Companies find the Internet to be a valuable business tool, but many say they have to keep an eye on ... : Cyberloafing@Work

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If Unocal Corp. had any questions about how employees would make use of their newly provided Internet access, a disturbing answer came one day last summer.

An employee called the company's computer help desk to ask for assistance in downloading a file from the Internet--a file whose name happened to include the word "clubs."

Suspicious, the help-desk assistant inspected the file and discovered it contained the names and addresses of topless bars.

That isn't exactly the kind of information Unocal Corp. wants its employees culling from the information superhighway. Since then, the El Segundo-based company has established an extensive Internet policy and is building a system that will flash a warning across employees' computer screens should they try to wander into the Internet's red-light district.

"The bottom line with pornography and obscenity," says Sondra Schmid, head of Unocal's information security, "is you don't go there."

The global web of computer networks known as the Internet lets employees get information on new products, book reservations for business trips and do research on almost any topic.

But many employers are discovering that the Internet offers something else: a world of new ways for employees to waste time, an electronic amusement park filled with thousands of temptations ranging from sport scores to joke lists to steamy pictorials.

It's a matter of growing concern because the number of companies offering Internet access to their employees is exploding.

Although mainstream corporations have been linking up to the Internet for only about two years, a recent UC Irvine survey of 300 companies in Orange County found that 63% have made the Net connection. At those, nearly a quarter of the employees are wired.

Big employers such as Rockwell International Corp. and Chevron Corp. have given Internet access to tens of thousands of their workers over the last year. And even though both companies have caught employees wandering in some of the Internet's seedy neighborhoods on company time, executives say they will continue to dole out Internet accounts at a rapid rate.

Companies are aware of the Internet's vast potential as a source of information and means of communication, and they don't want to be left behind. Yet they also fear that it might lead to declines in employee productivity or, worse, sexual harassment suits filed by employees offended by co-workers' online forays.

Some companies are simply looking the other way, in a gesture of trust, but others are so wary that they will not give any employees any Internet access at all.

Most companies fall somewhere between, behaving much like nervous parents trying to keep tabs on unruly teenagers. They let their workers roam, but they are monitoring where they go, what they do there and how long they stay.

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Simple Technology Inc., a fast-growing Santa Ana producer of computer memory products, is one. Most of its 250 employees have all the equipment they need for Internet access, but company executives have given Internet accounts to fewer than 30. And the company watches almost every step those employees take during office hours.

Using a system the company designed itself, Simple keeps logs of every Internet site employees visit, and the company has assigned one of its computer technicians to go through the list daily.

"He looks for entertainment sites" that aren't work-related, said Mehrdad Komeili, who manages the company's computer network. "If there's a site he doesn't know, he [visits] it himself to find out what it is."

Employees are warned they're being watched, but they sometimes stray nevertheless. When they're caught, they usually get a written warning. Recalcitrant Internet surfers could lose their access.

That hasn't happened yet, although the company has come close. One of its product testers was given an Internet account so he could keep up with competitors and follow university research. Trouble was, he seemed more interested in checking sports scores than product specifications.

"He was just wandering through the Internet all the time," Komeili said. The worker was warned once, Komeili said, but "he waited a while and then he did it again. We gave him three notices over two months." Finally, just as Komeili was ready to yank his account, the employee left the company for another job.

In fact, the Internet is just the latest in a long line of communications tools that have raised the fears of managers and others.

When the telephone was introduced, "there was concern among religious leaders that phones would make it easier for spouses to carry on adulterous affairs," said John King, professor of information and computer science at UC Irvine. "Any time you give people new ways of doing things, they find ways of using it you don't like. It's not because they're evil, it's just because social conventions haven't been put in place."

Two of the most popular destinations on the Internet's World Wide Web are the ESPN site, which offers sports scores, and the Playboy home page, which offers pictures of naked women. Each of these sites gets nearly 4 million visits a day, and officials at both companies said peak hours are during the middle of the day on weekdays.

Statistics like that make executives nervous.

Executives at Western Digital Corp., an Irvine company that makes computer hard drives, deliberated for six months before deciding to give employees Internet access. At Rockwell headquarters in Seal Beach, the decision to offer access came quickly, but executives at the aerospace company then spent two months drafting an Internet policy.

"There were forces--our lawyers--who were anxious about this," said James Sutter, general manager of information systems at Rockwell. "Then there were people like myself who wanted to push forward."

Few companies are rushing into the Internet faster than Rockwell. In September, the company bought copies of Netscape software--the most popular program for navigating the Internet--for all 82,000 of its employees at $5 a copy. About 20,000 employees actually have Internet connections so far, but that number could double over the next year, Sutter said.

And Rockwell executives knew the Internet could bring trouble. Last year, an employee was caught downloading pictures of nude women and storing them on one of the computers that power the company's network.

But if Simple Technology has its hands full checking the Internet logs of 30 employees, how could Rockwell possibly keep track of 20,000? The answer is it can't, so it doesn't try.

Computer logs are created but not checked, and the company has blocked out Internet newsgroups that often center on controversial topics. When it comes to monitoring employees' productivity, Rockwell leaves that up to supervisors, not computer technicians.

"With all the layoffs in recent years, people out here find that their days are pretty packed with things to do," Sutter said. "Can employees waste time on the Internet? Sure. But I think they would recognize the foolishness of spending a lot of time on the Internet."

Many management experts say the wisest approach to the Internet problem is one like Rockwell's. Warn employees that their activities might be monitored but show them some trust, and let their supervisors oversee their productivity.

"How do you ever know somebody's working?" said Kenneth Kraemer, director of the Center for Research on Information Technology at UC Irvine. "You look at their output and you have frequent conversations with them."

Still, some companies have decided they'd rather not take the risk.

At Kimco Staffing Solutions, a temporary-employment agency in Orange County, only Chief Executive Kim Megonigal has an Internet account. Tony Bruno, who manages the company's computer network, said Kimco is paddling against the technological tide partly out of fear that employees would waste time and also because of the lewd elements available on the Net.

"Pictures of naked ladies--that might not be the most professional thing to have on your screen as clients walk through the office," Bruno said. "It's just like the tool woman calendar in the mechanics' shop. The less you give someone the opportunity to create that environment, the better off you are."

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Meanwhile, at Playboy Enterprises headquarters in Chicago, employees are allowed to check out the Playmate pictorials on the company's Web site, but it's "no big problem because we have a tendency to see it before it goes up on the Web," said Thomas Ryan, who helped develop the Playboy Web page.

But lately, Ryan said, the company has started to think about cracking down on employees visiting Internet sites deemed more frivolous.

"We're looking into coming up with an Internet policy," Ryan said, "because there's a lot of people who just blow time on it."

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