How NOT to Use Your Computer At Work

Are you a “cyberslacker?” — one of the new breed of employees who spends time at work going online “to shop, play games, pay bills, view pornography, download music, communicate with friends, maybe even look for another job?” If so, it might be a good time to knock it off, given how many employers these days are monitoring your every move online. Oh, and if you work for Wal-Mart, don’t use the internal manager’s website to advocate for better workplace conditions, or maybe they’ll decide you should be working someplace else — someplace with decent benefits.

For the last decade or so, worker productivity has skyrocked. (See Economic Policy Institute’s Economic Snapshot.) Between 1995 and 2000, hourly output grew by 2.5% per year, about one percentage point faster than in the prior 20 years, and in the early 2000s, productivity growth has accelerated further, growing at an annual pace of 4.1%. Although, in theory, if workers are more productive, they will see some of the benefits come back to them in the form of increased wages, the theory isn’t matching workplace reality. “Economists assume that faster productivity growth generates higher living standards through higher average wages. The problem is that only a small proportion of the increase in productivity growth since early 2001 has flowed to wages and compensation, implying that working families are not benefiting much from this improved output per hour. ” (See Economic Policy Institute’s Economic Snapshot.)

Instead, the increased productivity has caused corporate profits to soar. “Over prior business cycles, profits (including interest income) have accounted for 23% of the growth in corporate-sector income, on average, with total compensation accounting for the remaining 77%. In the current business cycle, the distribution is almost reversed: profits have claimed nearly 70% of total growth in the corporate sector, while increases in compensation (from increased employment and higher hourly compensation) have received just over 30% of total income growth.” (See Economic Policy Institute’s Economic Snapshot.) Simply put, workers are working harder and harder, not to significantly improve their own economic state, but mostly to put more money in their employer’s pocket — money which the employers are not choosing to share with their workers, who created it to begin with.

Now that we’ve looked a little closer at the real productivity picture, let’s talk about this newly-identified major scourge of productivity: the cyberslacker. You might be one, if you use your work computer to shop, pay bills, surf the net, e-mail your friends, or anything to avoid the work in front of you that you should be doing. (See Monterey County Herald article.) If you’ve ever done this, you probably won’t be surprised to hear that you’re not alone: up to 85 percent of employees use work computers for personal tasks or fun, for an average of 3.7 hours per week, according to a University of Maryland study. (See National Technology Readiness Survey.) Why do you do it? One survey lists the following reasons:

  • Don’t have enough work to do: 33.2%
  • Underpaid for amount of work: 23.4%
  • Distracting co-workers: 14.7%
  • Not enough evening or weekend time: 12.0%

(See USA Today article.)

Sounds like a pretty widespread and egregious problem for employers, doesn’t it, when those millions of employees spend nearly ten percent of an average workweek using the Internet for non-job-related work? What the recent article about the cyberslacker phenomenon failed to point out, however, is that the very same University of Maryland study concluded that:

Employees do in fact use the Internet at work for personal business, but
they report spending more time at home on the Internet for work-related
purposes. Those with online access at both home and at work spend an average of
3.7 hours per week engaged in personal online activities while at the job.
But they spend an average of 5.9 hours per week online at home for work-related
purposes. Thus, the Internet seems to have a net effect of shifting work
to home more than personal activities to work.

(See National Technology Readiness Survey.) So perhaps this concern about worker productivity is a little misplaced, given that employers who allow their workers to use the Internet for both personal and work purposes from both home and work come out quite a bit ahead.

But since we apparently can’t have reality standing in the way of corporate profits, many companies are now using all available tools at their disposal to monitor their employees’ computer usage, both at work and when they are off duty. According to a 2005 American Management Association survey, 76% of employers monitor workers’ website connections, while 36% of employers track content, keystrokes and time spent at the keyboard. Another 50% store and review employees’ computer files. Companies also keep an eye on e-mail, with 55% retaining and reviewing messages. So whether or not your work is getting done, whether corporate profits are up, or whether there’s any significant problem with excessive cyberslacking, chances are good that your activities are being monitored.

And if that’s true, there may not be much that you, as an employee, can do about it. As Nancy Flynn, executive director of the ePolicy Institute in Columbus, Ohio, characterizes the state of the law: “The computer system is the property of the employer and as such the employer has the right to monitor Internet activity and e-mail. Employees should have no reasonable expectation to privacy.” (See Newsday article.) While smart employers might choose to focus on overall productivity and only intervening when there are problems, rather than monitoring each keystroke, the technology and law are mostly on their side. (See Monterey County Herald article.)

As an employee, it’s best to be aware of your company’s monitoring policy — only in Connecticut and Delaware are employers required to tell you that they’re monitoring your activity. You may even be able to ask your boss to exempt certain e-mail addresses or websites from monitoring, or have those doing the monitoring under orders not to snoop or disclose confidential information to other employees. (See Newsday article.) And if you do engage in work-related computer usage from home, it’s not a bad idea to personally track that as well, so that your employer gets the big picture rather than focusing only what you do at work.

This should go without saying, of course, but if you feel the need to visit pornographic websites or use the Internet for illicit purposes, don’t do so at work. It’s more than a little disturbing to learn that in one jurisdiction in Colorado, about 50 percent of last year’s arrests of Internet predators who targeted children used computers at work. (See Boston Globe article.) Such activity only drives more employers to enact increasingly restrictive and intrusive policies, penalizing those whose Internet usage should not be considered illicit.

With all this Internet monitoring going on, however, you have to admire the courage of some Wal-Mart managers who took on Wal-Mart’s CEO H. Lee Scott, Jr. on the company’s internal website for managers. At “Lee’s Garage,” a website established for the company’s managers to communicate with Scott, one manager asked Scott why “the largest company on the planet cannot offer some type of medical retirement benefits?” Good question. Scott’s annoyed answer, after the usual blah, blah, blah about competitiveness, was:

Quite honestly, this environment isn’t for everyone. There are people who would
say, ‘I’m sorry, but you should take the risk and take billions of dollars out of
earnings and put this in retiree health benefits and let’s see what happens to
the company.’ If you feel that way, then you as a manager should look for a company where you can do those kinds of things.

(See New York Times article.)

Given the employee surveillance in which Wal-Mart has historically engaged, especially when it comes to preventing its employees’ efforts to form unions, is it only a matter of time until Scott and his minions help this manager out in his search for a better company? Obviously, according to a Wal-Mart spokesperson, the manager failed to understand how competitive retailing is and would not be able to convey that to his subordinates. (See New York Times article.)

Heaven forbid Wal-Mart’s managers should try to work from within to make the company better, but we applaud this manager for trying. However, all employees should be aware that whether they’re using the Internet to make the world or their work environment a better place, or just trying to get their bills paid on time, there’s a decent chance that your employer knows all about it already.

More Information:

Workplace Fairness: Short-Changed: No More Secrets/Privacy

National Workrights Institute

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.