Employment Tribunals place a significant amount of weight on the fact that employees know what standards are expected of them in the workplace. It is therefore vitally important that whatever rules you have on any matter are made expressly clear to your staff. A good way to do this is to have a written policy on expected standards in relation to internet usage. It may sound a little heavy handed to create an official document in this regard but this is exactly what you need to do to formalise your rules.
Obviously, your policy must be reasonable and not too restrictive. What your policy can do is place limits on the amount of time the employee can spend on the internet for their own use whilst on your premises, or set specific times when they can use it, for example only before and after working hours, or at lunch time. You can even ban non-work usage altogether, and support this by disconnecting any access whatsoever to certain sites if you feel you need to be this severe.
A formal policy should set out the rights, responsibilities and limitations on the use of your company’s equipment and will help you prevent any unauthorised or careless use which might result in it creating a legal risk.
If you choose to allow your staff to have access to the internet, albeit only at certain times, you need to create certain rules on the types of sites you permit them to visit. Your policy should specifically prohibit deliberate access of any site that could be seen to be offensive, obscene or indecent, such as pornography, racist or sexist material, violent images, or incitement to criminal behaviour etc so as to avoid a claim of harassment.
Once it is created, you should either make sure that all your employees receive a copy, or receive notification that there is a policy in existence, letting them know where they can find it and impressing on them your expectation that they become familiar with it.
A policy is not effective unless you back it up with the appropriate level of action against any breaches. Your policy should set out the instances which will bring about disciplinary action and you should ensure that this action is taken when breaches are discovered. Your staff will not respect a policy if they see that there are no ramifications when they do not follow it.
Once you know that your employees are aware of the rules, you have a sound basis for disciplining any individual who breaches those rules. You can refer to your policy within the disciplinary procedure itself, even attaching it to any formal written invitation to a disciplinary hearing on the matter.
For any further information on drafting email and internet policies, please call the Peninsula advice service on 0844 892 2772.