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Loafing Employees. Can You Tell Should You Care

December 1, 1996
Related Topics: Time Management, Motivating Employees, Featured Article
Suppose you received the preceding memo or one that's similar. You'd have every right to tear out your hair. Your ideas were well-researched. They'd ensure your company's competitive edge. But some of your colleagues and executives just don't get it. Is the situation hopeless? Not really. They're rightfully concerned about worker productivity at a time when everyone's trying to do more with less. Admit it, even you have noticed more time-wasting activities. And it is getting harder to know what's acceptable behavior and what's not. Clearly, snoozing on the job is way out of line. But today, who's to say why a meter maid takes longer to get from one stop to another? Or whether the sales rep has to chat about football for 30 minutes to get that stubborn client's signature on the dotted line. Say one of your finance analysts checks stock quotes on the Playboy Web site. Would you trust he'd sign off before clicking onto the next site?

If you think the line between loafing and working is getting fuzzier, it is. Many HR executives are expressing similar frustration, apprehension and ambivalence in managing all forms of loafing in today's changing workplace. (And, God forbid, we're not even inferring HR is among these schlepping culprits.) On the one hand, management says employees need to take more responsibility for their jobs and their careers. On the other hand, employees expect employers to allow more flexibility in return for blind faith. Since the ink on the new social contract is still wet, it's no wonder some workers are running amok. Or at least that's what you and others perceive.

By facing an age-old phenomenon in a new set of circumstances, HR can readjust its managerial mindset, establish fair guidelines and untether itself from the fear of employees wasting more company time, resources and profit. In other words, you can squeeze more productivity out of your workers—but you also have to find new ways of measuring the work processes. Some activities are clearly an abuse of company policy. But some may appear to be loafing when, in fact, they're not. HR managers need to learn how to tell the difference and unearth the causes of real loafing. Otherwise, your distrust and imagination may undermine the new work ethic you fought so hard to instill.

Is time-wasting an increasing phenomenon?
One cause can be situational. HR managers today are reexamining the ways they measure productivity. Loafing or time-wasting is beginning to take new forms. "It's an interesting word. Loafing implies the deliberate time theft from the company," says Nancy Probst, director of human resources at North Broward Medical Center in Pompano Beach, Florida. "I think loafing is happening, but I don't know how deliberate it is or how much of it is a byproduct of poorly managed change. For most people, it's not deliberate. The activities are symptoms of fear, depression and malaise." Indeed, whether loafing activities are a result of downsizing, stress, boredom, flex-work options or extra time required to learn new technology and skills, HR managers are taking notice.

According to a recent Personnel Journal survey, 63 percent of HR executives who responded say they see or hear reports that employees are spending more time surfing the Net or engaging in some other diversionary activity. The same percentage also has spoken to employees about loafing on the job. And yet, 71 percent admit they haven't taken any measures to further identify and curb the problem. The cost of ignoring this phenomenon can be enormous. For example, if 1,000 employees in a large company wasted 1 1/2 hours per day, it would cost an employer 1,500 hours per day or $30,000 at $20 an hour.

Given those projections, HR has a few choices: Unleash a witch hunt and threaten an immediate crackdown or step back and benchmark those who are grappling with these issues—from all sides of the broad spectrum. For example, the city of Denver and Oklahoma City survived the embarrassment of local TV exposés of their loafers and followed through by warning and disciplining their public employees—including a few supervisors in the Denver case. Irvine, California-based Western Digital Corp. and Houston-based Compaq Computer Corp. allow Internet access to thousands of their employees and, therefore, established effective use-and-abuse policies. And the most liberal of them all—Chicago-based Playboy Enterprises Inc.—hasn't established restrictive Internet policies at all because management doesn't believe it's necessary. In fact, Hef's employees—including HR—are encouraged to cuddle up to the company's bunny-eared Web sites in order to know their products. So, how would you draw the line—on earth and in cyberspace?

It's not an easy question to answer. A big part of the solution depends on the reasons underlying the loafing. Very often, the reason is situational. Take North Broward Medical Center—a four-hospital, integrated health system. Its 1,000 employees are still reeling from the shock of a radical restructuring over the last two years. The changes included four RIFs (reductions in force) totaling approximately 240 employees, the departure of a dynamic CEO and the farewell of an interim leader whose initiative toward decentralization was reversed by the successor. "Morale went down," says Probst. HR personnel, she adds, were actively involved in managing the first RIF. They briefed managers. They sent employee bulletins around the clock. By the second set of layoffs, however, some of those same HR professionals were let go themselves. Now, HR participates minimally, except in preparing severance packages and notifying those who are reduced from the force. Is Probst bitter? Somewhat. But her candor only underscores her concern. "The impact on both our managers and employees has been tremendous," she says. "We've done a very poor job of managing change."

