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Internet abuse in the workplace

Introduction


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In addition to being a channel for commercial exchange, the Web also provides employees access to the world's biggest playground. This fact was highlighted in a recent Newsweek article. The headline read: "The Internet has brought distractions into cubicles, and now corporate America is fighting back" [4]. An Aberdeen Research Group report [7] indicates employees squander anywhere from 30 minutes to three hours a day on nonwork-related activity. This type of employee Internet usage behavior is referred to as Internet abuse.

In this special section, Lim and Teo define Internet abuse as "any voluntary act of employees using their companies" Internet access during office hours to surf nonwork-related Web sites for nonwork purposes." Does this mean that any Internet usage unrelated to work is an abuse? The character of the contemporary work environment, with its flexible, open and autonomous nature has blurred the line between work and life. Thus, what constitutes Internet abuse in the workplace is less clear.

One way to view the line of acceptable user behavior is through the work of Boisot [1]. Boisot argues that both individuals and organizations can be viewed as productive factors generating output levels. Technical progress, such as the Internet, acts to reduce the quantities of input required to produce a given level of output. However, technical progress also pushes toward more changes and complexity. There is a drive then, to blend complexity reduction with complexity absorption. As illustrated in the accompanying figure, what results is a zone of comfort, or a balance between complexity reduction and complexity absorption, that represents the best usage of the Internet. Thus, Internet abuse could exist above this zone in terms of excessive freedom to employees, and below the zone in terms of excessive control by the organization.

This framework leads to many interesting questions. Where is the line drawn between nonproductive surfing and experimentation with a new technology? Berger and Van Slyke discuss the view that a certain amount of playful use of computer applications can lead to learning that may be of value to the organization, while Stanton's study indicates frequent Internet users are often happy and productive workers. Oravec makes the case for constructive use of recreation that can help the entire organization work more and play better.

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A Social Contract View

The control mechanisms for Internet usage could be viewed through the lens of a social contract theory. The social contract theory [3] suggests individuals have evolved ways of dealing with other individuals, with groups, and within organizations. There is an exchange of perceived benefits and costs in a social contract, and an individual is required to pay a cost (or meet a requirement) to an individual (or group) in order to receive a benefit. The organization also pays costs and receives benefits. Thus, Internet abuse is the failure to pay a cost incurred by accepting a benefit.

Coinciding with the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the organization, "work" has become defined by jobs and mechanisms evolved for handling the social exchange between individuals and organizations. Individuals and representatives of organizations enter into two types of social contracts. One is an economic contract in which wages, fringe benefits, and reasonable working conditions (organizational cost-individual benefit) are exchanged for time, skills, and effort (organizational benefit-individual cost). Another is the psychological contract in which a certain amount of allegiance, creativity, and extra effort (organizational benefit-individual cost) are exchanged for job security, fair treatment, rewarding relationships with coworkers, and organizational support (organizational cost-individual benefit). If either side honors only the economic contract and not the psychological contract, both parties tend to have unmet expectations, resulting in negative consequences. Employees might feel less satisfied and withhold some of their work-related contributions; employers might take corrective disciplinary actions. If the economic and psychological contracts are usually met, positive outcomes result for both employees and employers [6]. It is clear that if either party fails in their part of the exchange the mechanisms for enforcement are generally known.

But the nature of the employment relationship is changing and as the work environment becomes more and more abstract, the mechanisms controlling these relationships are no longer clear. The concepts of the psychological contract and jobs as we know them may no longer be valid [2]. Thus, these changes translate into redefinition of both the economic and psychological contracts, affecting what is considered acceptable behavior in the employee-employer social contract exchange. The increasing usage of the Internet further complicates the social contract between employee and employer. The Internet offers even more opportunities to cheat, and our mechanisms for controlling the social exchange in this kind of environment are not as evolved. We simply have not had enough experience with this type of exchange process to know how best to control Internet abuse in the workplace.

Simmers discusses how Internet usage can be effectively aligned with business priorities while allowing personal use. Siau et al. provide guidelines on developing acceptable Internet usage policy in organizations, emphasizing the role of such policies should not be so restrictive it suffocates employees.

However, simply creating Internet usage policies is inadequate. Employee Internet usage has to be monitored to ensure compliance with such policies. Panko and Beh discuss legal issues for monitoring employees for pornography and sexual harassment. And Urbaczewski and Jessup examine the importance of electronic monitoring and its impact on employees.

Internet abuse in the workplace is a complex topic, and not all the pertinent issues are covered here. However, I hope these articles stir the thoughts and spirit of research efforts in this area.

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References

1. Boisot, M.H. Knowledge Assets. Oxford University Press, NY, 1999.

2. Bridge, W. JobShift. Addison-Wesley, Reading MA, 1995.

3. Cosmides, L. and Tooby, J. Cognitive adaptations for social exchange. In H.H. Barkow, L. Cosmedes, and J. Tooby, Eds. The Adapted Mind. Oxford University Press, NY, 1992.

4. Naughton, K. Cyberslacking. Newsweek, Nov. 29, 1999, 6265.

5. Needle, D. Surprise! E-commerce will drive Net growth. PC World (Sept. 15, 1999).

6. Newstrom, J.W. and Davis, K. Organizational Behavior: Human Behavior at Work. 10th ed. McGraw-Hill, NY, 1997.

7. Yasin, R. Web slackers put on notice. Internet Week (Oct. 15, 1999).

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Author

Murugan Anandarajan (ma33@drexel.edu) is an associate professor of MIS in the Department of Management at Drexel University.

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Figures

UF1Figure. Web abuse and the evolutionary production function.

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©2002 ACM  0002-0782/02/0100  $5.00

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Article Contents:
  • Introduction
  • A Social Contract View
  • References
  • Author
  • Figures
  • ACM Resources