Employee Internet Abuse Hyperbole

    April 22, 2005

Here we go again. Will nobody stop these idiots? An article in the Maryland Business Gazette succumbs without challenge to the same stastical nonsense …

… that cited by hundreds of other publications that has led thousands of businesses to embark on engagement-killing programs of monitoring employees’ online activities. Are these business writers hypnotized by numbers? Do they never question what they’re told? Here’s the drivel coming out of the Gazette:

According to a recent Gallup Organization report, the average employee uses office computers for nonwork activity about 75 minutes per day. At an average wage of $20 per hour, that works out to an annual loss of $6,250 per employee.

At least these numbers come from Gallup, which is a helluva lot more impartial than Websense, the company that sells monitoring software that usually issues this garbage in hysterical press releases.

The Gazette uses Lockheed Martin as an example, and doing its own math, concludes, “If those averages hold true at Lockheed, the company is losing more than $800 million per year.”


If all this productivity is swirling down the corporate drain, then could somebody please explain why the U.S. Department of Labor continues to report that worker productivity is continuing to increase? For example, in the last quarter of 2004

  1. Labor productivity in the business sector rose at a 3.7 percent annual rate.
  2. Output was revised up and hours growth was revised down, resulting in a larger productivity gain than originally reported. Revised estimates show that output per hour increased 2.0 percent in the third quarter, as output increased 4.5 percent and hours increased 2.5 percent.
  3. In the nonfarm business sector, productivity rose at an annual rate of 2.1 percent in the fourth quarter of 2004, as output grew 3.7 percent and hours of all persons–employees, proprietors, and unpaid family workers–rose 1.6 percent (seasonally adjusted annual rates). Nonfarm business productivity increased 1.3 percent in the third quarter of 2004, as output
    and hours grew 4.2 percent and 2.8 percent, respectively.

And so it goes. You can read all the productivity numbers in a DOL press release.

The paranoid reporting of these numbers fails to account for a number of factors. For example, most employees who spend 75 minutes a day at the office using their Internet connections for non-work-related purposes probably put in more than an extra 75 minutes each day to make up for that time spent. Nowhere have I read about a crisis in the workplace of work getting done late or not at all due to time spent online.

Add to this the number of hours employees spend doing work outside the office. According to Stephen S. Roach, an economist quoted in the New York Times, “The dirty little secret of the Information Age is that an increasingly large slice of work goes on outside the official work hours the government recognizes and employers admit to.”

And what about the productivity gains that can be attributed to employee use of the Net? A study conducted by market research consultant Socratic Technologies concluded that the Net has reduced company costs, improved customer service, and reduced company travel. Even non-work-related Web surfing can improve an employee’s online skills and result in the serendipitous discovering of knowledge that can be put to use immediately in some cases, later in others.

The point, however, is that we need to stop taking these absurd productivity loss statistics at face value. With apologies to Mark Twain, I insist there are lies, damned lies, statistics, and statistics that prove productivity losses attributable to employee online activities.

In case you’ve missed my previous rants on this topic, there’s an important reason to pay attention to this issue: Employees who know the company is monitoring their every move know the company doesn’t trust them. It is impossible-impossible-to build an engaged workforce while simultaneously telling employees that not a single one of them can be trusted. Companies with engaged workforces enjoy greater growth and profitability than those without. This, to me, is a no-brainer. If you truly don’t value employees or don’t think they can contribute to your company’s success, then by all means, monitor away.

If, on the other hand, you do hope your employees can help your business succeed, then stop monitoring and manage by exception. Communicate your online use policy clearly and often. Train supervisors to identify signs of abuse of the policy. Let employees know when their colleagues have been disciplined or terminated as a consequence of their abuse. But please, let’s stop going into a trance every time another moronic study ties time employees spend online to lost productivity.

Seriously. Does anybody really believe it’s costing Lockheed Martin $800 million a year?

Shel Holtz is principal of Holtz Communication + Technology which focuses on helping organizations apply online communication capabilities to their strategic organizational communications.

As a professional communicator, Shel also writes the blog a shel of my former self.