Bloomsburg University
James Tomlinson
Organizational Communication

CyberSlacking

Getting away with it: cyberslacking (Dilbert, copyright United Features Syndicate, Inc.)

On Air
The Internet has brought distractions into cubicles, and now corporate America is fighting back

By Keith Naughton
Newsweek, November 29, 1999

With a new baby and a full-time job, Jill McGarr doesn't have time to cruise the malls this Christmas. Instead, she's cruising the Internet, shopping for gifts for her husband and 2-month-old daughter. Not owning a home computer, however, she's doing her online shopping at the Cleveland graphics studio where she works. Does that make her feel guilty? "Oh, come on," says the 28-year-old secretary. "I'm not cheating anyone. I'm a multitasker." After all, she says, everyone shirks at work sometimes. Besides, she says, "what's more beneficial? Talking on the phone to a friend or maybe becoming more computer literate because you're using the computer?"

McGarr might be multitasking. But a new generation of cyberslacking workers are multishirking by spending hours a day frittering away time online. As e-mail and high-speed Internet access have become standard-issue office equipment, rampant abuse of computers in the workplace is making the water cooler look like a font of productivity. For bosses, cyberslacking is becoming a pervasive and perplexing problem in the new wired workplace. With the Internet morphing into the virtual Mall of America, day trading, Quake playing, vacation planning and hard-core porn (not to mention gateways to exciting new career opportunities) are all just a click away. "There is something extremely seductive about this technology," says Kimberly Young, founder of the Center for Online Addiction in Bradford, Pa., and author of "Caught in the Net." From game sites like mplayer.com, where usage surges during the lunch hour, to online retailers like Amazon.com, which experience their heaviest traffic during the workday, the message is plain: folks who surf prefer to do it at work.

Corporations are scrambling to measure the scope of the problem. According to a new survey from Vault.com, 90 percent of the nation's workers admit to surfing recreational sites during office hours. And 84 percent of workers say they send personal e-mail from work. SurfWatch Software estimates that nearly one third of American workers' time on the Net is spent cheating the boss out of real work, double last year's rate of on-the-job recreational surfing. Research commissioned by Elron Software found that more than half of American workers cybershop on company time. And it's not just for books. Jennifer Greco found a lovely two-bedroom condo while cruising the Web during lunch from her office at Encore Group, a Chicago marketing staffing firm. House hunting at work saved the 29-year-old consultant from traipsing all over town and, she says, "I didn't have to look hard or long at all." Perhaps most grating to employers is the on-the-job job hunt. A financial analyst at a Hollywood movie studio who asked that his name not be used says, "The bulk of my time online is spent looking for work elsewhere."

With demand for downtime diversions skyrocketing, all sorts of Web sites are popping up to satisfy the need to shirk. There's Gamesville.com, a game-playing site with the slogan "Wasting your time since 1996." Dilbert, of course, has his own dot.com, and his cartoonist creator, Scott Adams, says working stiffs can now use the Internet to transform their cubicles into "virtual Vegas gaming houses, complete with nudies." And then there's DonsBossPage.com, a Dagwood Bumstead-style site filled with jokes and games that gets 5,000 hits a day. Each site features a prominent panic button in case the boss wanders by. Simply click on it and a phony spreadsheet pops onto your screen and typing sounds clack from your speakers. Dereliction of duty at the keyboard is an efficient way to recharge your batteries at work, argues Don Pavlish, the 25-year-old "chief Web geek" who created Don's Boss Page. "There's more value in 15 minutes of Web surfing than going outside for a smoke," he reasons.