You can squeeze more productivity out of your workers — but you also have to find new ways of measuring work processes.

Hospital employees are fearful of their jobs, yet they're trying to give the impression they're working as hard as usual. But Probst knows they're not. In some cases, they can't even bluff. "The old perception says 'If I work off my rear end, they're certainly not going to target me during the next RIF.' But today, that's not true [and they know it]." She recalls one manager who was known as one of the company's biggest go-getters. She was innovative, active in the local community and marketed her program extensively among her outside clients. Her colleagues never would've expected she'd be fazed by the changes. After the series of RIFs, the manager confessed to Probst: "I don't know what's wrong with me. I spent the last three weeks sitting in my office, looking at the walls. I can't work. I can't think. I feel numb, like I'm paralyzed."

In cases such as these, HR must be aware that some forms of time-wasting are related to the in-security employees feel about their future. Probst often thinks about what she learned at a seminar led by author and management consultant Michael Hammer. "Change creates bad feelings. Bad feelings end up creating bad behavior." HR professionals need to be more empathetic leaders, rather than cold-hearted managers, she says. EAPs are certainly there to help.

Phillip Morgan, CEO of Houston-based EPC International, is equally concerned: "The problem we have in our corporation is that stress isn't recognized as the driver of so many behaviors. One of our biggest concerns is that [managers] don't know what identifying stress would look like. And the amount of change that people are going through is creating conditions that could lead to loafing."

False entitlements can lead to loafing.
Some employees, however, don't deserve a tear of sympathy. Unlike the manager at North Broward Medical Center, some loafers believe they have a right to steal time. HR managers would be foolish not to pay them equal attention. The more human resources professionals can understand the causes of various behaviors, the easier it will be to motivate and retrain wayward employees, and correct the work situation.

Jon Weinstein, CEO and president of APEX Plastic Industries Inc. in Hauppauge, New York, describes the false-entitlement attitude as one in which the employee has no sense of accountability: "There's a mindset that simply believes that work is how the worker defines the labor, its importance, its time and value—and that these judgments aren't to be made by management." Strutting their false sense of confidence—or is it denial?—people with this mindset believe:

  • "They won't fire me —it costs them hundreds of dollars to advertise for replacements.
  • "They can't lose me —it'll cost them thousands to train someone else, and they'll lose productivity.
  • "They can't remove me—I know too much.
  • "They won't mess with me—I'll sue 'em for sexual harassment, age discrimination or some other civil-rights violations and breach of contract."

In this scenario, these cocky time-wasters could be the ones taking longer lunches, spreading negativity among co-workers or slowing down the workflow—just out of spite.

But wait a second before you scream, "Terminate!" There's a difference between those who deserve to be disciplined or fired and those who feel entitlements for other reasons, such as lack of respect. "I started loafing when I knew I was going to quit my job," admits one marketing representative. "My company's [managers] didn't really care about us as individuals. So I thought, 'If they don't care about me, I don't care about them.' But before, I never loafed —not a second."

So chances are, there are more than one of these entitlement-types lurking around in your corporate den. Besides the obvious appreciation that managers should bestow on their employees, Weinstein advises looking at the company's culture first. "I think the answer in dealing with these shirkers is to develop team activist leaders in your organization," he says. "Supervise the employees consistently with interest, so that your interest in their work is not merely to get involved when they louse up."

Out-of-sight employees force the issue of trust.
Perhaps you've recently granted telecommuting privileges to some employees. Certainly as managers demand more productivity—and measure performance by results—employees are in turn demanding more flexible work options. By the year 2000, the number of at-home workers is expected to reach at least 11 million, according to IDC/LINK, a New York City-based market research firm in the electronics services industry. Out of sight, but not out of mind, these employees still manage to tickle the imagination of their superiors: "I wonder if he's really working? Why isn't she answering the phone? I bet he's taking a nap." One employee was shocked when his supervisor appeared on the doorstep, and he greeted the supervisor in his pajamas. The supervisor said he just wanted to "check in," but he sat on the couch until the employee completed his assignment. You don't have to be that uptight, but the example certainly illustrates the unsettling nature of managing those whom you can't see hour by hour. Indeed, in the same Personnel Journal survey, we asked: "Do you think telecommuters loaf more than those who work onsite?" Fifty-four percent said no; 46 percent said yes.

Most telecommuters and home-office workers, however, will tell you that working offsite has its perks (you can read on the patio; you can take breaks whenever you want). But your days are longer and your output is greater—simply because telecommuters usually are self-starters and independent to begin with. Just the thought of their managers and peers suspecting them of loafing is enough to trigger their unnecessary guilt. Remember, if an employee didn't already have a keener work ethic and higher level of accountability to begin with, chances are you, as managers, wouldn't have granted him or her the privilege of working offsite. Some companies, therefore, allow periodic telecommuting, but still require their employees to be in the office at least three days a week. Other recommended practices include establishing home-office requirements (such as designating a specific space for work); holding regular meetings, communicating by phone, e-mail and fax; and providing your telecommuters with the necessary support and tools to do their jobs.

