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Is it Ever OK to Do Personal Things on Company Time?

Ethics in the Workplace

I receive lots of emails from readers of my ethics blogs who look for advice on workplace issues. Workplace ethics are the ethical principles that guide a person's behaviors and decisions in the workplace. These principles are no different than those in our personal lives; it’s just the context that differs. You can read by blog on personal ethics by clicking on the link.

Some people believe that ethics in the workplace is a lower standard than ethics in one’s personal life. Some people would never do certain things at home that they might do while at work, such as asking for expense reimbursement for personal items.

Ethical Lapses

Ethical lapses occur in the workplace from time to time. Here are a few examples.

  • Taking credit for the work of a coworker.
  • Taking company property for personal purposes, for example, USB flash drives or office supplies.
  • Using company computers and time for personal activities such as surfing the web or engaging on social media.
  • Calling in sick to take a personal day.
  • Involvement in a dating relationship with a subordinate whose performance you review.

The following illustrates a common example of a workplace dilemma. Work ethics

Spending Time Online in Personal Activities

It’s understandable that employees occasionally use their mobile devices or attend to personal tasks during business hours. But these activities can easily become big distractions.

A survey from staffing firm Office Team found the average office employee spends 56 minutes per day using their cell phone at work for non-work activity. That works out to about five hours per week doing personal things on company time. More than half of the 600+ office employees surveyed said they used their phones to access websites blocked by company information technology departments. Phones weren’t the only ways employees waste time. The average employee spends 42 minutes a day – 3.5 hours a week – attending to personal tasks, such as errands. If the office is mostly comprised of younger workers – 18 to 34-years old -- the amount of lost time increases to 70 minutes on mobile devices and 48 minutes on personal tasks each work day. This is the most of all age groups and a total of just under 10 hours per week.

When might it be acceptable to attend to personal matters on company time? Whenever a personal emergency exists your employer should provide a reasonable amount of work time to resolve the issue. It’s a matter of being concerned for your well-being and having empathy for your situation. Imagine that your two-year-old daughter is with a day care worker and you receive a call at work that she came down with a fever of 103 degrees. It’s reasonable to expect that you might call her pediatrician to get some advice and, if necessary, leave work early to take her to the doctor.

When might it not be acceptable? Assume you are following the stock market during the day on your phone and see it goes down five percent. It’s not right to call your broker and sell the stock or go online and execute a sale transaction.  What should be done in this situation? The most ethical thing to do is either wait until you are on a break or during lunchtime and take care of the matter. Alternatively, you can explain the situation to your boss, ask for time to take care of the matter, and also offer to stay a few minutes late that day to make up for the time missed to attend to personal matters. In each case you show concern for your employer; recognize that company time should not be spent on personal matters; and you take responsibility for the way the matter will be handled.

Each of us tend to be on our best behavior when others are watching. But, the moral of the examples above is: Ethics is about what we do when no one is looking.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on October 4, 2018. Visit Steve’s website and sign up for his Newsletter.