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You might think the sheer volume of e-mail would mean you could get away with a crack about the boss's Viagra use. But sophisticated software helps employers, including Merrill Lynch and Boeing, nab folks who traffic in trade secrets or sexist jokes. One called Palisade can recognize data in varying forms, like the content of NFL playbooks, and block them from your Out box. SurfControl, MessageGate and Workshare check work files and e-mail against a list of keywords, such as the CEO's name, a company's products or four-letter words. Wall Street and law firms sometimes block access at work to personal accounts like Google's Gmail.
You can't really blame companies for watching our Web habits, since 45% of us admit that surfing is our favorite time waster, according to a joint survey by Salary.com and AOL. A Northeast technology company found that several employees who frequently complained of overwork spent all day on MySpace.com Information-technology departments routinely receive automatic Web reports on what sites employees visit; they tend to review them only if there's a red flag.
Computers aren't the only office snitches. Slightly more than half of employers surveyed monitor how much time their employees spend on the phone, and even track calls--up from 9% in 2001. Companies are required to inform every nonemployee that they're listening in, which is why you hear, "This call is being monitored for quality assurance." But there's no such protection for staff members. Bosses monitor calls with programs like Nice Systems', which sends an alert if your voice reaches a certain decibel level or you blurt out profane language or a competitor's name.
You might want to stay on your best behavior even off the clock. Programs like Verified Person keep tabs on employees outside the office with ongoing background checks. Got busted for DUI last week? The boss will find out. And what you do on the Internet at home is no secret either. After Penelope Trunk won an award for writing about sex online, her blushing employer asked her to start using a pseudonym. At the travel sector of one corporation, a manager's spouse was surfing the Net and found a photo album with the company's name on a picture-sharing site. The photos documented a training session, after which co-workers progressed to inebriated nakedness. Because a worker posted the pictures without consent, he was fired. "If you'd be embarrassed that your mom saw it, don't post it," advises Kevin Kraham, a law partner at Ford & Harrison.
Bloggers, be careful. Workers at Google, Delta Airlines and Microsoft have claimed their blogs got them fired. But with more than 50 million blogs out there, employers like Microsoft train new hires on blog etiquette. Curt Hopkins of Ashland, Ore., says a public radio station cut short a job interview after the boss read his blog; he was later hired by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to "build buzz online." Trunk, who now blogs about workplace issues on Brazen Careerist, says telling young workers not to blog is like telling a baby boomer not to use the phone. "When major corporations try too hard to block the electronic community," she says, "Generation Y just leaves."