Adrienne Fox has written an in-depth article on Web addiction for HR Magazine: Caught in the Web - employees who can't stop clicking. Her article discusses both general productivity issues associated with the Web in the workplace and the more specific issue of those people whose Web use goes far beyond garden-variety productivity matters into behavior that rivals that of many other addictions.
Many employers have been grappling with the matter of appropriate employee Web use. The efficiencies and benefits afforded by the Internet - e-mail, research ability, connectivity, etc. - cannot be overstated. Yet the flip side of the coin is the potential for abuse. Web use can certainly get out of hand - not unlike the telephone. In her article, Fox cites several studies pointing to loss of productivity, including a 2005 Gallup Organization report that found the average employee uses office computers for non-work activity about 75 minutes per day, an annual equivalent of $6,250 per employee at $20 an hour. Some estimates we've seen put the productivity drain higher, some lower. A University of Maryland study that we've cited puts the personal Web use during work time at an average of 3.7 hours a week. On the other hand, this study also found that employees are spending more time at home using the web for work-related matters—an average of 5.9 hours.
A secondary and related issue is arguably the more difficult one to address: employees who can't put the brakes on. Some call Internet abuse an addiction, although the American Psychiatric Association does not recognize it as such. The jury appears to still be out as to whether this is simply a bad habit, an addiction, or an impulse control disorder. Researchers at Stanford University have been and are continuing to study these questions. To date, they have found some number of people who identify compulsive and troubling trends in their own usage. In one nationwide telephone survey of 2,513, 13.7% of the survey participants said they found it hard to stay away from the Internet for several days at a time; 12.4% stayed online longer than intended; 8.7% attempted to conceal non-essential Web use from significant others; and 5.9 percent felt their relationships suffered as a result of excessive Internet use
While experts can quibble over the precise terminology, the fundamental question can be boiled down to this: Is Web use causing problems in that person's life? For many, the answer is yes, and the symptoms are not far different that they are for substance abuse, gambling, or any other addictive behaviors. Problem indicators include:
- Covering up or lying about the extent of use
- Jeopardizing relationships, work
- Escaping problems and responsibilities
- Losing interest in friends and hobbies
- Trying unsuccessfully to control use
- Being preoccupied with use
- Losing sleep, skipping meals
- Preferring to be online
- Staying online longer than planned
- Anticipating and planning next online session
If the issue of web usage surfaces repeatedly with a particular employee, deal with it as you would any other performance issue or problem. How would you deal with an employee who spent too much time on the phone or socializing with co-workers? If performance slips and you suspect there may be an underlying problem, such as Web addiction or any other serious matter, refer the employee to your EAP. As an HR manager you do not need to (nor should you) try to diagnose a problem - keep your eye on performance.
As with many matters, we favor a moderate approach. Building restrictive Web policies that are skewed to the few problem users would be unfair to the lion's share of the workers who are not abusive and such a policy may hinder your brightest, most creative employees. On the other hand, having a policy that is too loose might leave you open to lawsuits if the tools you supply are misused under the company name. We favor leaning more heavily to the trust side than the mistrust side. Remember Ronald Regean's favorite adage: trust but verify."
Here are a few best practices we've seen:
- Set clear policies for Web use and communicate the policies throughout the organization.
- Give examples of what appropriate Web use is (research, industry publications, professional organizations) and what unacceptable use is (Chat rooms, pornography, games)
- Tie Internet use to essential job functions and job goals
- Show that you are paying attention. Discuss Web use in job evaluations and meetings. Ask employees how much they use the Web, what they use it for, etc. Work together to set time goals.
- Be vigilant but not oppressive in monitoring usage. Have IT look for usage "outliers" and have discussions with the outliers to determine why. Use may be legitimate based on job needs; if not, handle as you would any performance issue.
- Specify disciplinary actions for serious violation of policies. If certain actions will result in termination, be clear in stating this.