY, suspects that pleasure surfing is less rampant in medicine than in the rest of working America, given most practices' small size, hectic schedules, and limited Internet access. Instead of focusing on infractions, physicans should encourage employees to fully embrace computer technology, she says. "Treat people with respect and assume that they'll use computers to make the practice more productive. That will be a self-fulfilling prophecy."

To flesh out your policy, consult two publications from the Medical Group Management Association: The Group Practice Personnel Policies Manual and a supplement entitled Tracking Hot HR Trends. They're available as a set for $179.95—for members, $119.95—at the group's Web site ( www.mgma.com) under "Store."

Also check out the Web site of The ePolicy Institute (www.epolicyinstitute.com), although some of its recommendations may be too ambitious for the average doctor's office.

The author, who is based in St. Louis, is a Senior Editor of Medical Economics.

 

Robert Lowes. Computer Consult: Don't play solitaire, and other office computer rules. Medical Economics Feb. 7, 2003;80:31.