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Scandal Raises Questions About Technology Usage Policies

The scandal over explicit e-mails that cost Nancy Sebring her jobs as a school superintendent illustrates the perils of deteriorating distinctions between personal lives and professional responsibilities and raises questions about employers’ technology usage policies, experts say.

The Internet and mobile devices are imploding work-life boundaries by placing e-mail and other office functions literally in employees’ pockets. Yet employer policies often still presume a clear separation between work and home and acknowledge only incidental intrusions from one side or the other.

That viewpoint, tech gurus, academics, and IT officials said, is simply outdated.

“The big issue on a sociological basis for real people living in the real world is that you’ve attached yourself to the organizational e-mail system, and you’re available practically 24/7 to the company,” said Anthony Townsend, an associate professor of information systems at Iowa State University. “To peel off from that to live your personal life—I think we’re almost asking too much of people to do that.”

Sebring resigned from her job in Des Moines and a new post she was to begin in Omaha after dozens of sexually charged messages were discovered on her district e-mail account. The episode serves almost as a case study for how professionals today move seamlessly between life inside and outside the workplace, experts said.

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“The fact that she’s so intensely involved with her job puts her in the jeopardy that so many people are experiencing, where there’s a confusion between their personal life and their professional persona,” Townsend said.

Some of Sebring’s district e-mails veer from professional matters to extremely personal ones within the space of a paragraph. Others are time-stamped from well outside the conventional workday.

Constant connectivity, interlaced with private conversations or personal excursions are common in the modern work environment, and when managed appropriately can be a great strength, said Kenneth G. Brown, an associate professor of management and organizations at the University of Iowa.

“Work has changed so much that drawing the line is a little bit more difficult,” Brown said. “The type of flexibility that professionals are afforded—where they have some autonomy in how they schedule their work—is very important to being a successful professional.”

The potential for disaster arises when interactions cross the line from appropriate in a personal context to inappropriate in a professional context.

Guy Helmer, a Des Moines-based online security and e-mail filter expert, noted that if Sebring had taken the step of creating a personal e-mail account, she might have shielded her conversations from public scrutiny.

Review of policies shows similarities

A review of technology policies at several government entities, educational institutions, and private businesses in Iowa reveals broad similarities in guidelines and restrictions on e-mail, Internet, and other electronic activity—often including a general acceptance of some degree of personal use.

Officials with several companies reached Monday would not go into detail about their technology use policies, other than confirming their existence. A spokeswoman for the Principal Financial Group said the company “educates employees that information is the property of the company and is subject to monitoring,” but did not provide further detail. At Social Money, a West Des Moines-based firm that offers savings software to banks, officials said only that their policy includes restrictions involving e-mail, social media, and smart phones.

Mediacom Spokeswoman Phyllis Peters said the cable company’s policy covers communication and equipment use while on the job.

“Our acceptable use policy is quite standard,” she said. “Our human resources leaders are good at comparing with business peers and tracking trends.”

Some providers of e-mail filtering systems and security products, such as LightEdge Solutions in Des Moines, have relaxed standards regarding cell phone use. But excessive web surfing is dealt with on a case-by-case basis, and e-mail and instant messages are archived.

LightEdge spokesman Scott Riedel said the company is working on social media policies.

At the city of Des Moines, e-mail and Internet use policies bar offensive, disruptive, or objectionable materials but allow for “brief and occasional” personal use. Enforcement, meanwhile, is left to individual department directors, IT director John Newman said. That’s because department directors are expected to be better in tune with individual employees’ work habits.

Polk County, similarly, bans inappropriate e-mail messages and Internet materials but says little about the extent to which employees may use county technology for personal purposes. In state government, individual departments set their own Internet usage policies, but the state does block access to certain websites and expects employees to use their e-mail accounts only for business purposes.

Universities cite academic freedom

In the university setting, policies on the use of technology are balanced against the principles of academic freedom, and for that reason tend to be more lenient than corporate or other governmental policies. Information systems at the University of Northern Iowa, for example, “have been designed to be as open as possible,” according to its Use of Computer Resources policy.

But there are rules.

Iowa State University’s Code of Computer Ethics and Acceptable Use and policies like it at other universities mirror government and corporate prohibitions on hacking activities, unauthorized use of intellectual property and other malicious uses of computer systems, and ban the use of e-mail for harassment, spam, and commercial purposes.

Another ISU policy, regarding personal use of university property, further specifies that personal use of university computers and e-mail “should be restricted to incidental and emergency use.” The policy also refers to a state law making the use of state-owned property for personal purposes a misdemeanor crime. A University of Iowa policy, similarly, directs computer network users to “avoid excessive personal use.”

But IT officials expect rules to change because they’re swiftly falling behind reality. The proliferation of mobile devices, remote connectivity, social media, and cloud computing is prompting new discussion of existing policies.

“Technology used to be defined as within the boundaries of an organization,” said Newman, the city of Des Moines IT director. “Well, you and I both know those boundaries are well beyond the organization now. So how do you deal with that?”

ISU chief information officer Jim Davis echoed that sentiment.

“We’re immersed in technology 24/7, and we’re in kind of a bring-your-own-technology—BYOT—environment,” Davis said. “So it’s really a blurry line between where we do our work ... and that just presents a number of challenges. It’s not cut and dried like it used to be.


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