Union Leader: KNOW THE LAW – Computer Usage Policy in the Workplace – 05/2010

May 31, 2010

This question was answered by Colleen Karpinsky of the McLane Law Firm

Q:  We are updating our Company’s policies regarding computer usage.  Our employees are currently permitted to access personal sites such as Facebook and webmail from work.  What legal considerations should we keep in mind?

A.  As with any workplace policy, your computer usage policy should accurately describe the Company’s actual practices.  As you permit certain personal use of Company computers, your policy should address the fact that limited personal use of Company computers is permitted provided it does not interfere with the employee’s work or with the work of any other employee. 

Allowing personal use of Company computers expands your workplace from the walls of your building to the World Wide Web.  As such, it is important that you extend the application of workplace policies relating to standards of conduct to Cyberspace.  Be sure your policy is clear that prohibitions against harassment, discrimination and other inappropriate behavior apply to on-line communications.

Your policy should specify that employees should not have an expectation of privacy when using Company computers and that the Company has the right to access and monitor employees’ computer use. Also, set forth requirements and expectations regarding passwords and rules regarding downloading software or applications. 

Be sure to address the Company’s position on blogging and use of Twitter.  While employees can certainly blog or tweet on their own time (and perhaps even during work time, if you so permit), your policy can and should prohibit employees from discussing workplace issues, including information about the Company’s vendors, suppliers, customers, etc. and other types of confidential information in any electronic forum.   Further, the policy should prohibit personal use of the Company’s logo or other trademarks.

Discuss with managers your expectations regarding their use of electronic media and specifically   address issues relating to social networking with subordinates.  Also, the policy should include the Company’s position on providing informal references or reviews on networking sites such as LinkedIn.  Even casual references using electronic media can be used as evidence of “company action” in employment-related litigation.  This can hurt a company defending a termination decision even if it has otherwise done a good job documenting performance problems. 

Finally, be sure the policy addresses enforcement.  It should clearly explain that violation of the policy may result in disciplinary action up to and including termination of employment.

As the state of the law is constantly changing, be sure to update your policy frequently.  It is advisable to have legal counsel review your policy to ensure it complies with applicable law.  Remember, just as important as the policy itself, be sure to train and re-train your employees and management regarding the Company’s expectations.  Also, it is good practice to obtain signed acknowledgments from your employees indicating that they have read and understand the policy.

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