Ever the killjoys, bosses are taking a dim view of all this virtual goldbricking. They see it as an insidious, profit-eating virus, costing corporate America more than $1 billion a year in wasted computer resources, according to SurfWatch, a maker of software to police cyberabuse. And that doesn't even count the billions of dollars in lost productivity. Along with the time wasting, executives worry that the new technology increasingly enables workers to pilfer trade secrets in the blink of an e-mail. Personal surfing and e-mailing can also seriously strain a company's computer network. And workers who consume a steady diet of porn in their offices may expose their employers and themselves to sexual-harassment lawsuits. Even short of lawsuits, many co-workers are being placed in uncomfortable situations when they walk in on colleagues who are viewing pornography. "As more people get access to the Internet, it's becoming an area of abuse on a wider scale," says Patrick Gnazzo, vice president of business ethics at United Technologies. The Hartford, Conn.-based manufacturing conglomerate has instituted a "rat fink" policy that requires workers to tattle on colleagues who are misusing their computers.

But workers may soon pay an unwelcome price for all the workday antics. There has been a sharp increase in workplace surveillance as employers have begun paying more attention to how their workers are spending their time at the keyboards. More than two thirds of U.S. companies engage in electronic surveillance of their employees, according to a new survey from the American Management Association. The biggest growth is in cybersnooping, with 27 percent of companies reviewing e-mail, up from 15 percent two years ago, and 21 percent going over computer files, up from 13 percent. "It's not a question of individual privacy," says Richard Mauro, president of Telemate.net, which has sold its cyberspying software to more than 1,000 companies. "It's about the abuse of company assets."

The new technology gives bosses Orwellian powers to see everywhere you've been and read everything you've written, including embarrassingly personal e-mails. "It's very borderline in what all of us fear about Big Brother and technology," admits Jeff Uslen, information-protection manager at 20th Century Fox. After scripts from "The X-Files" began showing up on eBay before they were broadcast on TV, the Hollywood studio hired Uslen for the newly created job (his license plate reads cyberfuzz). He quickly installed Message Inspector software that monitors all of the studio's e-mail traffic to make sure no more scripts wander off and to block hate mail from reaching its stars' e-mail boxes.

Companies have more to worry about than overly opinionated David Duchovny fans. This year Xerox has fired more than 40 employees for allegedly mixing particularly perverse pleasures with business. The workers idled away up to eight hours a day on pornography Web sites, according to Xerox. Some even downloaded porn videos that choked Xerox's expansive computer network, preventing their co-workers from opening or sending e-mail. "There were people spending all solid day doing nothing but clicking the mouse and downloading pictures," says Xerox cybercop Mike Gerdes, who runs the company's eight-member SWAT team on computer abuse. Gerdes's cyberpatrol rooted out the pornophiles with the help of new snooping software that allows Xerox to review every Web site its 40,000 computer users visit each day. According to Gerdes, most slacking occurs on less sexy sites, like eBay and E*Trade. But porn addresses tend to stand out on his activity reports, he says. "When someone is hanging out at 'XXX I'm having a great time at the company's expense.com,' that's easy to identify."

 

Some companies have barred the door to pornography by installing special filtering software to prevent employees from entering adult areas. Yet many, including Xerox, still allow employees to occasionally cruise the Web and send e-mail for more benign personal use. "To tell an employee that they can't respond to an e-mail from their kid in college just doesn't make sense," says Gnazzo at United Technologies. But a few employers, such as telecommunications giant Ameritech, have a zero-tolerance policy for any personal use of e-mail or the Internet.

Workers tend to chafe under such rigidity, particularly if companies use intrusive methods to check up on them. Kate Atkinson, for one, was startled when she says a nasty e-mail from her company flashed on her screen at work, reprimanding her for visiting eBay recently. A family doctor who works 60 hours a week for a Belchertown, Mass., health-care company, Atkinson went on eBay to buy her kids a Foosball table because she was too busy to make it to the store. She says the "strongly worded" company e-mail warned her she could be fired for cruising the Internet from work. "I felt like I was back in first grade and the teacher thought I was cheating," fumes Atkinson. "Come on, it's a Foosball table—and I'm a doctor." She ignored the threat and completed her purchase.

