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Internet, Email, and Phone Use in the Workplace

By Jennifer Pollock

It’s a syndrome that sweeps offices across the country at 3:45 PM daily: mass boredom and a craving of outside entertainment. And guess what…sweet, sweet distraction is right in front of us. It’s our computer. It conveniently (and dangerously) doubles as a portal to the

outside world. We can reach out to any site or anyone we want (provided our company doesn’t have it blocked). Salvation! But, wait. Stop. The eyes of the IT department could be resting upon you this very moment. In fact, they probably are. Most companies can access anything that’s goes into or comes out of your computer: a list of the sites you’ve visited, the transcript of every email, etc. And yes, they can even listen in on your phone calls. But wait—that doesn’t mean you have to wear an aluminum-foil technology-blocking hat and shun all outside contact. It just means you have to be careful. Here’s how.


While it should be obvious, it’s still worth stating: think twice before typing in a seedy url or spending four hours on YouTube. Your boss will know. It sounds like a stretch, but many companies actually filter for certain URLs and website content—when it’s found, red lights go off and your firm may call in the Internet-equivalent of the D.E.A. You don’t want to end up explaining why you went to milf hunter dot com. When using your cubicle computer, avoid any sites that are NSFW (not safe for work). And if you're an unemployed joker or work for an NSFW website yourself, be a pal and let your corporate buddies know when a link you send them is a bit risqué.


No—the long arm of your office IT department doesn’t stop at the URL box of your web browser. They also have full access to your most private inbox.


If you’re anything like me, your primary mode of communication with your friends during the workday is email. But I make sure to keep all of my personal emailing confined to my personal email address, and so should you. Many companies employ staff to monitor work-email accounts, so just be aware that anything you say there is potentially being read by someone else. Admittedly, they’re probably more interested in catching things like “I’m about to do an insider trading deal,” or “attached is my resume for your consideration,” than finding out why you hate your roommate—but still, exercise caution. Some companies block sites like Gmail and Yahoo at work, but it's still worth keeping your business and personal life separate when it comes to email. After all, you're probably gonna get a new job and lose that work addy sooner or later.

If your company blocks access from all personal email site, this doesn’t mean that you have to remain completely mum to your friends during work hours. Just don’t say anything too incriminating, keep your emails clean (no seven words—NSFW), and if you can, to a minimum (bad things to write include why you hate your job and/or your boss, what your post-lunch bathroom visit looked like, and any inappropriate-for-work anecdotes from the weekend). Overall, companies are more concerned with what you are sending out than what’s coming in, but if your friend sends across something ridiculous just make sure you don’t join in, and remind them to exercise caution when responding to your work address.


Of course, dealing with procrastination and your personal life are just one part of office internet safety. A bit of decorum is required when emailing your co-workers and boss(es). So read on for a brief brush up on inter-office and work-related email etiquette.

  • When writing colleagues (especially your boss or your clients), always assume that you should adopt a formal tone, until you get indication otherwise. Use people’s original emails or replies as a gauge for your own writing style. Steer clear of spelling and grammar mistakes.
  • Write clear and concise email subjects so that emails are easily searchable in people’s inboxes. (e.g. “Site Traffic Report, August 2007,” instead of “here you go”).
  • Use the cc: field sparingly. People should know why they are receiving a copy of the message.
  • Do not abuse the high priority option. Once there was this boy, who cried wolf… Yeah, same idea.
  • Read the entire thread of an email before you reply.
  • Use an active tone instead of a passive one (ex, “We will process this today,” instead of, “this is being processed today”).
  • Don’t forward huge and unnecessary attachments. It’s annoying and takes up a lot of space.
  • Always triple-check that you’ve spelled your recipients’ names correctly. A good way to check is to look at the email address(es) you’re replying to.
  • Use office email to your advantage – surprisingly, it’s a place to shine. For example, if you’re sending through an update to a presentation, your boss will love you if you clearly spell out what’s changed. If your Blackberry-toting boss is on the road and she's asking for a word doc, consider pasting the body of the word document in the email and also attaching it so she can review it more easily.
  • If an email thread reaches above 3 or 4 emails, it’s time to pick up the phone and talk to the person directly.


Imagine that you are a drug-dealer on HBO’s The Wire and the IT department is the cops—everything you say can be heard, so just make sure you’re only talking about what you want people to know. And no, they don’t want to know about what you did with your significant other last weekend, or how wasted you got. (Or drug deals, for that matter.) Some basic judgment should keep you in the clear.

Work-Related Calls

Professional phone use involves a little bit more than avoiding references to illegal activities and disgusting things. Some positions (e.g., receptionist, talent agency assistant) require very specific protocol, so get familiar with the script and learn how to forward calls and put people on hold without hanging up on them. Even if no standards are laid out, you should get used to answering the phone by saying your name or the name of your company rather than just shouting, "Wazzzzzzuppp!!!!" Also, always have a pen and pad at the ready in case you have to take down any details—calling your boss' top client back to ask if they said $5 million or $5 billion will not go over well.

Personal Calls

Common sense and decorum are the name of the game. If you need to answer a brief personal call at your desk, just be respectful and realize that even if they're pretending to listen to music, all your coworkers are listening to it. If you need to discuss anything at length or yell at your mom for shrinking your Superman boxers, probably best to step outside and utilize your celly. Check out our tips for taking a personal call at work.

Instant Messenger

Crazy as it sounds, IM is a popular form of communication in many offices. But this isn't your third-grade AOL chat room. Some of the older employees are only familiar with IM as a professional tool, so it's important to switch up your game a bit. here's how:

  • Change your screen name. Whatever you thought was hilarious in fourth grade is probably wildly embarrassing or inappropriate now.
  • Announce yourself. Don’t just jump straight into a question or a demand—write something like, “Hey, sorry to bother you. Got a second?” If you’ve never IM’ed a person before, say who you are. Figure out what screen names you will need in order to correspond with everyone in your department.
  • Avoid IM lingo. If your coworkers are dropping “LOLs” and “brbs” all over the place, feel free to join in. But don’t assume that everyone knows all the acronyms.
  • Be as clear as possible—get to the point and say what you mean. Similarly, if you’ve got something lengthy to say, it’s better to send someone an e-mail, pick up the phone, or go talk to him in person.
  • Do some buddy list housekeeping. You don't want any ghosts from the past catching you off-guard.
  • Show your status. If your boss doesn't know you are at a meeting and IMing frantically, it will look like you are just being negligent.
  • Feel free to celebrate International Caps Locks Day.
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