Misuse of the Internet: Measuring Digital Ethics in the Workplace

Employees who misuse the Internet during work hours have become an increasing concern for many organizations. According to a survey conducted by salary.com, 64% of the survey participants said they visit non-work related websites every day during their working hours (salary.com, 2012). Misusing the Internet during working hours brings a host of ethical and productivity issues, and because of this, many organizations attempt to minimize unethical behavior that is a result of inappropriate use of the Internet in the workplace.  The following blog post will discuss social media as one of the biggest areas of misuse of the web in the workplace and will provide a brief discussion what organizations can do to help this situation.

Many organizations have different ideas of what is considered inappropriate use of the Internet. Some of the major types of behaviors that organizations consider to be unethical and unacceptable Internet use include the following; (1) checking news headlines, (2) the use of personal email, (3) banking online, (4) playing games, and (5) checking the stock market to be some of the most common uses.  However, many organizations require that employees use resources and websites on the Internet to help the organization market their products. Some organizations even encourage the use of social media to engage in networking, staying abreast of work-related topics, continuing education, and to participate in online conferences. Contrary to this, many organizations also discourage employees that engage in this type of behavior in fear of loss of production and security breaches.  Whatever the case may be, organizations should ensure that proper policies are in place so that employees are less likely to inappropriately use the Internet. 

Social media has become a major part of communication in business and many organizations have opted to set standards for policy making of the use of social media at work.  Social media plays a critical part in the way organizations market their products, interact with customers outside of the organization, manage teams, and hire employees.  Some organizations have gone as far as implementing a formal social media policy.  According to a survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) (2012), states that of the HR professionals that participated in the survey state that 40% state they have a formal social media policy in their organizations. (Society for Human Resource Management, 2012).   These statistics show that there is a growing response to the need for such policies and organizations are recognizing the ethical and productivity implications that are involved in cyberloafing. 


Creating policies and procedures for the proper use of Internet use is critical to employers that wish to enforce ethical behavior.  In a recent article in Forbes, the author states that “establishing and enforcing policies should improve productivity but can also increase the security of company information, the security of company technical assets (computers), and will potentially reduce the liability associated with issues related to sexual harassment or employee job performance” (Forbes, 2012).  However, in many cases, enforcing policies within organizations for Internet use can only stop some the unethical practices.   Many employees bring their own devices such as iPhones, IPads, Nooks, and many other small portable devices to the workplace. Many organizations are encouraging this new FAD of bringing in your own device, which is known as BYOD (Henshell, 2013).  This can pose many other ethical issues that organizations should consider when managing, implementing, and enforcing such policies.  According to Henshell and author for the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy (2013), the BYOD initiative “is despised by IT departments because it presents security and support problems” (Henshell, 2013). 

Organizations that encourage the use of these devices should implement standards to determine ethical considerations.  First, they should define what is considered ethical.  Is it considered unethical for employees to make a personal phone call from their person device while at work?  Or is it unethical to check Facebook or Twitter updates from their own device during working hours? We know that visiting offensive sites are unacceptable, but where do we draw the line? Employers should divide these categories or levels of misuse and organize them in way that they can implement effective policies.  Henshell (2013), suggests “inoffensive non-work-related usage of technology devices can be divided into two categories: personal business and play, also called ‘cyberloafing’” (Henshell, 2013).  The main point here, is that it will vary based on the organization. 

Forbes (2013). Employees Really Do Waste Time at Work. Retrieved: http://www.forbes.com/sites/cherylsnappconner/2012/07/17/employees-really-do-waste-time-at-work/

Henshell, J. (2013). Center for Digital Ethics & Policiy. Cyberloafing, BYOD, and the ethics of using technology devices at work. Retrieved: http://digitalethics.org/essays/cyberloafing-byod-ethics-technology-at-work/

Salary.com (2012).  Wasting Time at Work 2012. Retrieved:


Society for Human Resource Management, SHRM Research Spotlight: Social Media in Business Strategy and Operations. Shedding Light on the Business of HR. 2012 Retrieved: http://www.shrm.org/Research/SurveyFindings/Documents/Part_4_Social_Media_Flier.pdf







  1. I think a comparative study of loafing prior to the Internet should be done, if not done already, because clearly loafing is nothing new it is just that the Internet is a new medium. They say people and organizations are more productive than ever and part of that is due to computers and the Internet. So if people are cyberloafing it appears it is not completely detrimental to productivity as a whole but maybe to the individual. Some how comparing loafing in the past and present and productivity level could show that it is not the cyberloafing per se that is the problem but something else.

    • Other types of loafing certainly do exist. Socializing in the break room, personal phone calls, and even sleeping on the job do exist. Cyberloafing, however, is in a separate category. You are correct in saying that, at times, Cyberloafing may actually make organizations more productive. According to a study by the Harvard Business Review (2011), students that spend 10 minutes surfing the Internet, were 16% more productive than students who engaged in non-Internet loafing (Harvard Business Review (2012). However, this does not mean that there are a host of ethical considerations to be made. Organizations should continue to monitor employee use of the Internet so they don’t become victims of a security breach or encourage the wrong behavior.

      Harvard Business Review (2012). There’s No Shame in Cyberloafing. Retrieved: http://hbr.org/2011/12/theres-no-shame-in-cyberloafing/ar/1

  2. Peter Kramer said:

    Cyberloafing might also be unofficial user training. I know that I’ve learned quite a bit by attempting to use a new technology even when, after trying it out, I determined that it wasn’t a fit for me but that now I had a working knowledge of what it was and how it might be used in our business. I use Pinterest as an example, as I spent a good hour trying to figure it out on my own only to finally decide that it wasn’t a fit. But if anyone was standing over my shoulder, they may have thought I was just looking at travel photos, business environments, and a host of other things that I ended up exploring in Pinterest.

