Until recently, most companies had either zero-tolerance or "look-away" policies toward employees who abuse their Internet privileges at work. But with more of the work force going online and Web sites multiplying daily, how realistic are such policies?

"What are you going to do, fire the vice president because he's downloading porn?" asks Kimberly Young, PhD, executive director of the Center for On-Line Addiction (www.netaddiction.com).

Consequently, companies are seeking help in studying and treating the problem so they can retain otherwise good employees.

Young has traveled the country training employee-assistance personnel and treating people with workplace Internet-abuse problems. She has to get creative in her interventions, she says. High-level executives she has treated in Silicon Valley, for example, want quick-and-dirty solutions to their obsessions.

"If I started talking Twelve Steps and spirituality, I'd lose them," she says. So, she suggests behavioral solutions, such as moving the computer to a public area, or having her clients enjoy occasional "treats" such as checking their stocks online after they've had a productive hour.

Meanwhile, Center for Internet Studies founder David Greenfield, PhD, recently conducted one of the first studies on the topic. In partnership with Websense and the Saratoga Institute, he surveyed human resource personnel, chief information officers and managers of information systems in 224 mid-size companies to discover the extent and nature of their Internet-abuse problems.

Sixty percent of the managers said they'd disciplined employees for online misuse, and 30 percent had fired people for such behavior, which included downloading pornography and shopping and gambling online. Even though 83 percent of companies have Internet use/abuse policies in place, almost 50 percent show little or no concern about employees spending time on the net. This is further reflected by only 10 percent of companies training their supervisors on how to recognize this problem, even with 88 percent having an employee-assistance program in place.

Twenty-one percent reported disciplining or firing employees for downloading pornography alone, Greenfield said. The two most frequently abused Internet venues were e-mail and pornography, each making up about 40 percent of workplace reprimands for Internet abuse.

In addition, 83 percent of the managers said they'd written employees memos about Internet use, and 57 percent expressed concern about the issue. They used a variety of methods to enforce their policies: 37 percent, for example, had monitoring software.

These early statistics point to a virtual iceberg of problems in the workplace, Greenfield believes.

"The greatest power of the Net is that when you're online, you are not doing other, perhaps more important things with your time," he commented. "Combine that with the sense of timelessness, accelerated intimacy and disinhibition that occurs when you're online, and you have a very potent psychoactive behavior."

--T. DeANGELIS