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Knowing the Boundaries – and Keeping Staff Out of Trouble

The office was a very social place and the staff enjoyed a laugh. Jokes were told and after work drinks were a regular and enjoyable occurrence.
Then it went just a bit too far. One of the email jokes forwarded upset the new girl and one of the men over did the celebrating at Christmas lunch and was too zealous in his approaches to another staff member.

The email incident led to a resignation and a later claim for constructive dismissal and the lunch incident resulted in the otherwise highly regarded employee leaving under a cloud.

The cost to this company included the following.
• Recruitment costs for replacement staff
• Notice period paid but not worked for one employee and or non productive work prior to leaving for the other
• Training costs and non productive period for new employees
• Legal costs
• Management time in handling the incident
• Other staff disrupted by the incident and ongoing discussions about it
• Loss of business not done during the change over of employees

Quantifying such costs to organizations can be quite surprising. It could be from two months salary to well over a year for each employee.

No one wants to stop the fun and enjoyment that can be had at work. It should be encouraged. But, there has to be boundaries and these have to be clearly understood.

While the idea of policies and procedures can sound dry and constraining, they actually allow people to get on with work productively. A bit like enjoying the game more if everyone knows the rules.
A client of ours recently had other problems with the use of computers in the workplace. This was a technical policy issue. Their IT Manager was very clear in setting the rules.

“Over the last few months the Internet usage has increased considerably with a consequent increase in its cost. I would like to remind everyone of the company’s Acceptable Use of Technology Policy that allows for “limited personal use” of the company’s resources. Use for legitimate business purposes is encouraged. I should also make you aware that all Internet usage is logged including who is browsing, when it is happening and where they are browsing to.”

And another message from the same IT Manager.
“I have recently been asked about the playing and/or storage of music on the company’s computers.

These things are permitted:
1. If you bring your own CDs and play them in the CD drive of your workstation.

2. If you convert your CDs to music files and store them in your workstation (C: drive) AND they are not sent to, or shared with anyone else on the network or Internet.

These things are not permitted:
1. The storage of music or any other copyright material on the company’s computers so that it can be shared. This means on any network drive. This exposes the company to breach of copyright action (as some Australian Universities have discovered).

2. Downloading of, or receipt by e-mail or streaming media of, music or other media files other than as required for business purposes. This is a breach of the company’s Acceptable Use of Technology Policy. Receiving such files is wasteful of the company’s Internet bandwidth.

If you have any such files on network drives I will give you the opportunity to move or delete them. Next week sometime I will be scanning the network drives for such files and deleting them without further notice.”

A very useful template for developing an Internet policy is provided by Electronic Frontiers Australia at

Having your policies and procedures meet legislative requirements is important as well as covering the areas that allow people to be more productive. But that’s not enough. Communicating them is just as important and having a process in place to show that you have done this is good risk management.

Employees should be introduced to essential policies when they are recruited and should sign off that they are aware of them. These should be reinforced on a regular basis. The benefit of this to the business is that employees know the boundaries and the organization has some protection against claims if they are able to show reasonable steps have been taken to ensure employees comply with legislation.

Paul Phillips is a Director of Horizon Management Group; a specialist human resource management consulting firm. He has over 30 years experience in HR and, while based in Australia, has worked in a number of overseas locations.