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Time to crack down on tech at work?

Attorney Eric J. Sinrod says employers have their work cut out in setting workplace rules around new gadgets and communications technologies.

    There is no doubt that new technological means of communicating and entertaining are invading the workplace.

    The question thus arises: Should employers take steps to potentially control employee blogging, instant messaging and their use of iPods and camera phones?

    Blogs, short for Web logs, typically are just personal diaries made public on the Internet. An estimated 10 million blogs were created in the United States by the end of 2005--and about 8 million U.S. adults had created one. With an estimated 20,000 blogs being created daily, this plainly is an emerging and exponentially growing form of communication.

    What are employers to do with respect to blogs created by their employees? Employers legitimately might have concerns, such as the worry that blogging can distract employees and sap productivity.

    Employers also could be disturbed by the potential for blog content that could harass other employees, impugn the reputation of their companies, defame others or disclose confidential company information or trade secrets.

    On the other hand, employers should be mindful that in certain settings, employee blogs can be beneficial. Blogging can serve as an important means of communicating between company partners, customers and employees. Blogs can be the spark for innovation and development.

    Many companies may not want to outright ban blogging by employees (which also could be a PR nightmare). Instead, those companies would be smart to incorporate blogging activities into their (hopefully) existing computer and Interent policies.

    These policies should be updated specifically to define and address inappropriate and appropriate blogging. The key to such policies is effective communication so employees comprehend proper blogging parameters and buy into a company's approach up front.

    Employees should understand from such policies the following:

    • Confidential company information and trade secrets must be protected.

    • A company's brand and image must be honored.

    • Blogging activities will be monitored and employees should have no expectations of privacy in work-related blogs.

    • Time limits may be placed on blogging.

    • Blogging activities will be monitored and employees should have no expectations of privacy in work-related blogs.

    • Certain types of blogging content are acceptable for a company and others are not.

    • Blogging activities will be monitored and employees should have no expectations of privacy in work-related blogs.

    • Violation of a company?s policies could lead to discipline and even termination.

    Employers need to take blogging seriously, as there are circumstances under which they can be held responsible for the blogging content posted by their employees. Already there have been instances of employers terminating employees for blogs that have been perceived as harassing, defamatory, vectors for disclosure of trade secrets and forums for speaking out on very sensitive and controversial subjects.

    Certain terminated employees have turned around and sued their employers for alleged retaliation and discrimination. It is important that employers enforce their policies evenly with respect to employees engaging in the same conduct.

    Instant messaging
    Instant Messaging (IMing) is a real-time dialogue between two or more people on the Internet. Many of the same employer issues raised by employee blogging apply with equal force to employee IMing.

    However, some IM platforms, unlike most blogs, do not provide a retrievable record. This can have a number of consequences.

    For example, tracking and later proving who authored specific messages that might be the subject of harassment, defamation or trade secret disclosure claims might be very difficult. Plus, because such messages can be printed but not saved on the transmitting resource, they are susceptible to manipulation.

    Moreover, once specific litigation is contemplated or initiated, companies have an obligation to preserve relevant evidence, otherwise they could be charged with evidence spoliation. Companies have to struggle with how their document and data retention policies are to drafted to encompass IMing.

    Yes, even iPods have workplace consequences. More and more people are living their lives to their own soundtracks through their iPods. Here, too, employers should consider clear policies so their employees understand what is permissible.

    Certainly, listening to music or other audio recordings--the most recent popular carrier of which is the iPod--can be distracting and decrease worker productivity for certain types of jobs. iPod usage could even be a safety issue for some jobs if failure to pay attention leads to accidents and injuries.

    And, now that videos now are available on some iPods, inappropriate content, such as violent or sexual material, could lead to claims by others of improper and hostile work environments.

    Camera phones
    It is estimated that by the end of this year 80 percent of cell phones also will be cameras. Employers also need to deal with this development.

    Camera phones can be used to photograph sensitive, confidential and trade-secret company information. Furthermore, camera phones can be used to photograph other workers in embarrassing situations and cause other employees to feel a loss of privacy.

    Completely banning camera phones may not make sense, as employees will want access to the phone part of their device, even if they do not use the camera. So, again, policies should be developed and articulated that make sense for a given company.

    Technology will keep moving forward, and employers need to work with employees so everyone knows what is permissible and appropriate and what is not.