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Online shopping during work hours, yay or nay?

Love the holidays but hate the countless hours spent shopping? Join the club. Forget the anxiety in scurrying around looking for the perfect present; nothing elevates my heart rate like trying to maneuver through jam-packed malls and frenzied crowds. The solution? Online shopping.

However, while it's not as time-consuming as shopping at traditional bricks-and-mortar stores, using your computer as a shopping cart still takes a chunk out of your day. And let’s face it: Most of us spend the majority of our time at work, so a fair amount of holiday shopping happens during business hours. A September 2011 poll by ISACA supports that assumption: With online shopping growing in popularity, nearly one-third of Americans say they will do some Christmas shopping online while at work.

The survey, which polled IT professionals from the private sector, also found that online shoppers will spend 32 hours on average purchasing gifts, with 18 of those spent on a work-supplied device or personally owned device used for work purposes.

Most federal agencies allow limited personal use of work computers, but the operating ethos is to keep waste to a minimum. For example, the Energy Department follows a directive that allows limited personal use of government information technology, as long as it means  “de minimis additional expense to the government.” That suggests that it's ok to use your work computer to order from or browse (or similar sites), as long as you're doing it on your own time and not charging your purchases to the government.

With Black Friday and Cyber Monday less than two weeks away, are you planning on doing any online shopping at work? Does your agency have a policy that allows employees to use personal computers for activities such as online shopping? Or do you do your retail therapy after work, the old-fashioned way, at the mall?


Posted by Camille Tuutti on Nov 14, 2011 at 12:19 PM

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Reader comments

Wed, Nov 16, 2011 KRL

People sure get fired up over ethics. What one needs to understand is that ethics are a human construct based on current societal mores. Mores have been changing a great deal over the last 100 years. For example, in the 1950s divorce was considered a major failure of morality and a societal failure that should result in being disgraced. Now, it is just something you do if you are not happy or you find a spouse is not what they portrayed themselves to be during courtship (e.g. abusive). Divorce is no longer considered a societal failure and people no longer feel that they should be disgraced. As our technology changes and the demands on our life by work become more pronounced, our attitudes about the use of technology will change. We are already seeing this with our Gen Y as they enter the workplace. Failure to recognize these changes in the formal workplace will result in disaster.

Tue, Nov 15, 2011 Tom Retired

I think the question is - "Is it OK to use taxpayer equipment and taxpayer money (salary) to do personal business?" It seems to me that the answer is "NO !"

Tue, Nov 15, 2011 KRL Denver

Why not? I donate 20+ hours of my personal time each week to my employer using my personal computer in just trying to keep up with my work load (with no additional pay, of course). Why can't I spend a few minutes from 8:00a to 6:00p for personal business so I can pay my bills or buy my kid a birthday gift (since I have no time for shopping while trying to get my work done). This nitpicking about doing personal business during business hours has got to stop in this day and time of exagerated professional expectations, especially when there is no delta cost to the G.

Tue, Nov 15, 2011 Lilly

Policy is as Mark pointed out, government computers for goverment work. In my department the norm has found it mostly acceptable to use your computer during your break for personal matters, with restrictions of course (i.e. it's ok to check your bank statement for a cleared check, not so okay to be on facebook). With that being said, and the policy pretty straight forward, I'm sure I'll spot a few people on amazon or walmart when I pass by desks during the next few weeks. Do I really care? Honestly no. I'm not anyone's supervisor, and as long as they finish their work for the day I'm not going to really care. As far as I see it what others do during their down time really isn't my business.

Tue, Nov 15, 2011 Glen Dallas

No. First, while our Ethics Handbook specifically cites personal shopping during breaks or lunch as permissible, it rarely, at least for me, is 15 or 30 minutes. Second, regardless of what privacy expectation you may have using your personal computer and personal internet service, courts have consistently held that when using employer provided equipment you have ZERO expectation of privacy. There is no privacy expectation even when the employer has a written policy stating that a privacy right exists.

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