Click ... work ... click ... shop


Benjamin Spillman


December 4, 2006

Anyone who said a bad day shopping is better than a good day at work should tell their boss to upgrade the company Internet connection.

More than 50 percent of American workers are choosing not to choose between work at the office and a productive trip to the mall when the Internet lets them do both at the same time.

It marks a confluence of the trends of people spending more time with a workplace computer and doing more personal business online.

Last year, the second Monday after Thanksgiving was the busiest day of the year for online retailers, according to the Web site

And this year the Web site says more than half of people with Internet access at work plan to do holiday shopping on the job. That's up 6 percent from 2005.

That leaves companies to wonder how far they should go to discourage shopping from work without alienating employees who find it increasingly difficult to get away from the job long enough to conduct personal business.

"You can't stand over everyone all the time," said Suzanne Winters, owner of the North Las Vegas human resources outsourcing firm Payroll Solutions of her 50 employees. "They may very well be shopping online."

Winters said she discourages personal online shopping and Web surfing. But she also recognizes that employees who are pressed for time are likely to take advantage of the convenience of Internet shopping.

She said the company tries to maintain a family atmosphere but also a sense of professionalism.

"We just don't monitor people the way a lot of offices do," Winters said. "We just hope everyone can be responsible."

According to the direct marketing firm WorkPlace Media, many companies have vague Internet polices for employees, and even at places with specific rules against personal Web use many employees shop online anyway.

For example, in a survey during October, only 8 percent of workers said their employers allow personal Internet use at work. But in the same survey, 41 percent said they planned to do holiday shopping online while at work.

"There is only a small percentage of companies that have an actual policy written up," said Dan Wheeler, vice president of the Ohio-based WorkPlace Media.

"But they are turning a blind eye to it," Wheeler said.

Others aren't as forgiving.

Debbie Banko, owner of Link Technologies in Las Vegas, said office computers are limited to work use only. She said the company uses software that tracks employee Internet use and steps in if someone is straying from work-related sites.

"We've had some people getting in some very inappropriate sites," said Banko, who employs about 60 people at her information technology, engineering and consulting company.

Banko was surprised at the discrepancy between the number of people who say they shop from work and the number of companies with specific policies.

"That tells me I need to write a policy that says we don't allow it." Banko said.

The temptation at work to shop online can be strong. Many workplaces have faster Internet connections than what a typical employee has at home. And, unlike at home, downtime at work is more likely to be spent in front of a computer.

And as long as employees are eating, making phone calls and conducting other business from their desks it makes sense they would shop there too.

"The lines between home and work are rapidly disappearing," said Jeremy Gruber, legal director of the National Work Rights Institute in Princeton, N.J.

Companies are feeding that trend by providing workers with laptop computers, high speed Internet access, cell phones and mobile devices, all with the expectation that an employee is never more than a login or phone call away from the job.

Unfortunately for workers, Gruber said, company policies toward workplace Internet use aren't evolving as quickly as expectations to stay in touch with work.

Gruber said it is unfair for companies to use technology that allows the workplace to seep into employees' personal lives but enact policies that discipline workers who conduct limited personal business at work.

"The idea that you shouldn't be able to conduct any personal business on the computer while at work is completely outdated," he said.