Discipline Employees for Wasting Time Online? Not So Fast

Gambling or gaming in the office. Excited young Businessman addicted to computer. Happy man looks at laptop screen, internet leisure at work

Whether it is checking social media, browsing the news, shopping, or keeping track of sports scores, almost everyone occasionally uses the internet at work for things that are, well, not exactly work. In fact, researchers estimate that employees spend around 1-2 hours per workday cyberloafing, or engaging in non-work-related internet use. And most employers would like to recover that lost productivity. But how?

Barring a trip back in time before networked computers, the obvious solution is to monitor employee internet usage, and censure those who engage in cyberloafing behaviors. In their paper, “The Impacts of Internet Monitoring on Employees’ Cyberloafing and Organizational Citizenship Behavior: A Longitudinal Field Quasi-Experiment,” published in fall 2023 in Information Systems Research, Culverhouse’s Dr. Mikko Siponen, along with collaborators Hemin Jiang (University of Science and Technology of China), Zhenhui (Jack) Jiang (The University of Hong Kong), and Aggeliki Tsohou (Ionian University) sought to learn how effective that tactic might be.

The researchers suspected that monitoring employee internet usage and threatening punishment for noncompliance would likely backfire, and after conducting a study at a software development company in Portugal, they were proven right. For one thing, the monitoring only reduced cyberloafing for a little while—around a month—and then it went back to normal, probably because employees realized that no major sanctions were on the way. Secondly, the monitoring seemed to reduce employee likelihood to do necessary but unpaid things like praise the organization to outsiders or defend organizational property, which is called organizational citizenship behavior. So the harm of threatening to discipline employees for cyberloafing outweighs the potential gain.

What can be done, then? The authors suggest that internet monitoring could be used as a feedback mechanism instead of a deterrent. Employees could be provided with a transcript of their at-work internet use weekly, for instance, reminding them the amount of working time they are spending cyberloafing and giving them the opportunity to self-correct. In other words, companies can work with their employees to reduce an undesirable behavior.

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