Cyberloafing, BYOD, and the ethics of using technology devices at work

Cyberloafing, BYOD, and the ethics of using technology devices at work

  • AuthorJohn Henshell
  • Published Monday, January 14th, 2013
  • Comments2

Employer policies regarding personal use of employer-owned phones and computers aren’t all flexible enough to apply to employee-owned phones and other Internet-connected devices. Usage of employee-owned devices at work raises ethical issues, regardless of employer policies.

Until recently, employers were able to use filtering software to block websites that might be offensive (e.g. pornography), as well as those that few employees would have a legitimate need to use for business (e.g. eBay). That practice no longer has the ability to help employees focus if employees can use their own devices to circumvent it.

One of the latest workplace fads is called BYOD (“bring your own device”). This worker-initiated movement is despised by IT departments because it presents security and support problems. Yet, managers at many companies embrace the BYOD movement because it reduces costs and increases productivity and employee satisfaction, according to a survey by ISACA (formerly known as the Information Systems Audit and Control Association).

Good Technology’s “State of BYOD Report” shows that about half of employers pay a partial subsidy for employee-owned hardware and/or service, but still pay less than they would by issuing devices to employees and paying the full service cost. A Forrester study confirms that, “More than half of US information workers pay for their smartphones and monthly plans, and three quarters pick the smartphone they want rather than accept IT’s choice.”

Employees gain productivity by using familiar operating systems on their phones, tablets or laptops. Their devices are often customized for their convenience and they already know how to use them.

The BYOD trend is not limited to the private sector. Government Technology magazine reports that state governments are experimenting with it too.

Personal devices and the illusion of privacy

In a typical cubicle environment, employees have little privacy. Their phone conversations are easily overheard and they can’t see the cubicle openings while they face a monitor. According to the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, employers have a legal right to monitor an employee’s Internet and email usage. Telephone call monitoring is often legal, and cell phone calls and texts may be monitored when using company-issued equipment.

Employees who are allowed to use their own devices appear to have privacy. They can send and receive personal messages and look for other jobs while they appear to be working. However, while analyzing a case in California, CNN senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin said that if an employer pays any portion of the cost of the phone or service, employee texts can be viewed by employers. The best employee handbooks directly address this issue. Good Technology’s report says that 77 percent of employers modified their policies to accommodate BYOD, while the rest believed that their policies already covered it.

The ethical questions

Is making calls or sending text messages from your cell phone at work wrong? Is using your own wireless device to shop or check the performances of the players on your fantasy football team ethical? If these types of activities aren’t wrong, when are you abusing the privilege?

Employers with the most rigid policies allow taking and making personal phone calls in emergency situations. Employers with the most liberal policies prohibit viewing pornography or engaging in any behavior or activity that could be interpreted as sexual harassment. Inoffensive non-work-related usage of technology devices can be divided into two categories: personal business and play, also called “cyberloafing.”

Most employers understand the need for salaried employees to conduct a limited amount of personal business on work time, especially tasks that can only be accomplished during business hours. Banking online, making a dentist appointment and perhaps shopping for Christmas presents could be considered personal business. Watching funny cat videos, browsing Facebook and playing Free Cell are examples of cyberloafing.

Without rationalization, professionals who conduct essential personal business at work and offset that time by working extra hours, taking business calls during non-working hours or answering e-mails and text messages on their own time are behaving ethically. However, that applies only if the employer sanctions the behavior. Cyberloafing presents a greater ethical challenge.

The scope of cyberloafing and BYOD

Salary.com conducts an annual survey that collects employment-related data. The 2012 survey found that 64 percent of employees use the Internet daily for non-work-related reasons. A little more than half of workers admitted to at least two hours per week of personal usage.

Many employees admit to shopping online from work. Half of the workers surveyed by Harris Interactive for CareerBuilder.com said they would shop for Christmas presents online during the just-completed season. The ISACA 2012 IT Risk/Reward Barometer revealed that employees using BYOD products spent 12 hours shopping online, while those with employer-provided hardware only spent nine hours.

Robert Half Technology studied the other side of the same coin and found that two-thirds of employers allow at least some amount of online shopping, while the other third specifically blocks e-commerce sites.

A Nielsen/NetRatings report in 2004 revealed that 92% of online stock trading was done at work. A 2005 survey by America Online and Salary.com, found that employees admitted to spending an average of more than 25 percent of their paid hours engaged in non-work activity. Personal use of the Internet was cited by almost half of respondents. Many of the other personal activities were also enabled by technology.

These and other studies show that the youngest employees are most likely to use their own devices at work and to practice cyberloafing. For instance, Nielsen’s Social Media Report 2012 says that more than half of people in the 25-34 age bracket use social media in the office.

Some studies show that moderate amounts of cyberloafing improve productivity. Employers with permissive policies cite those as a partial explanation for those policies. Other studies say cyberloafing costs American businesses, with an older study pegging the figure at $759 billion per year.

Why cyberloafing occurs

Several studies have analyzed cyberloafing and other forms of slacking. Vivien Lim, a professor at the National University of Singapore, is a veteran researcher of the practice. One of her studies concludes that cyberloafing is a form of revenge by employees who feel mistreated.

Dr. Jerald Greenberg, a professor, has devoted much of his career to studying organizational ethics and justice. In one of his studies, he examined employee theft rates at manufacturing plants where workers suffered through a temporary pay cut. Theft increased significantly during the period of reduced pay.

