Conducting Personal Business on Company Time


There are 24 hours in a day of which a typical employee spends a minimum of 8 to 10 hours of that time at work, at least 4 to 5 hours sleeping and the rest of the hours is spent trying to deal with personal business. This makes it difficult for employees to keep their personal business away from company time. They are tempted to set up doctor’s appointment with the company’s phone lines, use the office internet to catch up on the latest news, shop, book hotel reservations or pay a few bills. Even when they are physically at work, some employees are seen taking longer lunch breaks, chatting with colleagues, using the company’s printer to print out personal documents or leaving early to pick up a child at school.

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At first glance, it is safe to say that employers will view these acts as a breach of work ethics, an abuse of the employer’s trust, an aberration that needs to be eradicated, however, a deeper insight will take anyone on a longer route. This is where the saying ‘everything is not black or white’ applies. There are fifty shades of grey that can be found in this ethical issue. What does a company do when an employee has been called away from work because of a sick child or when an employee needs to print out a copy of his/her international passport to process a visa. One way an employee can toe the ethical line is to check with his/her manager or human resources supervisors to clarify what counts as a violation in the company. Yet, this is simply not possible in every situation.

The truth of the matter is that for an average employee, mixing work and personal time may be the best way to solve the issue of work/life balance. Times are changing and people’s attitude to work is that work is something you do, not a place or a set of hours; something one should enjoy and not a burden. According to Professor Stewart Friedman at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania and founding director of the Work/Life Integration Project, allowing employees to openly take breaks during the workday to perform personal tasks can result in higher productivity.

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Friedman suggest that giving employees time for taking care of personal business helps employees focus better on their job as thinking about personal tasks while at work interferes with one’s ability to focus on work tasks. He further argued that to create a result-driven work-force, employers should focus more on results rather than the time spent at work, after all, an employee who consistently produces result is far worthier than an employee who fails to produce result but is always at work from 9 to 5.

In addition, it is obvious that we have moved to a technological advanced age as an average employee knows how to operate a system and surf the web. We presently live in an interconnected world whereby checking one’s mail or surfing the net for a few minutes is a part of everyday life and trying to curb it by imposing blockades is mere futility. Instead, Friedman propose that employers consider the job requirement and determine the amount of work-life balance that may be needed. For instance, a retail business might require physically present employees whilst some businesses measure productivity in the output of the mind and not the quantity of work done.

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Yet, the question is: when is it okay to allow employees to perform personal tasks and at what stage does it become highly costly to the organization? What has to be determined is what is reasonable in each circumstances as what is reasonable will vary from job to job, so no one rule can apply across the board.

To arrive at what is reasonable, it is advisable to give employees the flexibility to decide what works for them and what will make them more productive long term. As Friedman says “It’s harder to be psychologically present when you’re distracted by the demands of other parts of your life”. Therefore, employers should discuss the options with their employees, empower them and give them the chance to discuss and agree on what is acceptable and reasonable and the consequences for stepping over that line. This way, employers kill 3 birds with one stone as they get employees’ cooperation, their psychological presence at work and also an agreed disciplinary measure to counter bad habits.

However, once this is done, employers must not sit on their laurels but instead, ensure adequate policing of the system as people tend to waiver in their commitment. Employers must have consistent and regular dialog with employees to ensure that they are self-aware of what they are doing and what the company expects from them. More so, employers should not be scared to hold the line by disciplining errant employees who go against the laid down rules regarding this issue. After all, people are paid to work and not handle their personal business; allowing employees to enjoy a work-life integration therefore is a privilege, not a right to be abused.

Professor Stewart Friedman: Integrating Work and Life: The Wharton Resource Guide, Published in 1998 (ISBN 0-78794-022-4).

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