Tending to personal matters on company time

Last week the Institute of Business Ethics published its 2015 Ethics at Work survey of employees in the UK and Western Europe, available for free download here.  One of the findings was that “employees tend to be more lenient towards conducting personal activities during work hours, than other practices.”

For instance, in Western Europe (France, Germany, Italy and Spain), more than 90% of respondents found it unacceptable to pretend to be sick to take the  day off,  charge personal entertainment to their employer or engage in “minor fiddling of travel expenses.” Eighty-five percent thought it was not okay to “use company petrol for personal mileage” and 76% said the same of “favoring family or friends when recruiting or awarding contracts.” However, only 59% had such a view of using the internet for personal use during work hours and only 52% said that it was wrong for employees to make personal calls from work.

Frankly, I’m surprised that the disapproval percentages for the last two questions were as high as they were.  To the extent that respondents could tell (from instruction, context or otherwise) that they were part of an ethics survey perhaps that – based on the notion of “framing” –  played a role in the results. But regardless of this methodological quibble, the authors’ conclusions about employees’ views of personal use of company time and resources are almost surely sound.

In this connection, they note that the fairly widespread acceptability of “using the internet during hours is perhaps indicative of the way in which lines between work and home have increasingly become blurred over the past few years, as the 21st Century business landscape becomes increasingly mobile and flexible and less reliant on employees being physically present in the office.” This makes sense to me, and I think that a successful conflicts of interest/use of company  resources regime is one that accepts these (and other similar) modern realities.

That is, for many employees (particularly those with young children), a total bar on using phone or intranet for personal purposes is simply impractical, and thus cannot be a true ethical issue – as there is effectively no choice involved. The same is obviously not true with respect to fudging expenses or faking sick days.

The alternative, harsher view would be that embodied in a classic episode of the TV series The Office (the US one), concerning (among other things) a “time theft” policy applicable to the company – under which even a four-second yawn is seen as a transgression.  Besides being impractical and unfair, branding reasonable use of company time/facilities as morally wrong could actually lead to other, more worrisome wrongdoing – by making reasonable uses the first step on a “slippery slope,” as described here.

On the other hand, reasonable personal use really should be limited to uses that a) are truly personal, and do not further other business  interests; and b) cannot harm the company by subjecting its tangible or intangible property or other interests to risk. For instance, many years ago a client of mine learned that an employee was using company phones to run an “escort service.”  Although he apparently did so only during his lunch hour, the reputational harm to the company was clear enough to justify firing him.

Finally, and in a somewhat related vein, you might find of interest this prior post on the connections between ethical standards at work and those in our home lives.

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