Half of the workers polled for the Ethics Resource Center’s 2011 National Business Ethics Survey believed that doing less work to offset cuts in pay or benefits was ethically justifiable.

For his recent dissertation at the University of South Florida, Kevin Askew researched, “The Relationship between Cyberloafing and Task Performance and an Examination of the Theory of Planned Behavior as a Model of Cyberloafing.” He examined many previous studies and conducted his own. One of his findings is “cyberloafing on a cellphone – but not on a desktop – appears to be related to job dissatisfaction.” He also cited studies that show that lack of sleep reduces self-control.

Salary.com’s survey asked people why they engaged in play at work. Four of the answer choices each resonated with about a third of employees: insufficient challenge, long hours, lack of employer-provided incentive and general dissatisfaction. These factors caused almost half of those surveyed to admit to job-hunting from the workplace.

Addiction is also a factor in cyberloafing. Specific websites, games and favorite devices all have a compelling pull. I know a woman who half-seriously refers to her Android tablet as her husband. I observed her receiving and answering a question from her boss late on a Saturday evening.

Employer policies and strategies

Dr. Janice Lawrence, Director of the Business Ethics Program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, suggests that the appropriate time for conducting personal business on employer time is during breaks. State laws that mandate paid break time vary in duration and timing. Lawrence advises, “The company needs to make these policies clear so that employees know the limits to such ‘free time’ or personal tasks and any limits to use of personal devices.” She also notes that materials the employer “finds repugnant or against its ethical codes,” such as child pornography, should never be visible in the workplace.

Comprehensive employer policies on Internet usage in the workplace are essential, according to ContentWatch CEO Russ Warner, business efficiency and performance consultant Andrew Jensen and the law firm, DLA Piper Jensen explains, “Coaching your employees on the appropriate use of technology at work tends to be very effective, and it eliminates the extreme resentment that often arises as the result of an employer enforcing a group discipline policy.”

ISACA found that almost half of employees were unaware of their employers’ policies. A conclusion in one the association’s reports is, “This environment points to a strong need for clear communication of organization policies as well as education around possible security precautions employees who BYOD can take.”

Organizations with mostly hourly paid employees generally have very different policies than those with mostly salaried employees. Vail Resorts and Masterson’s Food & Drink, Inc., both in the hospitality industry; specifically ban using cell phones and entertainment devices while on the clock. Outside Unlimited, a landscaping company, explicitly limits cell phone and Internet use to company business. The company informs its workers that it has the right to monitor their usage. Its handbook states, “Personal cell phones are prohibited from use except during your lunch break.”

Shannon Reising, a human resources supervisor at Ann’s House of Nuts manufacturing facility in North Carolina, takes a cut-and-dried approach, which seems appropriate for a company that makes trail mix. A few managers and executives at Ann’s House carry cellular phones, but those are partly subsidized by the company and are subject to company policy. Reising says, “Employees are allowed to use their personal tech devices during company-sponsored breaks and meal periods. Employees who use devices that connect to the Internet, whether by a hard line or wirelessly cannot use our Internet access. Period.” She asserts, “Anyone caught on my floor with a personal technological device (except for as discussed above) will be terminated immediately.”

Reising stresses the importance of having and communicating policy. Ann’s House has clear and specific policies. Reising demands 40 hours of work for 40 hours of pay, a practice that would be hard to dispute as ethical and fair. Even though Reising considers her comments to be work-related, she practiced the highest ethical standards by making them after business hours.

Companies with mostly salaried employees are much more liberal in allowing personal use of technology. Kenexa, a human resources consulting firm owned by IBM, embraces it. Kenexa CEO Rudy Karsan is at the opposite extreme of Shannon Reising. He encourages cyberloafing. He was quoted in an article, “We’re really blending our lives together with work. I applaud it and hope we never lose that.”

I think the reason many employers allow cyberloafing is self-interest. Employers have much to gain by blurring the distinction between work and play.

A call for culture change

The cited studies and surveys show that cyberloafing is either allowed by employers or it is an offsetting behavior against perceived employer abuses. As the number of hours worked by employees is the core issue, the relevant form of abuse is pressuring employees into routinely working excessive hours. The work environment, dedication, ambition, unemployment rate and fear conspire to compel workers to comply. Increased productivity is the euphemism for this abuse, and it is a big contributor to the high unemployment rate in the U.S. Profitable businesses that maintain a corporate culture in which the average workweek is much more than 40 hours are behaving unethically.

Cyberloafing is a form of theft, which is also wrong, unless employees actually work 40 hours per week (or more) and the employer sanctions the activity. Employers that allow or encourage cyberloafing are trying to turn two wrongs into a right by creating a happier work place that masks their abuse.

John Henshell is a freelance writer/editor/communications consultant who adds value to his clients’ words through adept use of diction, syntax, context, and images. He can be contacted at johnnhenshell@comcast.net.

2 Responses to “Cyberloafing, BYOD, and the ethics of using technology devices at work”

  1. […] Henshell, J. (2013). Center for Digital Ethics & Policiy. Cyberloafing, BYOD, and the ethics of using technology devices at work. Retrieved: http://digitalethics.org/essays/cyberloafing-byod-ethics-technology-at-work/ […]

  2. Katie Heet says:

    […] Henshell, J. (2013). Cyberloafing, BYOD, and the ethics of using technology devices at work. Retrieved from http://digitalethics.org/essays/cyberloafing-byod-ethics-technology-at-work/ […]

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