A manager surveying the workroom may note with satisfaction that all employees seem to be industriously engrossed in their computers, speedily clicking or typing and gazing raptly at the monitor. However, it could be that employees aren't entering data into accounting spreadsheets, composing sales pitches to clients or uploading marketing materials to the company website. There's a possibility that employees are shopping for new shoes, comparing airfare prices for their family vacation or updating social networking accounts. Decreased productivity may lead you to wonder whether it's ethical for employees to use company computers for personal reasons on company time.
From an employer's perspective, employee personal use of company computers can mean lost money. Employees have an ethical obligation to dedicate work hours to work, since this is what they're paid for. Workers might be neglecting job responsibilities, feigning productivity when they're attending to personal matters on their company computers. Missed deadlines, inferior products, lackadaisical customer service or resentment (if employees must pick up the slack for web-surfing co-workers) might be byproducts of employees using company computers for personal reasons on company time.
Employers concerned about workers inappropriately using company computers for personal business can step up monitoring to identify, prevent or penalize this habit. Managers can monitor in-person by strolling the work area and occasionally checking in with employees on their work progress; this can discourage personal use even if managers aren't directly checking computer screens, since employees will want to avoid the risk of being caught red-handed. It's also possible to purchase software to monitor employees' computer usage. After identifying problematic personal use, talk with employees directly to refocus habits.
One problem with monitoring company computer use is that it can be difficult to track appropriate use. For example, an employee assigned to compare different price marketing tactics may spend hours on airfare websites to take notes and brainstorm for ideas, not to research her upcoming family vacation. Some jobs involve updating social networking accounts and blog posts; it might be hard to differentiate between legitimate company use versus personal use. Also, software tracking systems may generate high volumes of data, making it difficult to sift through in order to identify inappropriate use. Inaccurately confronting hard-working employees to accuse them of using company computers for personal reasons could be an ethical challenge.
Another ethical challenge is privacy. Employees may feel deeply resentful knowing that their every keystroke is captured by an internal monitoring system, since this can imply an employer's mistrust. This could also create legal problems if employees aren't notified that their actions are being monitored.
There are positive ethical considerations for permitting employees to use company computers for personal reasons. Employees who feel trusted to responsibly manage personal computer use on company time may feel more willing to take on work assignments outside of the office. For example, an employer who blocks common email and social networking sites from computer access during the workday may find that employees are less willing to answer after-work phone calls and emails from managers. Employees may also feel less stressed during traumatic situations, such as natural disaster, knowing that they're able to log onto news websites to receive updates and information while at work.
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