Workers at the Salt River Project, a Phoenix utility, had no trouble navigating the Internet after first connecting in 1994. In fact, they were a little too adept: a management check found that pornography sites were some of the most popular among employees.
Today the utility uses special software that blocks pornography and other sites vetoed by management. And like many other companies, it has learned that the Net can be a double-edged sword.
Not only does the Internet offer racist jokes and centerfolds that can be easily downloaded - a legal morass for employers - but it purveys games, shopping opportunities and other trivial pursuits for cyberloafing fun.
"You can have your nose in the computer and look like you're working and you can hide if you want," says Richard Viets, creator of the SmartFilter software installed by the Salt River Project.
Employer angst over the matter has spawned a boomlet in companies making software - often originally made for parents - that blocks Web sites or records a users' trail through the Internet. Companies are also scrambling to write specific policies for Internet use at the office.
What's the fuss, some might ask? Perhaps surfing for fun is like taking a coffee break or making a personal phone call. Playing solitaire or other games - originally included in software to help teach mouse techniques - is akin to doodling for inspiration.
Phil Hallman, a technical support worker at Texas Instruments, logs onto the Net each day at work to read the headlines.
"I don't smoke cigarettes," he says of his daily break. "I'd rather sit on the Internet and see what's going on in the world."
Yet even those who favor a little cybergoofing admit it differs from scratch pads and telephones. It's visual, fast, almost limitless, inefficient - and very seductive.
"You keep going and going and before you know it, it's time to go home," says Joe McKee, the Salt River Project's computer specialist in charge of Internet security, who admits to an occasional glance at photography equipment Web sites on his break time.
How much computer play goes on at work is hard to estimate, partly because there are so many ways to do it. But a 1995 study by Coleman & Associates, a research firm in Teaneck, N.J., found that 44 percent of Americans played games on their personal computers. And of the adults who played games, 23 percent said they'd last done so while at work.
Penthouse last year identified employees of AT&T and a few other corporations as being among the most frequent visitors to the magazine's Web site. Now AT&T blocks pornography sites and does spot checks on which other sites employees visit.
The company doesn't have a policy on Internet use, but its employee code of conduct forbids use of the computer for personal use, says spokesman Burke Stinson, who recalls that he was reprimanded for using his office computer to court his wife.
Other companies are spelling out Internet policies, mainly out of concern for worker productivity, according to CIO Communications, a high-tech magazine group based near Boston.
Two thirds of the 125 companies recently surveyed by CIO and the research firm ICEX had formal or informal policies, mostly introduced in the last two years. Thirty-five percent of the policies banned personal use, a third limited Net play to after-hours, and nearly a third imposed few if any limits.
Often a little deterrent goes a long way.
DuPont saw an explosion of visits to what managers considered inappropriate Web sites after first linking to the Internet. "We began to get alarmed because we were putting in capacity and it was being used up by increasing numbers of users, and by users using it for not the right thing," says Fritz Wagner, manager of electronic information security.
The company tried blocking sites, but stopped after realizing that deciding which sites to block on the ever-changing Net was eating up large amounts of time.
Now DuPont simply monitors the heaviest Internet users, sending warning notes when appropriate - a policy that has curbed, although not eliminated, inappropriate use, Mr. Wagner says.
Leniency also suits Texas Instruments, which does little blocking and monitoring of Internet use, says Carl Skooglund, director of the company's ethics office. Increasingly, employees police themselves.
"We see a rapidly growing intolerance on the part of people in the company for those spending too much time on the Internet," he said.
At the Salt River Project, managers usually try to take a balanced view, Mr. McKee says. For most, what's important is whether the job gets done - and that said, a little cyberfun can't hurt.
"Some managers might not want to see it even once," he says, "while other managers walk by and ask how the game is going."
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