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How Much to Watch Your Workers Web Surf

CHICAGO (MainStreet) -- Cyber Monday started the week off with a bang. IBM's (IBM) annual Cyber Monday Benchmark, which tracks transactions from 500 retailers, found sales were up 33% this year compared with 2010. The peak shopping time was 2 p.m. Eastern (11 a.m. Pacific), which suggests that an awful lot of Americans did their holiday ordering from the office.

Is that a problem? For many small-business owners, how and when their employees use the Internet is an eternal, nagging concern. Now that social media plays an ever-more-important part in marketing, it's unrealistic to cut off all access to Facebook and Twitter, especially if your company uses them to reach out to customers. But does making those sites available give workers tacit permission to update their personal accounts all day? Is productivity suffering?

For many small-business owners, how and when their employees use the Internet is an eternal, nagging concern.

Every company, from Fortune 500 behemoths to the mom and pop corner deli, struggles with these issues. A recent study by the Society for Human Resource Management found that 43% of organizations blocked employees' access to social media on company-owned computers or handheld devices. That means more than half of companies allow their employees to access sites such as Facebook while at work; of those companies, only about one-third track what their employees are doing.

So what are your options if you're concerned how workers spend time online? The first thing to consider is the difference between online security and online monitoring. Every office computer system should be set up with certain security controls to keep out viruses and prevent employees from making illegal downloads. Such security monitoring has gotten even more important with the rise of social media, since links shared through Facebook and Twitter can be used to pass along malware that threatens an entire office network.

Most network security systems flag offensive or illegal content; rather than continually tracking everyone's online activity, the boss gets a heads-up only if a person tries to access a blocked site or sends a raunchy email. While it might seem obvious that certain sites are a no-no at the office, it's important to clearly spell out which lines shouldn't be crossed and the penalties for doing so. If you want to fire someone for gambling online from their office laptop, you'd better be able to show that the employee was warned of the consequences of that behavior.

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