    Was this employer paid for training? In a way, yes. I could have done this at home, but I was also trying to figure out if this was something that could be used in our environment and I didn’t know where to start in terms of asking someone, so I looked at it myself. We should be cognizant that in an environment filled with new solutions and technology, user experimentation is one of the few ways that employees will be able to add value to their company as they establish new ideas and connections between technology and existing processes and procedures.

  3. Hi Matt, you bring up some good points. In my original post, I note that organizations should implement a standard to determine when to draw the line in determining what is considered a good practice or not. In your case with the use of Pinterest, do you believe that learning how to use the product was considered productive for your organization? Would you have recommended your employees to learn how to use the product? I’m sure your intent was to determine whether or not Pinterest would be a viable solution for your business, but what about the employees that take this to extreme measures. The ones that are surfing the web for countless hours. I’m not saying that you did the wrong thing by testing it, I’m only questioning what is considered a good use of company time and what isn’t. Thank you for your thoughtful response post. You always help me to think outside the box.

    • Peter Kramer said:

      You are absolutely right. Drawing a line in the sand becomes…a moving line. And as Dr. Watwood noted, playing during the day on company times becomes check your e-mail and respond to company business on personal time at 8:00 p.m. The tools of our very connectivity are creating new challenges for us to figure out, challenges that seem to evolve every day.

  4. bwatwood said:


    Good post and thoughtful responses. In your comments to Matt, you noted “I’m only questioning what is considered a good use of company time and what isn’t.” I am still trying to figure out what is “company time”? One is not allowed to check Facebook during work hours but is expected to keep up with email after hours? Is that fair…or productive?

    I am old school, but I never thought that you could train someone in ethics, no more than you could list everything someone could NOT do. I have worked from a belief that you set a goal and give people what they need to do that, then hold them accountable to that goal.

    By the way, one of my former sailor shared the U.S. Navy’s Social Media Handbook with me last year. We are not the only ones trying to figure this stuff out!


    • Hello, thank you for sharing the U.S. Navy social Media handbook. As noted in the first paragraph of the letter from the Navy leader, it seems they believe that effective communication is essential. I believe that this brings up another critical point within organizations. How are we communicating amongst others while at work? With the use of social media and it being blended within work and personal, should we communicate the same? Are employees using how they communicate with personal interactions the same at work?

  5. There is a significant amount of data that suggests cyberloafing and frequent breaks during the workday actually increase productivity – for just two examples, see these articles:



    I am convinced that allowing employees to manage their own work rhythm is critical, and as a leader I give my team members the ability to set their schedules and manage their affairs. We set goals and work toward them…and they use their talents and preferences to construct a work life that allows them to achieve those goals. While this strategy does not work in every situation or with every employee, I think it is fair to say that leaders who demonstrate that they trust and respect their employees will be more successful than those who lead through policy or fear. I’ve always found the concept of ‘cyberloafing’ to be an inaccurate description of employees’ natural need to periodically disengage. Disengaging for a short amount of time does not mean an employee is lazy or taking advantage of company property; instead, it simply means he/she must refocus and refresh before continuing to work. If implemented properly, I suspect broadening network use policies to support innocuous browsing and allowing employees time to disconnect during the workday would actually increase productivity by deepening trust between team members and enabling scientifically supported work rhythms. While this would not give employees license to surf the web all day without producing, it would shift the office environment in a positive direction and help companies move past outdated conceptions of time and work and management.

  6. I’d like to take Matt’s argument one step farther.

    Here are some of the things I do, almost daily, on my company’s internet account:

    1. I check stocks, including the company I work for and others.
    2. I check the weather.
    3. I look at Creighton.edu for various things, including grades and upcoming assignments.
    4. I log my exercise and food intake, as part of my health routine (I am trying to get healthier).
    5. I look at MLB.com to see how others did in comparison to my Detroit Tigers.

    All could be considered loafing, unless we consider:

    1. I check stocks, including the company I work for and others because Yahoo Finance gives me the latest news on my own company and competitors which I use to consider new projects. External sources have some bias, but so do company press releases. This method helps me see thinks in a more balanced way
    2. I check the weather, because I travel very frequently and being up on the weather helps me plan connecting flights so I don’t get stranded at an airport and become unproductive.
    3. I look at Creighton.edu for various things, including grades and upcoming assignments, because I consider my coursework professional development that helps the company.
    4. I log my exercise and food intake, as part of my health routine (I am trying to get healthier), which helps me miss less work and keeps company-subsidized healthcare costs down.
    5. I look at MLB.com to see how others did in comparison to my Detroit Tigers, because my coworkers in Philadelphia, Atlanta, San Diego, and NYC do the same and we bond as a team when we converse about mutual interests.

    Is loafing as obvious as we might think?

    Thoughts? Thanks. BPW

    • bwatwood said:

      Thoughts…sounds like the poster child for a wired worker! 🙂

  7. I’d like to add another scenario besides security and support than can worry organizations and that is the use of company Internet and assets for illegal activities. Does this make the organization liable? A simple example that is discussed in another post is cyber-bullying. If such cyber-bulling, harassment, or threatening activities are done on a social media account or from an email account accessed by company Internet, on a company PC and on company time, is the organization exposed to civil litigation and penalties? It may not be different from 30-years ago if an employee made threatening phone calls from a company phone, however, the access today is greater. Thoughts?

  8. This is a very valid point and thank you for asking. I believe that cyber-bullying, harassment, and other threatening uses of social media can effect an organization and I do think that the organization can be held liable for civil litigation if the organization does not take measures like proper policies and employee awareness. I agree with you that it would be no different than verbal interaction that are inappropriate in the workplace.

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