Know the Law: How to Keep Online Holiday Shopping from Invading Your Workplace

Jennifer L. Parent
Director, Litigation Department & Chair Business Litigation Practice Group
Published: Union Leader
November 11, 2013

Q: With the holiday season approaching, I am concerned employees are spending more and more time shopping online during work hours.  I do not want to be a Grinch, but how do I curb this employee activity to make sure business does not suffer because of lost productivity?

A: The most wonderful time of the year is upon us again. While some brave the hustle and bustle of shopping in stores, others check off their gift list using a computer or mobile device. According to forecasts from the National Retail Federation, the average person will complete about 39.5 percent of their shopping on retail and other company websites, up from 38.8 percent last year and the highest amount in the survey’s history.

The reality is many of the shoppers breaking records will be at work while they hunt for deals and buy online. This activity presents a risk to businesses of lost productivity at the end of the year, so employers are well advised to be proactive and set reasonable and clear expectations about employees’ personal electronic communications while on the clock, so that employees are clear on the boundaries of acceptable behavior.

Employers should have a well-drafted electronic communications policy that addresses both employee use of any company equipment including the internet and email systems, as well as time spent on the clock on personal devices. Keep I mind that studies show that when employers prohibit all personal activity on company systems, employees simply turn to their own tablets or smartphones, where they can spend even more time.

With policies in place, it’s also a good time for a seasonal reminder that any activity on company machines is monitored, and that employees should have no expectation of privacy. It is also a good time to remind employees about security of their personal information as they make transactions online.

While it is technically possible for employers to block shopping sites altogether during work hours or set up a specific computer employees can use, most companies are better advised to find a more balanced solution. Reminding employees about your policy, whatever it may be, cautioning them about safe online transactions, and asking them to use breaks and lunch time for shopping will go a long way in supporting employee morale and instilling an atmosphere of mutual respect through the holidays and beyond.