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Friday, 12 July, 2002, 09:26 GMT 10:26 UK
Surf your way out of a job
Computer consultant Bill Thompson
Computer consultant Bill Thompson wonders why so many companies see the internet and e-mail as a way for their staff to waste their time at work.
Using the internet at work can be bad for your employment prospects, at least if a survey carried out for the magazine Personnel Today is to be believed.

They have found that around a quarter of the 544 firms they asked have fired people for misusing the net during work time. Most of these - around seven out of 10 - were fired because they were accessing pornography at work.

Others were warned or fired for spending too long sending personal e-mails, hanging out in chat rooms, looking for holidays online or downloading racist material.

Perhaps the most significant finding is that most people were reported by co-workers. Either they did not like what their colleagues were doing, like looking at pornography, or they were fed up with timewasters who did not pull their weight in the organisation.

It shows that office culture can be an effective way to control internet misuse - just as it stops people spending all day knitting or talking on the phone or doing crossword puzzles.

Latent technophobia

I'm a privileged freelance worker. If I want to waste my day sitting in a local café using its wireless internet link to find a nice hotel in Venice or chat to my friends then I can do this.


There is clearly still a fear of the internet and its associated tools on the part of many employers and managers

People working in offices or call centres are far more constrained and controlled, and the temptation to use the technology for private communications must be overwhelming, if only because it is illicit.

Using the net in these ways is no different from making personal phone calls, something which most sensible employers permit within limits, or letting people bring holiday brochures into work so they can use any spare time to browse through them.

Of course, sending personal e-mail can be hidden more effectively than making a phone call. If you're tapping away at your keyboard nobody can tell whether it's an e-mail to a friend or a sales order, but that does not explain the concern that the net seems to create among managers and employers.

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There is clearly still a fear of the internet and its associated tools on the part of many employers and managers.

After all, a survey saying that one in 10 companies has sacked staff for photocopying their bottoms or sending personal faxes would not have received nearly as much attention as this report on internet abuse.

This latent technophobia is one of the reasons why so few UK companies are making really effective use of the net to change the way they work, and why online procurement and business-to-business services have taken so long to get off the ground.

Obscene and onscreen

While people may not waste as much time online as is claimed, they do seem to upset their colleagues with what they find out there, and this is a serious issue which all employers have to deal with.

The web is a great place, but it is full of unpleasant, obscene, nasty and shocking material.

Image of glamour model Theresa May
Workers fired for looking at unsuitable material
If someone came into their office with a magazine that contained the obscene pictures that can be easily found on the web then they would be disciplined immediately, and nobody would be surprised.

Yet there seems to be a belief that displaying this sort of stuff on a screen does not count, and that those who object are just being over-sensitive.

As with so many other things, this is not really about the internet. The web is just the medium through which pornography can be accessed, and although it makes it easier to find it does not, of itself, create or promote it.

The issue is really about acceptable behaviour in the work place or in public. After all, if I sat downloading obscene material in my local café I would expect to be asked to stop or leave. The same standards can be applied at work, too.

We do not need to blame the net, stop using it or limit its potential. Instead, we have to forget the idea that the net is somehow different, strange or mysterious, and get on with using it.

The problems it creates can be overcome, but only if we decide we want to make the net work for us all.

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The Bill Thompson column is courtesy of BBC WebWise, part of BBC Education's ongoing campaign to teach people about the internet and how to use it. Bill is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital

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09 Jul 02 | Science/Nature
10 Aug 01 | Science/Nature
06 Jun 01 | Business
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