Bust the Cyberslackers
Businesses should crack down on workers who visit recreational Web sites—such as Fantasyfootball.com and Facebook.com—on company time. Pro or Con?
Pro: Encourage Responsible Behavior
The lines between personal and business life are blurring fast, and a growing number of businesses expect employees to make themselves available beyond the hours of 9 to 5. So it’s only natural for workers to conduct some personal business at the office. Oftentimes, however, those workers—as well as people working a strictly seven- or eight-hour shift—feel entitled to spend some of their time visiting recreational Web sites. When it comes to this Internet usage, employers need to draw strong boundaries.
A Challenger, Gray & Christmas study found that, during the football season, productivity losses for U.S. businesses related to Fantasyfootball.com could add up to $275 million to $435 million weekly. To protect themselves, employers must define their policies and monitor their effectiveness. Clearly articulated acceptable-use guidelines let employees know which behaviors their employers tolerate and those they don’t. Additionally, employers must refine these policies and ensure they reflect the culture of the company as a whole.
Granted, employee participation in social-networking sites or Fantasyfootball.com can raise morale and productivity in a company. However, when the company lacks the capability to track the effectiveness of its policy on such issues, the opportunity for abuse is great. For most businesses—mine included—the payroll presents the largest recurring expense. While most employers wouldn’t mind an employee taking a few minutes to update a fantasy football lineup, spending half a day monitoring a team’s success quickly becomes an expensive problem. An employee’s slacking off may mean the company has to pay him or her overtime to stay late to finish legitimate business—or engage a temporary worker.
Social-networking sites pose a different problem for Corporate America. An employee who visits a blog or social-networking site while using the company’s network may not realize that he or she has left the company’s fingerprints on personal postings. While the employee’s personal views might not be generally offensive, they could contradict company policy or expose the business to potential liability.
Con: Lighten Up on Workers
It sounds simple enough to say that employers need not tolerate recreational Web browsing by their workers. Work is for work; do your personal cybersurfing on your own time and your own computer, right? This seems eminently reasonable—until you actually stop and think about it. A rule of zero or near-zero tolerance for cyberleisure on the job might make sense in a workplace populated exclusively by robots, but it’s impractical and unreasonable in the real world of real humans at real jobs.
The Internet isn’t just a business tool; it’s an information and communications necessity. Cracking down on recreational surfing means making difficult, potentially intrusive, and mostly unnecessary decisions about the kinds of “information” employees are allowed to consume at the workplace. Do employers really want to go there?
So it’s acceptable to spend a break reading an online article at BusinessWeek.com but not playing online computer games? It’s reasonable to e-mail a colleague to arrange lunch but not to post a comment on his Facebook page? Will I be fired for making a passing reference to last night’s game in an interoffice e-mail?
This isn’t about recreational Web surfing. The issue here is freedom of expression—an employee’s ability to think and read and communicate on matters that have nothing to do with work—without interference from the employer. What’s really relevant to the manager is actual job performance. Employers should certainly feel free to discipline workers who abuse the privilege of Internet access to the detriment of their productivity, just as they would show little tolerance for any other behavior that significantly impairs performance.
Smart employers know that talented, motivated people want to work where they are evaluated on their performance, not within a zero-tolerance tyranny where they are judged by the private expressive choices they make in filling their idle moments.Opinions and conclusions expressed in the BusinessWeek Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of BusinessWeek, BusinessWeek.com, or The McGraw-Hill Companies.