INTERNET AND PRODUCTIVITY: ETHICAL PERSPECTIVES ON WORKPLACE BEHAVIOR

AUTHOR
Frances S. Grodzinsky and Andra Gumbus

ABSTRACT

When Tim Berners Lee unleashed the World Wide Web (WWW) in 1990, his goals were to create “an internet-based hypermedia initiative for global information sharing” (Frauenfelder, 2004). The accessibility to information at the click of a mouse coupled with the affordability of hardware and connectivity have re-oriented our lives. Within the past fifteen years, this tool has made its way into our homes, schools, and workplaces changing the way we communicate, learn and conduct business. The WWW has lifted the restrictions on the Internet from a tool that could be used solely by academics and researchers, to one that can now be used by society to access popular culture. It has become a perceived necessity for people within an Information Society. At the same time, it has brought along its share of problems. Looking back to the future, who would have dreamed that our lives would be so online in 2005?

Rapid access to data and information brought about by advances in Information Communication Technology (ICT) is essential for competitive businesses in the Information Age. Central servers with dumb terminals controlled by management information systems (MIS) departments have given way to distributed client server models, where employees have both application and presentation software on their own personal computers or workstations. Unlimited Internet access was tradtionally afforded to employees on their machines at the workplace, While this access made life more enjoyable for these employees, organisations found that time spent on personal business was eroding time spent on company business. This paper continues a long tradtion of the exploration of Internet usage in the workplace at Ethicomp. Studies by Introna (2001), Palm (2004) and Prior (2004) have all examined aspects of this topic. This paper will build on these studies and focus specifically on Internet usage and its effect on productivity in the workplace.

In the last few years, companies have started to rethink how much Internet access to allow employees in the workplace as unlimited Internet access in some companies has resulted in potential lost productivity and abuse of work time spent online. Statistics show that worldwide, corporations lose billions in the resultant reduced productivity. This abuse of Internet privileges is real problem for organizations, with real monetary ramifications and it shows no sign of letting up. Recently, the International Data Corp. estimated that 30% to 40% of employee Internet use isn’t work related. And according to Nielsen/Net Ratings, 92% of online stock trading occurs from the workplace during work hours and 46% of online holiday shopping takes place at work” (Schweitzer, 2004).

Schweitzer also indicates that liability placed upon the corporation can be frightening because it opens the company up to legal action and a hostile workplace environment. “About 70% of all Web traffic to Internet pornography sites occurs between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., according to SexTracker, a porn industry consultancy” (Schweitzer, 2004). To counter this trend, companies today are limiting unrestricted access to the Internet. Thin clients (computers with limited applications and no Internet access) are replacing thick clients that afforded unlimited access. Organizations are implementing policies and practices that restrict employees and limit their ability to access non- work related sites. Company Intranets are replacing the public Internet because they provide secure access for employees and can be heavily regulated and controlled by management. These practices are often presented under the guise of virus control, spam control, and employee safety. Additional motivators for the restriction of Internet are attempts to protect bandwidth thereby ensuring the resources necessary to control legitimate business, and prevention of automatic downloads that may damage or infect corporate programs.

What are the ethical ramifications of controlling employee behavior in the workplace? Is the company acting ethically when spy ware or other software is installed that monitors all employees based on the inappropriate behavior of a few? Is monitoring for control eroding the employee / employer relationship and undermining trust? Does a company have the right to deny the reading of private email during lunchtime or after work hours? Are companies realizing these anticipated results gained from the switch from thick to thin client terminals? We will explore these questions in this paper using survey results from forty companies across industries. Part One will examine the effect of the Internet on employee behavior in the workplace and its effect on productivity. The analysis will focus on issues of productivity, monitoring and privacy, employer/employee relationships and trust, behavioral expectations and managerial control. Part Two will present and analyze the research of forty organizations including corporate, non-profit and academic institutions in order to gain a perspective across industries on company policy and practices regarding employee use of the Internet as it relates to productivity.

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