Most large employers have policies regarding employee access to computers. Some companies restrict use to “business purposes only.” Others allow some computer usage for personal reasons – usually with limitations as to time and the content being viewed. A few companies are wide open, allowing employees more-or-less unfettered access to online resources.
Regardless of policy, employees frequently use their work computing resources for personal purposes. Throughout the later years of my career I always had my personal email open in a browser window on my work computer. I also kept track of personal financial information in Excel spreadsheets (I received a lot of the information while at work, and it was simply more convenient to deal with it there), planned vacations, and performed a variety of other personal tasks on work computers and phones – regardless of policy.
And when I decided to change jobs, my work computer was used to help. At various times it was utilized for: communication with recruiters and potential new employers, employer research, and even house hunting.
Had anyone been looking it would have been plainly obvious what I was up to – I was either in the midst of a job change, contemplating a job change, or at least fantasizing about one. If known to my boss, my computer behavior would have been a clear tip-off of what I was attempting (or at least considering). If he’d been inclined to try to change my mind, it would have given him plenty of time to plan and implement countermeasures. And if he wasn’t interested in keeping me, it might have been the impetus to bum-rush me out the door.
For the employee, using work resources in your job search can be a two-edged sword – it could result in a raise and/or promotion in reaction to your impending departure, or it might cost you your job. For the boss, it represents useful data to help make a decision that is in the best interests of the company.
A note on privacy.
I’ve listened to plenty of employees complain about the “abuse” of their “privacy rights” employers. Regardless of whether you like it, courts have pretty clearly established that material created at work and on work equipment/software, is the property of the company, not the employee. When you use your work electronics (including your smartphone) you might be able to keep it SECRET, but you have no legal privacy protection. Complain about it all you want, but recognize the facts – anything you create, view, or transmit CAN be seen and acted upon by management. You might want to avoid, gambling sites, porn, streaming services that use lots of bandwidth, and anything you want to remain private.
As a boss in an ideal world, I would have liked to have my IT group install algorithms in our network to monitor all email and web traffic. Certain sites, activities, key words, or other behaviors would have been used to alert me to a variety of improper or concerning activities. Among these I would have put a priority on identifying employees hunting for new employment.
Perhaps someday this type of “big brother” style monitoring will be practical, but today it isn’t (at least as far as I know.) While computer activity is one of the first signs that might betray the impending departure of a key employee, it is generally only practical to examine once other signs have tipped you off.
One employee (not a high value, highly engaged one) seemed particularly flippant when he announced his resignation from the company. The incident made me suspicious, and so I asked the IT department to check into his computer activities during his final two weeks of work. As it turned out, we were able to determine he had taken large amounts of sensitive information, putting them on discs and CDs (the normal media at the time).
After that incident, I was a lot more careful when watching the electronic activities of employees that showed other signs that they were on their way out.
I suggest that managers seeing other signs a valued employee may be considering a move, pay particular attention to that employee’s email traffic (both company and personal if accessed on work devices). Such snooping can readily verify your suspicions, and can give you more time to plan how you’ll convince the employee to stay.
Beyond that, I wouldn’t waste your time checking out employee’s personal computer activity. A lot the management task consists of determining what to spend time on and what to ignore. I don’t personally believe there is enough upside in the constant monitoring of employee computer activity to make it worth the effort. And even though it is technically permissible, you’re just begging for a backlash if that kind of oversight becomes common knowledge.
Other Posts in this Series:
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