Cyberloafing at Work

The term cyberloafing refers to employees’ use of Internet and e-mail services provided by their employer for nonwork purposes during working hours. In other words, it is a high-tech method for employees to shirk their job duties while appearing to be working. Cyberloafing may include e-mailing jokes to friends, online shopping or game playing, downloading music, instant messaging, posting to newsgroups, or surfing non-work-related Internet sites. These behaviors, also called cyberslacking or cyberslouching, are even encouraged by some Web sites (e.g., www.ishouldbe working.com). Cyberloafing is an important issue facing organizations as more employers are providing employees with Internet and e-mail access at work.

Prevalence of Cyberloafing

One third of the time that individuals spend on the Internet takes place at work, and over half of that time is not work related. A survey by Vault.com indicated that almost 88% of employees surf non-work-related Web sites during working hours, and 66% surf between 10 minutes and one hour. Likewise, 82% of employees send non-work-related e-mails during work hours and nearly 87% receive them. The most commonly accessed Web sites at work involve game playing, investment or stock trading, shopping, adult activities, sports, job hunting, and gambling.

Problems Associated with Cyberloafing

Although the Internet and e-mail have changed the way organizations do business by offering rapid communication and enhanced information access and distribution, cyberloafing can create problems for companies. Employees can flood computing resources with their personal use, leading to clogged bandwidth and degraded system performance. Furthermore, cyberloafing reduces productivity, creates security issues, and increases the risk of computer viruses. It also exposes companies to legal liability in the form of harassment (e.g., employees e-mailing sexist or racist jokes to coworkers), copyright infringement (e.g., employees using clip art found on the Internet without permission), defamation (e.g., disgruntled workers posting rumors about a manager in a chat room), and negligent hiring (e.g., an employee cyberstalking a customer).

Reasons for Cyberloafing

Few research studies have explored reasons why employees cyberloaf, but in general, they indicate that it is a response to mistreatment in the workplace. For example, a study by Vivien Lim, Thompson Teo, and Geok Leng Loo found that Singaporean employees agreed that cyberloafing is justified when they put in extra effort to attain the information or resources they need to perform their jobs, work overtime without compensation, are asked to do excessive amounts of work, or are exposed to conflicting demands. Likewise, a study by Lim using the same Singaporean employees discovered they were more likely to cyber-loaf when they perceived unfair treatment by their employer (e.g., unfair work outcomes, policies, or interpersonal interactions).

More recently, Christine Henle and Anita Blanchard demonstrated that employees engage in cyberloafing more often when they perceive their jobs as stressful. Thus, cyberloafing helps employees cope with stressors in the workplace. Importantly, employees are less likely to use cyberloafing as a way of coping with stress when they perceive organizational sanctions against it (e.g., discipline). Unfortunately, research on cyberloafing has not explored whether certain types of people are more likely to cyberloaf (e.g., impulsive individuals, procrastinators). However, Henle and Blanchard did find that males were more likely than females to cyberloaf.

Managing Cyberloafing

Organizations can manage the occurrence of cyber-loafing through three methods: acceptable use policies, monitoring and filtering software, and organizational sanctions. First, acceptable use policies for Internet and e-mail can be established. These policies should outline who can access the Internet and use e-mail, acceptable uses (e.g., business-related purposes), and sanctions for violations. Companies should also include a statement reserving the right to monitor Internet and e-mail use, which will remove employee expectations of privacy and, in turn, reduce lawsuits alleging invasion of privacy. This policy should be clearly communicated and explained to supervisors and employees, and employees should sign an acknowledgment that they have received, read, and understand the policy. Employers may want to consider allowing some personal use (e.g., before or after work, during breaks) because limited Internet and e-mail use for nonwork purposes may foster learning or creative problem solving, provide a break from stressful or boring work, and help employees balance work and their personal lives.

Next, monitoring and filtering software may be used to track and deter cyberloafing. Monitoring software compiles a report of each Web site visited by an employee, and filtering software blocks access to particular Web pages by keeping a list of inappropriate sites or content. Employers should tell employees why, when, and how they will be monitored. In addition, companies should share Internet usage reports produced by software programs to give feedback on policy compliance and inappropriate Web sites.

Finally, those violating usage policies should be disciplined in a consistent manner. Companies can chose from many different sanctions, including verbal or written warnings, documentation in performance reviews, removal of Internet and e-mail privileges, suspension, termination, or legal action. Some companies take a different approach by providing rehabilitation or counseling services to employees who may have an Internet addiction problem. Several surveys have offered insight into how companies respond to cyberloafing. First, a survey of human resource directors by David Greenfield and Richard Davis indicated that almost 83% have Internet usage policies and about 64% have disciplined and 30% have terminated employees for inappropriate Internet use. Second, the American Management Association found that 60% of surveyed organizations do some form of e-mail monitoring and 25% have fired employees for e-mail misuse.

Summary

The Internet has changed the way businesses operate by enhancing global communication and information dissemination. Unfortunately, it also offers employees a convenient way of avoiding their job responsibilities. Employers need to recognize that this is a prevalent workplace behavior that can reduce productivity, divert valuable computing resources, and increase security risks and legal liability. The limited research on cyberloafing suggests that employees are more likely to cyberloaf when they perceive mistreatment in the workplace. Companies can reduce the occurrence of cyberloafing through considerate employee relations, acceptable use policies, software, and sanctions. However, organizations should keep in mind that some amount of cyberloafing may be beneficial.

References:

  1. American Management Association. (2004). 2004 workplace e-mail and instant messaging survey. New York: Author.
  2. Greenfield, D. N., & Davis, R. A. (2002). Lost in cyberspace: The Web @ work. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 5, 347-353.
  3. Henle, C. A., & Blanchard, A. (2006). Cyberloafing as a coping method: Relationship between work stressors, company sanctions, and cyberloafing. Manuscript in preparation.
  4. Lim, V. K. G. (2002). The IT way of loafing on the job: Cyberloafing, neutralizing and organizational justice. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 23, 675-694.
  5. Lim, V. K. G., Teo, T. S. H., & Loo, G. L. (2002). How do I loaf here? Let me count the ways. Communications of the ACM, 45, 66-70.

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