Technology in the Workplace

“For a list of all the ways that technology has failed to improve our lives, please press three now.” – Alice Kahn


            When I began practicing in the area of employment law in Amarillo 21 years ago, no lawyer or secretary in my law firm of 40 attorneys had a personal computer in his or her office. We had a 4-person word processing center in which the only firm computers resided.

            Fast forward 21 years and I presently own five computers. Most of my client communications are done by e-mail and I can access all of my files electronically with my laptop while on a camping trip.

I know I’m showing my age, but I am still astounded by the rate at which technology has taken over the legal business and every other industry with which I work.

My friend, insurance agent Julie Hulsey, and I were just exclaiming over the exponential rate at which the technology universe is expanding as we had lunch today. On the table beside both of us were smart phones, enabling us to check e-mail, schedule appointments and send ourselves reminders about a conference we were planning as we ate our salads at Baker Brothers. No paper or pens were in sight; only styluses and touch screens.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the information age. But inevitably, technology brings to the workplace problems and situations that have to be addressed. Some of them are starting to be considered by the courts. As always, I encourage you as an employer to think about the consequences of these digital changes on your workplace now to avoid a visit to the courthouse later.

Here are some of the technology issues you need to consider and probably draft policies to clarify for your employees:

·         Obviously, you need a policy that addresses internet use at work. You can’t allow your employees to spend all day surfing the net or viewing pornography. You have to regulate downloads, whether it is illegal music downloads or pirated software. You should ban gaming on your computer system. You want to assure that your employee’s time is productive, so state that the internet at work is for research, professional development or marketing.

·         E-mail policies must protect confidentiality, prohibit sexual, racial or other illegal harassment, prevent viruses and worms, prohibit slander and warn employees that they have no privacy on the company computer system and you may review their e-mails at any time.

·         You may want to restrict your employees’ blogging and social networking activities by requiring them to report any posts that concern the company. Many disgruntled employees are out there blogging about their workplaces, libeling poor supervisors, describing workplace dysfunction and spilling company trade secrets. Some post pictures on Facebook of their bosses’ drunken antics at company Christmas parties. These kinds of posts can be a public relations nightmare for a business. By adopting a written policy, you can alert employees that you expect professionalism in cyberspace just as you do in the workplace.  And you can let your employees know that anything that they post on the internet is not private and may be viewed by the company and considered when evaluations, promotions and raises come up.

·         How comfortable are you with your employees wearing ear buds or headphones while at work to listen to their iPods? Some solitary jobs, like software design or sorting mail, may be perfect for personal music devices. But if your employees must interact with customers or each other, there is nothing more discourteous than wearing headphones. That sends a clear message that the other person is unimportant and that their interruption is unwelcome. Headphones can also constitute a distraction and a safety hazard in work areas where alarms, machinery or coworkers need to be heard.

·         Almost everybody with a cell phone is carrying a camera into your workplace. Are your trade secrets and proprietary information protected? Have you told your employees in writing that they can’t take a cell phone camera into a restroom or locker room so that everyone can have a little privacy?  Are your customers’ and employees’ identities, financial and medical information protected? If a cell phone camera gets a picture of a social security number or a patient record, it can be attached to a text message and in seconds, your business is compromised. Consider banning or placing serious restrictions on the use of cell phone cameras in your business.

Aah, isn’t technology great! Sometimes I feel that any efficiency that was gained through e-mail, computers and cell phones was lost by all the policies that have to be drafted and enforced to deal with the liabilities of e-mail, computers and cell phones.

I think that next weekend I’ll go camping without bringing the laptop! Try to relive the good old days, circa 1987.


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