How much personal business at work is reasonable?

Nov 14 2008 by Dan Bobinski Print This Article

The other day I came across an article that said the average US worker spends approximately two hours each day taking care of personal matters, such phone calls, e-mail, personal shopping, and the like.

If these are eight-hour workdays, that's a substantial chunk of time, and an equally large cost to employers. In fact, the article stated that employers are shelling out $700,000,000,000 annually to pay for this "personal time."

I know a lot has already been written on this subject, but it remains a problem, so it's not out of line to suggest it deserves continued attention. After all, 25 percent of a workday is a significant amount of time. It first begs the question "why is so much personal business being done at work?"

Perhaps one part of the answer is "because people can get away with it." An Associated Press article last year reported that the town of Islip, New York saved nearly 14,000 gallons of gasoline over a three-month period after they installed GPS devices on their city vehicles. That's' a lot of gasoline, and again, a substantial cost to the employer. Based on typical mileage for city driving, that equates to about 70,000 miles and over $12,000 each month. Ouch!

Another part of the answer is probably "because it's reasonable." In yet another AP story, a civil servant (also in New York) was let go for spending too much time surfing the Internet at work. A judge ultimately ruled that the worker had to be reinstated, stating that the Internet is now as commonplace as telephones and newspapers.

The judge stated that, "city agencies permit workers to use a telephone for personal calls, so long as this does not interfere with their overall work performance," and, "the Internet has become the modern equivalent of a telephone."

"Back in the day" (which is a parallel phrase to "when I was a kid," that horrid expression that precedes a lecture), personal phone calls were totally forbidden at work, except in cases of emergency. Telephones were commonplace (I'm not THAT old), so it's not like people couldn't communicate. What's changed?

The reality is that times are changing, and so are people's attitudes of what is considered normal. Today's technology enables communications and commerce to occur in ways that were unheard of even twenty years ago. A majority of baby boomers are keeping up, but "keeping up" is not a problem for Generation Y workers Ė especially those currently under the age of 25. To them, these technologies are commonplace and natural. And in their eyes, too much restriction on "quick and easy" personal communication is akin to depriving them of food and water.

Let's think about what that judge said. Yes, the Internet is commonplace these days. In fact, some newspapers and magazines are no longer printing paper versions. After 100 years of continuous publication, the Christian Science Monitor has dropped its paper version in favor on a 100 percent online version. Even giants like the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times are moving in the direction of an online business model.

And beyond basic news, the Internet invites personal time spent chatting and even online dating. Perhaps the next question ought to be "what's reasonable?" What used to be "just a few minutes" running personal errands has expanded into reading blog posts, newspapers, and magazine articles, plus researching new gadgets, scouring e-Bay, scanning personals, and chatting with friends.

In many jobs, restricting this behavior 100 percent would be seen as a Gestapo tactic, which would lead many Gen Y workers to seek employment elsewhere. Still, an average of two hours a day Ė a quarter of an eight-hour workday - seems a bit excessive.

Yet if employers want to keep these highly talented people around, a blend of personal time and work time is practically essential. Again, the question becomes "how much is reasonable?"

Naturally, what is reasonable will vary from job to job, so no one rule can apply across the board. Therefore, my advice in this matter is this: Employers, have conversations with your employees about this subject. In their hearts, most people know what is reasonable and what is not. By involving them in the decisions of what's reasonable and what the consequences ought to be for overstepping the agreed decisions, you're likely to get a lot more cooperation.

What's more, you can't just have this conversation once and say it's a done deal. People will waiver every day. Regular, ongoing dialog will keep the matter in the front of people's minds, and then they are more likely to be self-policing.

Yes, you might have to hold the line and discipline some people. But the bottom line is that people are being paid to work, not handle their personal affairs. And although times are changing, personal work, on work time, should be kept to an absolute minimum.

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About The Author

Dan Bobinski
Dan Bobinski

Daniel Bobinski teaches teams and individuals how to use emotional intelligence and how to create high impact training. Heís also a best-selling author, a popular speaker, and he loves helping teams and individuals achieve workplace excellence