Employers brace for Cyber Monday

November 25, 2009

Borshoff Inc. has a very relaxed Internet-usage policy, and managers typically look the other way at personal Web surfing as long as employees finish their work on time.

So it’s a safe bet at least some of the 43 workers at the Indianapolis public relations firm will spend at least a little time searching sites for sales during “Cyber Monday.” That’s the Monday after Thanksgiving that ceremoniously kicks off the online holiday shopping season.

They won’t be alone, however, if one study is any indication. More than 53 percent of workers with Internet access, or 68.8 million, are expected to shop online that day, according to the Washington, D.C.-based National Retail Federation.

Business owners and human resources managers alarmed by the high number might be concerned about the pitfalls that might follow, namely loss of productivity and security breaches.

Borshoff’s owner said she's much more concerned about offensive Web sites, inappropriate e-mails and system-threatening e-mail attachments than about lost work time resulting from Internet shopping.

“We’re happy to support commerce, and we certainly recognize that people like the convenience of being able to shop online,” Myra Borshoff said. “I do it myself.”

Experts encourage companies to adopt at least some sort of rules governing Internet usage, whether they’re lax or stringent, to make it clear what is forbidden and what is tolerated.

Susan Kline, a partner in the local law firm of Baker & Daniels LLP who practices employment law, cautions, though, that prohibiting all usage at work may be a bit harsh.

“In this computer age, that’s not very practical,” she said. “The question is, how much is too much?”

The obvious answer that experts commonly cite is: when usage indeed interferes with workplace duties. Employers also might consider adding a privacy policy, Kline said, that does not protect computer usage. Employees then can’t proclaim a right to privacy if they’re caught looking at a lingerie site, for instance, Kline said.

Mellissa Boggs, vice president of human resources and consulting at Indianapolis-based Quantum Human Resources LLC, embraces the “reasonable-use” policy as well.

“If employees are doing their jobs and getting their work done, it’s probably a non-issue, in most cases,” she said. “If it’s an employee on the fence, it could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.”

Other organizations, such as the United Way of Central Indiana, hold their employees to a higher standard. They’re allowed to peruse the Internet, but only during non-work hours, and must sign a policy agreeing to the terms upon their hiring, said Kennethe Vaughn, the United Way’s director of human resources and diversity.

“For us, it’s a tool for doing business,” she said, “and we want our employees to use it properly.”

Meanwhile, online holiday retail sales will reach $44.7 billion, up 8 percent from 2008, Massachusetts-based Forrester Research analysts predicted. That compares with a 5-percent increase in online holiday retail sales a year ago.

“Despite the lingering effects of the recession, the online space remains the retail industry’s growth engine,” said Sucharita Mulpuru, a Forrester e-commerce analyst.

The segment embracing online shopping the most, of course, is young adults ages 18 to 24. Nearly three-fourths of those surveyed said they will shop at work, with more men than women indicating they would do so.

Overall, the Washington, D.C.-based National Retail Federation is projecting overall November-December sales to slip 1 percent from last year, to $437.6 billion.

The decline is well below the 10-year average of 3.3-percent growth. Yet the expected 1-percent dip is not as dramatic as last year’s 3.4- percent drop in holiday retail sales.



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