Crack Down on Cyberslackers

Businesses should crack down on workers who visit recreational Web sites—such as Facebook, Fantasyfootball, and Twitter—on company time. Pro or Con

Editor’s Note: This is an update of a Debate Room that originally appeared in 2007

Pro: Mold Cyberbehavior That’s Right for Your Company

In the past few years, personal and professional lives have collided as social networks have become more widely accepted as a business practice—creating a powerful tool for finding people, products, and resources. At the same time, tough economic conditions have required that companies do more with less, resulting in employees’ dedicating more of their time to the office. While this has created efficiencies at work, it has reduced the amount of time the employee has to take care of personal tasks, such as shopping for a birthday present or catching up on personal e-mails. The more that an employee’s personal life becomes intertwined with professional life, the more important it becomes for companies to ensure that their Internet acceptable-use policies are consistent with their company culture. Gaining visibility into actual employee Internet usage provides an employer with the tools necessary to accommodate employee needs while limiting extreme personal use.

Personal Internet usage in the workplace is clearly not limited to social networks and shopping. Many companies use sporting events such as fantasy football and March Madness brackets to foster camaraderie and team spirit. These types of activities remain one of the bigger challenges for employers as they attempt to strike a reasonable balance between recreational team building and loss of productivity. A study from Challenger, Gray & Christmas found that, during the football season, employers typically lose $615 million per week in reduced productivity. Does that mean fantasy football websites should be banned? The answer is almost always no. The human element of workplace morale and camaraderie must be a factor, within the context of the corporate culture. Clearly articulated acceptable-use guidelines let employees know how to stay within acceptable behavior and time boundaries.

The reality is that without 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 slacking off may mean the company has to pay him or her overtime to stay late to finish legitimate business—or even engage a temporary worker.

With the rise of Facebook and the introduction of new social media platforms, such as Twitter, employers should be anything but silent on social media guidelines. Employees may unknowingly leave the company’s footprints on personal postings. In such a public online world, a misinterpreted tweet or blog comment can travel quickly and damage the company’s reputation. While the employee’s personal views might not be generally offensive, they could contradict company policy or expose the business to potential liability.

As the line between personal and professional Internet usage become increasingly difficult to define, it begs the question, what’s the definition of a "bad" website today? The truth is there’s no universal answer. YouTube (GOOG), once dubbed a waste of time, is now an integral business tool for many companies. What’s appropriate for the marketing department may or may not be appropriate for accounting. Because there are so many grey areas, we encourage companies to review employee Internet usage and build policies that reflect the culture of the company as a whole.

Con: Eh, Make Friends with Facebook

It sounds simple enough to say that employers need not tolerate extracurricular online activity by their workers. Work is for work; do your personal browsing, tweeting, friending, and status updating on your own time and your own device, 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 (or one populated by sentient beings a decade ago), but it’s impractical in the real world of real humans at real jobs in the second decade of the 21st century.

Perhaps it seems easy to distinguish work-related from personal online activity, but the boundaries are fuzzy and getting blurrier all the time. Take social media. A few years ago a firm might have said to its workers, "Stick to job-relevant e-mail at work, and check your Facebook page at home." But with Facebook, Twitter, SMS, blogging, and other vehicles for networked communication now serving serious business objectives, up-to-date employers understand that personal and professional online tools are unavoidably entangled.

These things aren’t just gadgets or conveniences; for an increasing number of us, they are information and communication necessities. Cracking down on "recreational" use means making difficult, potentially intrusive, and mostly unnecessary decisions about the kinds of "information" employees are allowed to consume and convey at the workplace. Do employers really want to go there? I can use my employer-issued smartphone to arrange lunch with a colleague but not with my spouse? If it’s O.K. to read an online Businessweek article about my industry, do I risk a reprimand if I click that link to a piece on tax policy? Will I be canned for making a passing reference to last night’s game in an interoffice e-mail?

This isn’t just about regulating extracurricular use of networks and devices on company time. A broader issue of freedom of expression is in play—an employee’s ability to think and read and communicate on matters that have nothing to do with work—without interference from the employer. Smart managers know that what actually matters is job performance. Employers should certainly feel free to discipline workers who abuse technology privileges to the detriment of their productivity, just as they would show little tolerance for any behavior that significantly impairs performance.

Talented, motivated people want to work for enlightened employers who evaluate them on actual job performance. The sure way to alienate your best workers is to cultivate a zero-tolerance tyranny where the complexities of modern communication tools are dimly understood by retrograde managers inclined to judge employees by the private expressive choices they make in filling their idle moments.

Opinions and conclusions expressed in the Bloomberg BusinessWeek Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Bloomberg BusinessWeek.com, or Bloomberg LP.

Reader Comments

Glen

I read this article on company time.

Barbra Maltbie

You slightly changed my point of view.

Jeff

(I'm self employed; this is on my time.) My last employer did not monitor individual internet use. But aggregate use was startlingly high, with few true, work-related purposes. There were several cases where outside parties reported abuse of our email system, triggering checks that showed individuals spending a third to half of their time surfing, much of it on clearly inappropriate sites. But I don't think this problem is limited to compulsive behavior. I'm guessing, but I would bet that across a large number of employees with direct internet access from their workplace, clearly wasted time averages more than 5%, and I wouldn't be surprised by 10%. This is a multi-billion dollar issue.

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