County News

Public Employees and the Perils of Technology

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Case 1

Jenny works full time at the county in the Community Development Department, where she has been promoted steadily over the past five years.  She is a mother of three and has decided to go back to school full time, taking advantage of the county’s tuition reimbursement program. Community Development has busy seasons and slow seasons, so Jenny figures she can get a lot of school work done while at work. Jenny creates a folder on her computer just for school work, to keep it organized and separate.

Since she is working on class work from her desk so often, it becomes convenient to email other students, group project members and professors from her work email with school content.  Everyone knows she is going to school and is proud of her courage to take on such a heavy workload. She is getting all of her work done and the county is supportive of her getting her degree in a work-related field, so she feels it is not a conflict.  Additionally, Jenny knows that Juan just got his master’s degree in a work-related field and used county time for his studies.


Case 2

Larry has worked at the county for 10 years in the Finance Department. He has always dreamed of starting his own business.  The county encourages innovation and offers many classes on leadership, innovation and creative problem solving. Now after taking these classes, Larry feels encouraged to follow through on his entrepreneurial ideas.  Larry, though, can’t afford to quit his county job until his business has at least a small foundation. He is trying to keep his business and work separate, but his home computer does not have Adobe or Publisher to create the marketing materials he needs.  Larry also finds that the version of Excel on the county network is much easier to use than his home version, maybe because he uses it every day.

Larry has never smoked, but one of his co-workers gets two 15-minute breaks to smoke.  Larry decides that he will use two 15-minute periods at his work computer to create marketing materials and use Excel for his start-up business.  At first he decides he will not print at the office, only email himself. But when Megan down the hall has to recycle a huge color printing job because a typo was found, Larry sees all the recycled color printing and decides that 25 color copies of his marketing material are nothing compared to that waste.


Case 3

fter three years in the Sheriff’s Office, Eric has become a go-to guy.  He volunteers for committees and takes extra shifts when asked. His previous two performance evaluations were stellar.  Eric is familiar with the county’s policies, including the horribly outdated Telephones in the Workplace policy, which states that desk phones may not be used for personal business, and the IT policies. Eric has never violated the old phone policy, and doesn’t even share his work number with people outside of work.  Even his kids’ school only has his cell phone number.

Any time Eric takes a personal call on his cell, he immediately gets off the phone if his desk phone or email alert him.  The IT policies say employees can’t access Facebook during work hours, but that must be out of date too, since the county has an employee Facebook page. There have been many times Eric read up on upcoming trainings and awards on that page.

Eric also gets the local weather online during work and has looked at the local newspaper on his work computer. Occasionally, in the nature of his work, Eric has looked at Amazon to price out items for work.   County initiatives and programs are often covered by the local news and Eric likes to read the comments from the public as a gauge of public perception of the county. One of Eric’s co-workers said the county can monitor each computer using some new software they just purchased, but Eric isn’t worried; he isn’t doing anything wrong.


Case 4

Christina has worked in Public Works for less than one year.  She coordinates a large fund raiser for her child’s football team. The team is very popular within the community and the fund raiser has become known as a community gathering.  After having several sons on the team, Christina has found herself as the coordinator for many years. Her community involvement and examples of leadership drawn from her football fundraiser work helped her to give specific examples during her interview and are part of the reason she got the Public Works job.

Christina works on the fundraising a little during the day, and there have been several times Christina has quickly minimized the screen when her supervisor, Anna, walked by.  Christina doesn’t mean to get sidetracked with the fund raising; she just wants to address ideas before she forgets them, and her co-workers are helping come up with great ideas to make this year the best year yet. The county encourages volunteering in the community.

Last week, Christina accidentally missed a work deadline.  When Anna tells Christina she wants to meet with her at two o’clock today, Christina quickly deletes the fundraising files from her computer.  As she does so, she sees that the fundraising time has added up, and she has to delete many, many files. Christina is on initial probation. Will the county be able to see the files Christina deleted?  Should she admit the mistake to Anna and promise not to let the time get so unbalanced again?


Think about it

Take a moment to think about the four scenarios listed above.  Are any of the employees in the examples violating policies at your county?  Does your conflict of interest policy include a statement about working diligently during work hours?  Does it require review of outside employment for potential conflicts of interest? Has your telephone use policy been updated?  Do your IT policies address social media use?

Keeping policies updated is a large task given changing laws and constantly changing technology.  Most employees only sign a policy acknowledgement once every few years, or maybe when they are first hired.  Certainly, it is their responsibility to read and understand the policies, but let’s be honest — how many of them read the policies thoroughly?

It is just one more form to sign with possibly an intention to go back later and read them if their first week of on-boarding is slow (i.e. no one has time to train you right now, so read the policies).

Even if new employee orientation includes some policy overview, the information overload on that day is intense, with most new employees focused on getting their tax forms completed, getting benefit questions answered and asking questions about timesheets.

What can you do?  Set expectations for your department or work group by regularly highlighting a policy at a staff meeting.  Follow up the policy overview with an acceptable work practices discussion, question-answer, specific examples and finish with a memo of expectations that everyone acknowledges after the training.

This gets everyone on the same page, with a clear understanding of what the organization expects.  It also lays the ground work in case you, like Anna above, have to have a difficult conversation with an employee about technology in the workplace.

What can IT do?  IT departments have the ability to monitor employees’ work computers.  Depending on the software the county has purchased, IT may be able to do any of the following or more:

  • Collect incoming and outgoing emails, including emails from outside the network and/or from the employee’s personal email provider, such as Yahoo or G-mail.
  • Monitor the websites or social media employees visit, including the amount of time an employee spends on those sites.
  • Take screen shots of websites or social media the employee is visiting.
  • View employee emails or documents
  • Retrieve files or emails the employee has deleted
  • Decrypt encrypted data, including personal data sent from a county device
  • Block access to websites, including personal email websites, or
  • Monitor all key strokes.

Do employees have any expectation of privacy on their work computers?  No, computers are the property of the organization and anything created on them during the course of business is work product.

What if an employee saves documents on their hard drive or an external hard drive?  Assuming the hard drive and external hard drive are county property, the information on them is still county property. What if an employee buys an external hard drive and uses it at work?

Some employers have IT policies preventing use of personal hard drives or even thumb drives.

If an employer is serious about ensuring personal work is not completed on work time or on work devices, there is little, if any reason for employees to be using personal external drives at work.

Jenny, Larry, Eric and Christina are engaging in behavior that needs to be addressed by a supervisor.

The supervisor needs to make clear what is and is not acceptable work performance, and that conversation would ideally be documented, either formally or informally, depending on the policies that exist and the impacts the employee’s conduct is having on their work.

Without conversations and expectations, employees sometimes take their cues from other employees, rather than asking a supervisor or calling human resources.

In today’s work environment, technology is omnipresent and rapidly changing. Ideally, your county’s use of technology is improving efficiencies, something, and engaging the public more effectively.

But as the scenarios show, those benefits are countered by the potential for time wasting and personal use.

As public officials, it is imperative we ensure our policies address these pitfalls and that our employees are well trained and regularly reminded of the limitations on their use of technology.

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