The Internet may have opened new avenues to commerce, but it has also created headaches for human resources executives.

Last month, Societe Generale, the huge French banking company, fired seven employees in its New York office for what it said was distribution of "inappropriate" materials through the company's Internet e-mail.

"We have a zero-tolerance policy regarding that," said Sara Campbell, a spokeswoman for Societe Generale. Similar incidents have been reported at securities firms.

In the past year many companies have embraced the Internet as an efficient way to communicate with employees and clients, giving thousands of workers access from their desktops.

But that accessibility has a downside.

"The Internet is fairly new to the world," said Michael Hager, director of human resources at Bank One Corp., Chicago, which adopted an Internet- use policy for employees this year.

Most of Bank One's 60,000 employees can sign on from their desktops. "We didn't have any idea what kind of exposure we'd have," Mr. Hager said.

Indeed, Web access has generated a whole new debate over workplace productivity. The possibilities seem endless. At any given time employees can be checking sports scores, arranging travel, shopping, doing brokerage business, participating in chat rooms, or simply surfing.

But abuse of the technology could expose a corporation to liability. Employees could download pornographic or racially offensive materials, for example, or they could divulge inside information that could affect the stock price, human resources executives said.

Internet access policies can help control the situation.

Mellon Bank Corp. in Pittsburgh toughened its Internet policy in September, circulating a memorandum that forbade Web access for anything but business purposes, even during lunch hour. Forbidden sites range from gambling to job searches, sports, and opinion.

"It takes away sites that have absolutely no business purpose," said Gregg Stein, a spokesman for Mellon, where "thousands" of employees can gain access to the Web from their desktops. "It's a refinement of our previous policy."

"We have made a major investment in the tools and in educating employees to use them," said Mr. Hager of Bank One. "That investment should be tied to the business, not to the interests, needs, and desires of individuals."

Many companies, including Bank One and Mellon, can track Internet activity using special software and can block certain sites from its server. At Chase Manhattan Corp., for example, employees cannot go to Playboy magazine on the Web.

"We put filters in place," said Mike Mazza, Chase's manager of groupware and Internet services.

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