A related HR concern, however, is the telecommuter's office-bound co-workers —those who are jealous and feel a sense of inequality. When one employee returned to work to check the mail and attend a staff meeting, his co-workers made snide remarks such as, "Oh, I see you decided to come to work today." Or when Brian C. Kennedy, regional sales manager for Schlumberger Smart Cards & Systems leaves the office where he leases space in Irvine, California, others tease him. "There's a perception we have the [good] life because we get on airplanes and go out to lunch a lot. They don't realize I miss my kids and don't see my wife for a few days at a time." So if managers are sensing flex-envy and are beginning to allow more employees to institute varied work options, it's important that all employees understand why. Certainly, all jobs aren't equal, and different jobs are more conducive to flexible arrangements. But all employees —whether in or out of the office—should ultimately be measured by their output. The key is to promote one corporate vision. By empowering each employee in his or her own function to see himself or herself as part of one vision, one team—it shouldn't matter where each member works day to day.

Be reasonable. New technology takes time to learn.
More than any other recent phenomenon, the Internet probably has piqued your concerns about loafing. At no time does the issue of time-wasting become so blurry as when you see your employees—and HR colleagues—exploring the Internet. "It's the watercooler of the '90s," says Michael Welles, president of Chicago-based EdWel & Co., a performance and training consulting firm. From a loafer's point of view, the Internet is even better because one can actually appear busy—and really be futzing around. Whether it's sending an e-mail to your golf buddy, searching for Bali on the World Wide Web, or subscribing to a professional newsgroup, your wired employees are just that—wired. "[The Web] is exciting. It leads you down this path—link to link. The seductiveness of it is fascinating. And before you know it, time has gone by," says Pam Burdi, director of human resources for Western Digital Corp. (noting she surfs after hours). HR, she says, shouldn't panic that its employees are going to lift off into cyberspace and never return to earth. Try to imagine the initial excitement that followed the invention of the telephone. If the early naysayers had it their way, we would've never gotten online or been able to check our savings account from our cellular phones. So expect the momentum to continue.

According to New York City-based Find/SVP Inc., approximately 9.5 million Americans signed on as Internet users in 1995. And for the current year, Internet users are expected to grow to 13.5 million by year-end. Corporations account for 46 percent of the total user population. Among all users, 85 percent use e-mail and 76 percent access the Web, Find/SVP analysts report. "Anytime there's something new, you need to try it out to see what the boundaries are, says Burdi." Because the Internet is relatively new, HR managers need to allow the additional time to experiment and develop their skills in this new medium. But reservations are understandable.

When Western Digital Corp. decided to provide Internet access to employees, HR weighed the pros and cons. As a global company with 10,000 employees worldwide, Western Digital knew its internal communication and customer service would benefit from the Internet. "We worked with IS [information services] to develop guidelines on access and use," says Burdi. After benchmarking other companies, Western Digital's HR was able to establish the company's own needs and goals. To ensure that employees adopt the Internet as a business tool, HR rolled out a set of policies and procedures that outlined terms and definitions; applicable documents; employee responsibility; IS responsibility; and terms regarding access, security and record maintenance. Employees also received an employee-management agreement that must be signed by both parties. "Once there's agreement about what the Internet is for, then we trust people to use it appropriately. But there are ways to monitor employees, and we've advised them of that through e-mail." For example, in addition to employers establishing fair use-and-abuse policies, several software companies have created filtering devices to either block inappropriate sites or monitor where employees are surfing —and for how long.

Search for the yin and yang in policies.
Balancing trust with the need for clear guidelines requires finesse and faith. And yes, it's hard when you know your employees are bombarded by temptation. One of the more benign Web sites is called Sara's Network Time Wasters. By entering "time wasters" in the search fields of Yahoo or Alta Vista (two popular Web search engines), users can land on the site and select several diversionary activities, such as Cool Site of the Day; and The Keirsey Temperament Sorter.

As HR managers grapple with these gray matters, one could establish guidelines all over the map. Western Digital's realistic approach is probably the most acceptable prototype. Another positive example is Compaq Computer Corp. "We came at it from communicating expectations," says Ron Eller, vice president of corporate compensation and benefits. Approximately two years ago, the global company began providing Internet access to its 17,000 employees in 100 countries. HR's view of the privilege is just that. "Sometimes employees forget that computers and the software are the company's [property]. They feel, 'It's my computer.' They forget it isn't," adds Nora Hahn, a Compaq spokeswoman. When some of its employees were discovered downloading sexually explicit images on their computers, Compaq had no qualms about terminating these employees. "Once that became public, that sort of usage became virtually zero in the company," Eller says, noting that the company has the ability to know who's doing what and where they're doing it through special software.

