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Faculty Insights

Working Hard or Hardly Working? Five Things to Know About Cyberloafing

By Wisconsin School of Business

March 6, 2019

Professor Sung Kim poses for a photo
Sung Kim is the Peter T. Allen Professor in the Department of Operations and Information Management at the Wisconsin School of Business. Photo by Paul L. Newby II

Fired up on coffee, you’re cruising through your workday, knocking out tasks left and right. Before tackling your next project, you glance at the news headlines, check the weather forecast, and send a personal email to firm up weekend plans.

Depending on where you work, your quick break—otherwise known as “cyberloafing” or surfing the internet—may or may not be tolerated.

In a study I did with co-authors Lara Khansa of Virginia Tech, Jungwon Kuem of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, now with SUNY-Albany, and Mikko Siponen of the University of Jyväskylä in Finland, we looked at what happens when an organization cracks down on employees’ personal internet use after a formal anti-loafing announcement is made.

Understanding cyberloafing intention

We suspected at the outset that the amount of recreational internet use would go down post-announcement, but measuring that amount was not our focus. Instead, we were curious about how employees’ cyberloafing intention was formed and if that psychological process changed after the company announcement, something that—to the best of our knowledge—had not been documented before in the literature.

We also drew on criminologist Ronald L. Akers’ social learning theory to provide a framework for understanding cyberloafing. Akers’ theory posits that what he terms “deviant” behavior is learned, not inborn. Applying this theory to our study, we considered these four characteristics as precursors to employee cyberloafing: rationalizing personal internet use at work, weighing the amount of risk or punishment involved with cyberloafing, past cyberloafing behavior, and being influenced by others’ cyberloafing.

Our goal was to see if what we considered to be precursors—these four areas that formed an employee’s cyberloafing intent—would be affected by the organization’s formal anti-cyberloafing announcement.

With this model in place, we conducted two surveys spaced one month apart. Working with a marketing research firm with a nationwide panel, over 2,000 participants were contacted for the first survey. Of this pool, 451 responded, answering questions on their cyberloafing habits. In the second survey—sent to all 451 participants from the previous survey with 360 individuals responding—we instructed participants to imagine that their company had made an announcement about cyberloafing, and asked them how they might react to such a statement. The announcement itself was simple and direct, indicating that the company was aware of employees’ recreational use of the internet and that there may be penalties if caught, including termination of employment.

5 Things to Know

Here are five things to know about cyberloafing from our study:

  • It’s contagious and  habitual. Before the company announcement, employees cyberloafed primarily for two reasons: their colleagues were doing it and they did it in the past. It became a habit, and they were not particularly worried about disciplinary actions from the company.
  • Post-announcement, justification and risk matter more. After the company announcement, study respondents were more apt to justify their cyberloafing behavior and consider the risks involved than they had pre-announcement.
  • Managers can increase the level of risk. Because the perceived risk carries more weight for cyberloafers once the company defines an official policy, managers can increase the level of risk through quantifiable measures such as lost bonuses or through punitive actions that carry a social stigma.
  • Formal controls make the difference. Our study suggests that perceived risk with no company policy in place does decrease employees’ justification about cyberloafing, but it doesn’t decrease their intention to do it. Implementing formal controls does, because the perceived risk now looms larger.
  • Employee education and awareness are critical. In most cases, employees are not aware of any kind of internet policy. Companies can create scenario-based exercises for their staff to make sure every employee understands the rules and regulations governing internet use.

In summary, cyberloafing is a function of how employees have behaved in the past and what their colleagues are currently doing around them. Our study underscores the importance of an announcement in order for companies to better understand, predict, and ultimately curtail employee cyberloafing behavior. Highlighting education can raise awareness among employees about what the company policy is and make crystal clear the risks involved in employee cyberloafing.

Read the paper “To Cyberloaf or Not to Cyberloaf: The Impact of the Announcement of Formal Organizational Controls,” published in Journal of Management Information Systems.

Sung Kim is the Peter T. Allen Professor in the Department of Operations and Information Management at the Wisconsin School of Business