Why You Shouldn't Punish Employees Who Goof Off

Employees who buy stuff online aren't slackers. Step back and look at the contributions they make outside normal business hours (whether at home or at their desk) before you watch them like a hawk, make them sign a timesheet and restrict their Internet habits.

A Today Show segment this week focused on what companies were doing to stop cyber-slackers. It seems—and this should hardly surprise any of us—that folks often use their company PCs and Internet connection to do things like shop at work. Shame on them, the story said, encouraging efforts to stamp out these horrid practices and make sure people are working properly.

Hang on. Many of these same people work from home on their own time, and one of the reasons they have to do things like shop online at the office is because they no longer have the personal time to get things done. Stopping the activity in those cases could actually reduce productivity, lowering their after-hours contributions or creating bigger personal issues they'll still have to deal with at work.

Intel's Lesson: Work Isn't Confined to the Office Anymore

As Intel went through some difficult times in the 1990s, management noticed that a lot of employees came in late and left early. Executives would sit in their cubes—even the CEO had a cubicle—and watch folks enter and leave at all times. The conclusion: People were slacking off.

How-to: Time Management: 6 Ways to Improve Your Productivity

A new policy followed. Managers logged their employees in at 8 a.m. and out at 5 p.m.—and productivity fell like it went off a cliff. The Intel employees showing up late often worked from home until the early hours of the morning, and those going home early often came in very early or worked through the night on a project.

As a result, the folks who had been working all those extra hours collectively said "the heck with it" and started working regular hours, and the folks who had been taking advantage of the flexibility came in but slacked off. It was quite literally one of the stupidest things I've ever seen a company do. Thankfully, some smart people ran Intel, and the policy was reversed once management saw the results.

Productivity's Not In the Eye of the Beholder

My grandfather, the CEO of a large petrochemical company, liked to tell me a story when I was growing up. A big steel CEO hired an efficiency expert to study the steel plant and look for potential improvements. The expert found a guy just sitting around and drawing, and he recommendation that the plant get rid of this seemingly useless guy. The CEO fired the efficiency exert, explaining that the guy's doodles had saved millions and made him one of the company's most valuable employees.

If employee metrics focus on what is important to the firm—that is, what people actually accomplish—then most everything works itself out. On the other hand, if metrics focus on how long someone is in the office or what he does while on company property, particularly when he may actually be most productive at home, the resulting policies could do more harm than good.

Tips: Killing Time: Do More By Ignoring the Clock

In today's connected world, the only thing that's really important is whether an employee is worth what he or she is being paid and behaving within the ethical construct the company and industry requires. Some employee monitoring is necessary, of course, as some activities clearly can't be allowed on company grounds. However, getting too invasive will break the productivity advantages you're likely taking for granted and drive away those who are the most productive. Since IT is often the first budget to be cut in a downturn, preventing a decision that would drive a downturn is in your best interest.

Rob Enderle is president and principal analyst of the Enderle Group. Previously, he was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group. Prior to that he worked for IBM and held positions in Internal Audit, Competitive Analysis, Marketing, Finance and Security. Currently, Enderle writes on emerging technology, security and Linux for a variety of publications and appears on national news TV shows that include CNBC, FOX, Bloomberg and NPR.

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