Edition 50, Human Resources

Cyberloafing: “Working” Behind the Screen

By: Luis Arciniega
Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México

Cyberloafing refers to employees using computer equipment, provided to them by the company, for personal purposes that are not job-related tasks. This inappropriate workplace behavior can have various negative effects for the organization.

The first and most obvious is a decrease in productivity because the employee can spend a good part of the day browsing different web pages, checking in on the lives of their friends or acquaintances on social networking sites, or having fun watching videos on YouTube, instead of performing job-related duties in the office. This type of behavior is observed in employees of all kinds of organizations, at all levels, and can reach extreme cases, such as the one reported by the U.S. media in which several officials from the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC), including a judge, were found watching and saving pornographic material on their “official” computer, instead of monitoring the transactions of the most important stock exchange in the world.

On the other hand, when visiting various websites on the Internet, employees can inadvertently download malicious software (malware, viruses, cyber worms, etc.) to the company network that could cause serious damage to the company computer equipment or even collapse the network. In a recent study, paid for by the British government, and with the participation of 500 companies in the United Kingdom, it was found that 73% of them had been victims of cyber attacks, as a result of the cyberloafing activities of their employees. The third set of negative consequences for organizations, as a result of cyberloafing, consists of the possible legal repercussions. Employees, when using a “corporate” computer in apparent anonymity, can send emails or express defamatory, xenophobic or immoral opinions, etc. that could be grounds for a lawsuit directed at the company that owns the computer equipment, since the only thing that can be traced is the fingerprint of the computer (IP).

While the negative consequences of cyberloafing are worrisome, it would be unfair not to point out its possible positive effects. Some studies have shown that allowing employees to have some free minutes per day (30 to 45) for a “cyber-break”, instead of a coffee or cigarette break, to remain at their desks to use the computer to send emails to family members or friends, read the news, upload photos and comments on the social network of their choice, use internet banking, or watch funny videos, helps improve productivity and employee psychological well being at work.

As a result of everything described above, companies have incorporated a number of measures and policies to control and regulate cyberloafing. These range from explicit policies that prohibit or limit the use of computer equipment for personal purposes, the use of computer locks that block access to the Internet or certain pages to, for example, the installation of specialized software that monitors the applications that employees use and the pages they visit throughout the workday.

Meanwhile, researchers from the world of management and information technologies have tried to identify what individual, social or work environment variables make a person more prone to use the computer equipment that the office provides them intensively for personal use – not only when they are at work, but also when they work from home.

Today, we know that employees who are resentful toward the company, because they perceive unjust treatment by it or by their immediate supervisor, engage in cyberloafing as a reaction to abuse. It is also known that when the workday is very long and intense, employees justify to themselves cyberloafing activities because of these conditions. It has also been shown that even when there are explicit policies that prohibit cyberloafing, if sanctions are not effective and employees see that other co-workers carry out this type of practice without being punished, they also will do the same thing, as a result of the social justification: “If they do it, why shouldn’t I?”

In terms of the variables that predict cyberloafing in relation to the individual, some studies have been carried out to identify if any major personality traits impact this type of behavior. These studies reveal, without having a strong consensus, that meticulous people who give great attention to detail tend to engage less in cyberloafing activities; on the contrary, the highly extroverts are more likely to be involved in this type of unproductive activity. Also, with regard to individual variables, it has been found that subjects tend to make personal reflections that lead them to justify to themselves the act of cyberloafing. These arguments include, thinking: a) that the working conditions lead them to engage in this type of activity; b) that cyberloafing does not cause real harm to anyone or, if so, it is negligible; or c) that the personal benefits of using computer equipment for personal use outweigh the possible sanctions arising from doing so; i.e., by and large, it is worth committing a wrongdoing and assuming the possible consequences, which are very remote.

After all the aforementioned, one might think that it is difficult for a company to define a concrete plan of action that might reduce the cyberloafing activities of their employees, as some of the mentioned evidence suggests that “some remedies are more serious than the disease itself.” For example, establishing a strict policy that prohibits the use of company computer equipment for personal use may result in strong resentment on the part of the employee who, instead of reducing cyberloafing, actually increases it. Perhaps the same thing would happen if employees found out that in the company’s computer equipment there are installed programs that detect inappropriate use of the same, which raises the question: What actions can be undertaken to actually reduce cyberloafing without affecting the work environment of the company? In Mexico, there is a case of a company in the field of information technology, with headquarters in Guadalajara, which has been successful in controlling cyberloafing and has maintained a favorable work environment, which has enabled it to appear for several consecutive years on the list of Great Places to Work (Mexico). The company has an explicit policy, known by all the employees, that the computer equipment that everyone has at their disposal should not be used for personal purposes. However, there are no cybernetic locks that block access to the Internet or to certain applications. Similarly, employees know that there is software installed in their computers that monitors all the applications they use throughout the day, as well as the web pages they visit. The software also records the total amount of time that the machine was turned on without being used, and quantifies the actual time used in each application, or webpage visited, and thus monitors the effective use of the processor. The immediate supervisor, along with the area of human resources and systems, make a parameter of the software that establishes what applications and webpages can and should be used by each employee, in accordance with his/her post. At the end of the week, or month, a report is made that details the percentage of time that the computer was used for non-work purposes. The package does not record what employees write or what is written to them, in order to protect their privacy. The immediate supervisor has a recurring meeting with the employee to review these results and, instead of the employee being reprimanded for this activity, he or she is given guidance on how to improve productivity. The supervisor makes them see, for example, that when it comes to Facebook they lose track of time and may spend more than an hour a day there without realizing it. The supervisor also points out that this activity makes the employee leave later than the others who occupy similar posts, because “he/she does not have enough time.” Similarly, the software can help them realize why they are not reaching their performance goals. The actions and policies implemented by this company in order to reduce cyberloafing have greatly helped employees develop self-discipline when working behind the screen.

References:

  • Jia, H., Jia, R. & Karau, S. (2013). “Cyberloafing and personality: The impact of the Big Five traits and workplace situational factors,” Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies, 20, 358-365.
  • Cheng, L., Wenli, L., Qingguo, Z. & Smith, R. (2014). “Understanding personal use of internet at work: An integrated model of neutralization techniques and general deterrence theory,” Computers in Human Behavior, 38, 220-228.
  • Moody, G.D. & Siponen, M. (2013). “Using the theory of interpersonal behavior to explain non-work-related personal use of internet at work.” Information & Management, 50, 322-335.
  • Price Waterhouse Coopers. (2013). 2013 Information security breaches survey.
  • a href=”http://www.pwc.co.uk/audit-assurance/publications/2013-information-security-breaches-survey.jhtml”>http://www.pwc.co.uk/audit-assurance/publications/2013-information-security-breaches-survey.jhtml

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