Company Computer Dos and Don’ts

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Have any of these scenarios happened to you?

  • You’re eating lunch at your desk and checking your Web email account. A friend forwards a YouTube video that’s hilarious yet full of swear words. You forward it to an office buddy who you know will love it.
  • You have a disagreement with your manager and let off steam by posting some particularly nasty comments about his management style on your blog.
  • You’re on a business trip and lose a thumb drive that has confidential company documents on it. You were supposed to encrypt this information, but hadn’t gotten around to it yet.

While these scenarios sound relatively innocuous, any one of them could actually get you a dressing-down from your boss, a formal reprimand — or worse, fired.

With email, the Internet and mobile electronics so ubiquitous, it’s easy to forget what you should and shouldn’t do at the office or with company electronics. To keep yourself out of hot water, you’ve got to know what your company’s electronic communications playbook is and stick to it.

It’s smart to play it safe. In the United States, employees have no reasonable expectation of privacy in the workplace, so companies are within their legal rights to monitor email, blogs, social networks — even text messages sent over your company-provided cell phone — to check up on what you do and say, according to Helene Wasserman, an employment attorney with Ford & Harrison LLP in Los Angeles. “You have to know it’s a place of business, not home,” she says.

Someone Is Watching
Typically, companies aren’t spying on you and other employees to catch slackers or people sending too many personal emails, according to legal and security sources. In most cases, it’s to prevent leaks of confidential information that could result in regulatory fines, lost business or bad press.

So what should you do? Here are some dos and don’ts for using the company computer and protecting yourself and the company.

1. Think before you type Unlike hallway conversations or phone calls, what’s said in an email can last forever, and chances are, it will be seen by more than just the intended recipient. Plus, employers view email communications differently, says Lewis Maltby, executive director for the National Workrights Institute, a workers’ rights advocate in Princeton, N.J. “You could get fired for telling a joke to a fellow employee over the Net that your boss heard in the cafeteria and thought was funny.”

2. Know your company’s email and Internet usage policies Many companies have built rules for using email and the Internet into their employee handbooks. Some offer workshops on electronic communications policies. If you’re not sure something’s covered, be sure to ask. When Jim Cahill, a communications manager at Emerson Process Management, in Austin, Texas, started a blog about the $4 billion industrial automation manufacturer two years ago, he was the company’s one and only blogger. Today, the company has several, and they all use the same checklist of what they can and can’t mention, Cahill says. “If anyone else would get started, they’d have to know these are the things you have to follow,” he says.

3. Protect your gear People lose stuff all the time. According to a November, 2007, survey by the Ponemon Institute, a Detroit privacy think tank, slightly more than half of 893 people surveyed said they’d lost or misplaced a cell phone, laptop, thumb drive or other device containing sensitive company information in the recent past. With the risk so high, it’s imperative to take steps to make sure work data is protected. Use passwords or encryption, so data on lost or stolen devices can’t be read. Keeping your laptop, phone and company files organized in one place, such as a wheeled briefcase, is a good way to prevent things from getting lost in the first place, says Clyde Lerner, owner of In the Moment Computing, a Sunnyvale, Calif., computer services and organization company.

Using the company computer wisely can save you a lot of headaches — and it might even save your job.

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