To appreciate Western Digital's and Compaq's faith and finesse, consider two other extremes. One is the executive who worries that access to the Internet will fling the company into a sexual harassment lawsuit—thereby not even considering the tool as a benefit. The other extreme (and one might argue it's not) is Playboy Enterprises Inc., which hasn't instituted any Internet policy thus far. "We're one of the biggest sites on the Information Highway," says Denise Bindleglass, vice president of HR. "We want our employees to be aware of what we're doing on the Net and be excited about what things we're putting up. So we want them exposed to it." Playboy's Web site garners more than four million hits per day on the homepage, according to Anne Steinfeldt, a member of Playboy's New Media department. Even with such a liberal policy, Playboy's MIS department still retains the capability to track its employees' overall use of the Internet. "We still have our share of guidelines and policies. We're not so informal that it's seat-of-the-pants management. But since [the Internet] is still new enough, we're going to take a little longer to see how things play out," says Bindleglass.

Discipline the abusers, but ride the frontier with confidence.
Being flexible doesn't mean HR managers should go easy on the abusers. In the case of several public-sector employees, the pressure to discipline was even greater. It's one thing to discover and discipline abusers out of the limelight. When it hits the TV and newspapers, the exposure is shocking enough to rattle the nuts out of a Baby Ruth®. A few such revelations are:

  • A Cincinnati Recreation Commission employee claimed other city employees were playing golf and fishing on city time (The Cincinnati Post, March 15, 1996).

  • Minneapolis transit police were found playing strip poker with a computer-generated female player who shed or restored clothes depending on who won the hand (USA Today, December 12, 1995).

  • Ten workers and six supervisors—in the wastewater management division of Denver Public Works—were notified they would be disciplined for loafing on the job and being caught on videotape by KUSA Channel 9 (Rocky Mountain News, May 1994).

  • Nineteen Oklahoma City employees were to be disciplined after an internal investigation also backed up a TV videotape of work crews loafing on the job (The Daily Oklahoman, December 7, 1994).

In spite of the public embarrassment, Rama Mallett largely is unshaken. As director of HR for Denver Public Works, she is quick to differentiate between truth and fact. "One of the big problems is perception. The percentage who loaf on the job is minimal. We have many more employees who go out of their way to do extra work," she says. In the city's Public Works Department, there are 1,000 employees—many of whom are assigned street maintenance, solid waste management, fleet maintenance, traffic engineering and parking management. Very often, their work is exposed to public view. Even then, some loaf. "Some of our field supervisors said their employees could loaf by taking too long to drive from one place to another, taking breaks along the routes or stopping to talk to a friend," she explains, noting that none of these behaviors is acceptable.

When the local TV station videotaped the field crews, it aired the story to pump up its ratings, says Kendall Hogue, director of administration and human resources in the wastewater management division. "There was an ongoing perception, and our [employees] were easy prey. You can follow any given employee and catch him or her doing something that could look questionable on TV," he says. In some cases, the employees were loafing. In other cases, what appeared to be loafing was not. After the broadcast, HR met with the TV station's upper management and viewed the tape, but the TV station refused to give them an unedited version. That being the case, HR got it's own edited copy and subsequently disciplined six employees and four supervisors—from letters of reprimand to one-week suspensions without pay. "Since then, we've made some changes to better monitor our employees in the field," says Hogue.

So regardless of where your employees might be wasting time—on land or in cyberspace—HR managers everywhere share the same concern. How do you justify increases in productivity in a changing workplace—especially when your employees are being told that job security is a thing of the past? Discipline is appropriate for extreme abusers. But for the majority who may periodically overreact to a company downsizing, a change in work style, stress or the temptation of new technology, they need your understanding, fair judgment and strong leadership.

At Denver Public Works, HR created a schedule that established where its drivers should be at different times. It also set up teams—with two sweeping crews starting at opposite ends of the city and eventually meeting somewhere in the middle. After the City of Oklahoma failed to prove and discipline some earlier charges of loafing, HR has become more cautious in its investigations of unauthorized breaks and other time-wasting activities. The City was challenged by the local union, AFSCME (American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees) Local 2406, which won an appeal over one set of charges and currently is in arbitration for another. "Now HR [staff members] help the departments investigate a situation so it's done accurately, and we provide guidelines of what we do," says Enrique Alva, personnel director for the city of Oklahoma City. "We're more involved."

As these examples and others illustrate, by winning over your workers to a shared company vision and by offering them skills training, incentives and rewards, you can minimize time-wasting. But don't forget to establish guidelines. Once you provide your employees with fair HR rules, you won't have further misgivings about Driving M. Harder.

Personnel Journal, December 1996, Vol. 75, No. 12, pp. 54-62.

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