Not every boss views the Internet as the enemy. At Vantage One, a Cleveland Web-design firm, employees have Quake-Offs using the bloody online war game to kill stress and each other (virtually, of course). Explains Jim Wilson, a 31-year-old programmer, "There is something therapeutic about being able to drop into a full, 3-D interactive environment and see how long you last." Wilson's bosses encourage slacker bonding in the office, provided the work eventually gets done. "As long as it's not offensive to others around you and doesn't impede your work, then anything goes," says Vantage One cofounder Dan Rose, who admits to slacking off on ESPN.com.

Game playing has become a fact of workplace life. One in five online game players logs on from work, according to a survey by the Interactive Digital Software Association. Jay Severson, a 22-year-old computer programmer in San Jose, Calif., spent so much of his workday playing Starcraft he became a world champion and even scored an endorsement deal from a gaming-mouse company. But with his day job suffering, Severson is now trying to quit playing Starcraft—for the third time. "Once you love a game, it almost always interferes with your work," he shrugs. "You won't stop at a loss. And when you win, you keep on playing because you're on a roll." Severson, who works from home, has a powerful incentive to quit playing games. His bosses at EUniverse, while tolerant of some surfing, are monitoring his productivity more closely. "Now that the corporation is looking over my shoulder, it almost defeats the purpose of working at home," he says.

Workers are grumbling at the new electronic oversight, but management is well within its rights, according to legal experts. "It may be unfair for a boss to fire you for a five-minute Web-site visit, but it's not illegal," says Lewis Maltby, workplace-rights chief for the American Civil Liberties Union. "If you filed a lawsuit, you wouldn't have a prayer." While some privacy experts challenge bosses' rights to pry into personal e-mail, courts have not ruled against it. The argument goes that since the computer belongs to the company, the brass have a right to view everything in it. And unlike personal phone calls, e-mails to friends leave a permanent record. Delete does not mean delete, says John Jessen, chief executive of Electronic Evidence Discovery in Seattle. He regularly retrieves incriminating e-mail for corporate clients. "The stuff employees leave on their computers helps companies get them 90 percent of the time."

Just ask Glen Eastman, who was fired from Compaq last year after nearly 19 years on the job. The engineer's bosses first called him on the carpet for personal use of the telephone. But he says they didn't fire him until they found three e-mails he had sent from his office at Compaq for an airplane-repair business he was starting. Other companies, including United Parcel Service, have also fired workers for running their own businesses from work. Indeed, Eastman says others in his office sold Amway products from their desktops, but none were fired. He suspects he was targeted because he's over 50 and earned $70,000 a year. But after taking his grievance to a lawyer, Eastman discovered the "everybody else is doing it" defense doesn't wash. "It's a real revelation to learn you have no rights in the workplace," says the father of three, who had to sell his home and use his life savings to pay bills. "Your whole world tumbles apart." A Compaq official says Eastman was "misusing company resources for financial gain," which created "a disruption in the workplace" and was "a clear conflict of interest."

As cyberslacking becomes an ingrained part of American corporate culture, bosses live in fear of a meltdown like the one Lockheed Martin suffered last year. The defense contractor's e-mail system crashed for six hours after an employee sent 60,000 co-workers an e-mail (with e-receipt requested) about a national prayer day. For a company that posts 40 million e-mails a month, the crash cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. A Microsoft rescue squad had to be flown in to painstakingly dismantle the computer code gridlock the employee's e-mail had created. The Microsoft engineers also overhauled Lockheed Martin's e-mail security so no single employee could ever send an electronic time bomb again. The employee, whom the company won't identify, was fired for "an act of sabotage." How did Lockheed Martin cope throughout the crisis? "We had to resort to using the telephone," says spokeswoman Elaine Hinsdale.

Like most companies, Lockheed Martin knows it can't stop the cyberslacking altogether. Even the company's spokeswoman admits to buying gifts on the L.L. Bean site. "It's become quite handy for those of us who work a lot of hours," says Hinsdale. No doubt bosses everywhere plan to write memos condemning cyberslacking, just as soon as they sign off from E*Trade.

With Joan Raymond in Cleveland, Ken Shulman in Boston, Diane Struzzi in Chicago and bureau reports

© 1999 Newsweek, Inc.

Click below to return to the Org Com Materials Page