America's obsession with sports is nothing new, but here's an interesting tidbit that will make any employer pause: Average fantasy sports fanatics spend an estimated 34 minutes per day just thinking about their teams, which means 30 to 40 million employees linger on sites for over 30 minutes every day deciding on whether Yankees' third baseman Alex Rodriguez will continue his base stealing this week or which team's closer is going to shut down the lefties in the ninth inning.

This loss of productivity during a fantasy sports season will cost the U.S. economy an estimated weekly $1.1 billion. That's an enormous number, and it's a situation that is difficult for companies to control if the policies aren't clear-cut to employees. So how can companies reel in this misuse of company time?

Some employers take the strict approach by banning recreational use of the Internet. These organizations may even crack down by putting sophisticated monitoring systems in place.

In some instances, other companies suspend and fire employees for Internet abuse. While it is an employer's right to implement and enforce this type of policy, it must be clearly communicated to each employee who has job-related Internet access. Companies have every right to expect employees to perform job-specific duties during their work hours. And they have the right to terminate those employees who repeatedly devote time to fantasy teams, for example, instead.


 

Another good way to prevent problems with Internet abuse, and to correct them if necessary, is to mingle with your employees on a regular basis. If you do find a problem, often discussing the matter with the employee once or twice will correct the behavior. At a minimum, it will let the employee know that you're paying attention.

Other companies view wasted time during the workday as a mental break for hard-working employees. Some employers view surfing the Net as something that benefits the company's culture, work environment and bottom line. They believe it can stimulate new business ideas, create better efficiency or strengthen bonds between employees, although it is difficult to see what business opportunities can be gleaned from fantasy baseball.

Suppose that in attempting to deal with fantasy baseball Internet misuse, you organize an office fantasy league. You figure that if they are going to be caught up in fantasy league mania anyway, you might as well use it to build camaraderie in the office.

But what if some employees don't participate in the office fantasy league? What if league participants are allowed to spend a certain amount of time every day pursuing this hobby, while other employees are not allowed paid time during the day to pursue their hobbies? A discrimination charge may follow. Even if there is not a legal problem, the fantasy league that was meant to improve morale may have created a real employee relations problem.

Some employers generally take a permissive view of personal Internet use at work. They believe that this will be appreciated thus giving their companies a reputation for being good workplaces. Perhaps this will give you an edge in recruiting and retaining good employees. But be wary of the problems that it can also create.

 

Employees may use the opportunity for personal web browsing to access sites that are problematic. Of course, you would prohibit the viewing of pornographic websites. But consider the Victoria's Secret website. It is certainly not pornographic, but if a sexual harassment claim is filed and someone in the vicinity was regularly accessing that site, the Victoria's Secret site would figure into the harassment claim somehow.

An employee who views the website of one of the major presidential candidates may not present a problem for you, but what will you do when another employee views the website of some fringe hate group? He would argue that it is just another political website, and he is entitled to be treated the same way as the Republicans and Democrats in the office. If you prohibit his viewing of that website, he will carp and cry unfair treatment. And if you let him view that website, everyone else in the office will be up in arms.

Whether your company decides to hold the line or be flexible with personal Internet use, the primary concerns are consistency and clarity. First, consider your options, consider all the consequences, and decide what you should do. Then, draft a policy that clearly establishes the rules for your workplace and communicate that policy to employees. Expectations about fantasy sports teams and general recreational use of the Internet should be discussed when new employees are hired and on other appropriate occasions as well. Just be prepared to enforce whatever policy you adopt.