Employees’ surfing the internet during business hours for personal reasons has become an increasingly problematic behavior for employers.

Because employees can cyberloaf discreetly while pretending to be hard at work, the potential for repercussions on companies’ bottom lines is higher than long lunches and frequent phone calls that are less easy to hide, says Lara Khansa, an associate professor of business information technology.

As cyberloafing can also hurt cybersecurity, many employers are taking measures to clamp down on such behavior, Khansa says, including through monitoring employee use of the internet and other information technologies and enforcing disciplinary actions in the event of policy violations.

Changes after announcement of controls

Khansa, who is also associate dean for undergraduate programs, is the lead author on a study that investigates whether and how individual perceptions and behaviors changed after the announcement of formal controls to curb cyberloafing.

The study is the first to examine such behavior and its drivers, pre and post formal controls, Khansa says.

The study comprised two surveys. The first gauged the existing state of cyberloafing among respondents; the second measured how the same respondents would react to the announcement of formal controls.

The study found that, before formal controls were announced, cyberloafing was often driven by the employee’s own past cyberloafing habits — not by
deliberate evaluations of the pros and cons.

The study also found that, before announcement of controls, unreprimanded cyberloafing by some employees increased their co-workers’ tendency to cyberloaf. This suggests that “if there is no formal attempt to contain cyberloafing, it is even more likely to become the new norm and spread organization-wide,” Khansa says.

Her study found that announcing formal controls raised the perceived risk of cyberloafing and became an effective deterrent.

“Believing risks were involved lessened the tendency to cyberloaf, both before and after the announcement of formal controls,” Khansa says. However, behavior would not be effectively deterred until after the announcement of controls, the study found.

“Formal controls serve as a solid indication that punishment is likely imminent,” says Khansa.

New complex effects

Her study’s new contribution, she says, is that it shows that formal controls on cyberloafing have more complex effects than was known.

“Factors such as perceived risk that previously were not significantly related to cyberloafing intention suddenly became significant after the announcement of formal controls,” she says.

Formal controls, however, may lower employee morale and even increase a desire among some employees to retaliate, the study found.

“One solution is in clearly communicating and explaining the rationale behind formal controls. Clear communication from the top is imperative,” says Khansa. “Employees need to fully understand what controls are being implemented and why. This approach will help employees feel more engaged in the decision-making process and help dampen negative feelings.”

She also recommends that companies provide employees scenario-based exercises as part of a comprehensive training program to ensure that everyone understands the new policy and the consequences of violating it.

Khansa joined Virginia Tech in 2008. She has dedicated much of her recent research to investigating the effects of technological innovations on human behavior, including online user behavior in virtual worlds and technology addiction, such as to mobile devices.

She has also delved into the cybersecurity aspects of behavior, such as online self-disclosure behavior, organizational strategies against phishing attacks, and environmental trust in business-to-business electronic marketplaces.

Khansa’s study, “To Cyberloaf or Not to Cyberloaf: The Impact of the Announcement of Formal Organizational Controls,” co-authored with Jungwon Kuem, Mikko Siponen, and Sung S. Kim, appeared in the Journal of Management Information Systems, one of three top-ranked journals in the field of information systems.

– By Barbara Micale and Sookhan Ho