Monitoring PWU in the Workplace Research Paper

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Technology has transformed the workplace. Since the inception of the Internet, the benefits for organizations and its stakeholders have altered the way work is conducted, managed, and controlled. From service delivery and quality control to alternative communication channels, the Internet has and will continue to impact organizations on many levels. The steady growth of personal Web usage (PWU) at work (Mahatanankoon, Anandarajan, & Igbaria, 2004), for example, has become particularly interesting and relevant to scholars and practitioners in management and organization studies. With its presence at the center of operations inside organizations, the Internet has resulted in a number of by-products, including PWU. Also known as “cyberloafing,” many scholars and practitioners contend that this has become the new form of workplace misbehavior.

In the past, managers were once concerned with personal telephone calls, water-cooler chat, or other types of shirking behavior that were believed to have adverse effects on productivity. The savvy computer users of the new generation are now able to engage in personal work at work in a more immediate and perceived private fashion using the Internet for e-mail, instant messaging, social networking, and blogging. Growing up in the age of cell phones, text messaging, and digital audio and video technologies, many from this new generation expect Internet availability and continuous connectivity at home and at work. In many cases, the meshing of work and personal lives has created an environment where Internet use is a tacit necessity. These expectations present significant challenges for managers and leaders now and in the coming years and decades. For example, the potential network security, legal, and fiduciary vulnerabilities associated with some forms of PWU place the organization at considerable risk. While PWU is a tool for users to bridge their personal and professional worlds, organizations are now taking action to curb such behavior, including the use of policy and surveillance technologies.

Given that many organizations define PWU as rule breaking or misbehavior, it is not surprising to find that decision makers are utilizing electronic monitoring systems to observe and control this particular behavior. While the technology is new, the assumptions underlying the use of monitoring in the workplace reflect the thinking of management practitioners and scholars from the beginning of the last century, including the father of modern management, Frederick Taylor. From the shop floor to the cubicle, individual agents have been labeled as self-interested, rational actors whose behavior must be controlled by the principal (i.e., the organization) to ensure compliance to the organizational agenda. In response to management action, studies (e.g., Lim, 2002) have shown that employees often view monitoring as intrusive, invasive, and a symbol of distrust.

For managers in the new workplace, the choice to monitor PWU activity will require close examination of the multiple factors that contribute to user compliance and defiance behaviors. Therefore, the purpose of this research-paper is to introduce students of organizational studies to a conceptual framework for understanding and exploring the antecedents and consequences associated with monitoring behavior in this new workplace context.

Monitoring As A Tool For Managerial Control

From stealing and corruption to bullying and sabotage, the types of deviance happening inside organizations today are vast and costly. It is apparent from media reports and anecdotal accounts that misbehavior, in its variety of forms and intensities, is indeed a reality for many, if not most, organizations. However it is defined or conceptualized, misbehavior often has serious consequences for the individual(s) committing the act, the intra- and interorganizational stakeholders (e.g., coworkers, citizen-customers, partnering firms/agencies, investors, etc.), and overall society. External pressures, such as industry standards and legal mandates, along with those from the inside, such as declining profits and inefficiencies, often pressure managers to curtail misbehavior within the confines of the organization. Whether it is shirking or other types of withholding effort, controlling employee behavior has long been a theme guiding the study and practice of management. In an effort to identify and decrease employee misbehavior, organizations use a variety of oversight tools, including surveillance technologies.

Monitoring has become an integral part of the control and coordination aspects of the managerial role. In the modern workplace, traditional supervisory observance is being accompanied or altogether replaced by electronic performance monitoring. The latter allows for continuous observance of employee performance data with or without the knowledge of its existence by those under surveillance. This differs greatly from the direct nature of overseeing employee behavior by those in positions of authority and close proximity to the tasks being conducted (e.g., shift supervisors). The electronic monitoring is used to collect information on a wide range of employee behavior related to task performance that may otherwise be unobservable to direct supervision. Some examples include audio-technology telephone monitoring in call centers and geographic positioning systems (GPS) and video surveillance (Alder & Ambrose, 2005).

The Economic Argument

In organization studies, a variety of perspectives support and criticize monitoring and its influence on the work, worker, and workplace. In particular, the study of labor and behavioral economics largely assumes that in order to control behaviors that are neither business-related nor productive to the organization, management must employ monitoring technologies as a disincentive mechanism to discourage such behaviors. Surveillance, whether it is electronic or the visible presence of a supervisor, provides management with an additional set of eyes. The employees, aware of the monitoring, decrease their shirking behavior because of the adverse consequences of being caught (i.e., probation, loss of extrinsic incentives, termination, etc.). As an information tool, the monitoring allows the employer to gather production- or nonproduction-based data on employee behavior. In turn, as per the economic argument, the rational, utilitymaximizing worker will be discouraged from continuing to engage in the observable behavior. These assumptions are largely grounded in the neoclassical economic tradition of Agency Theory and are extended in transaction cost economics (Williamson, 1985). Both schools of thought argue, among other things, that monitoring can protect the principal in situations where agents are in breach of the employment contract by engaging in shirking or opportunistic behavior.

In Agency Theory, the assumption is that the mutually agreed-upon employment contract will bind the employee to engage in behavior that is in line with organizational demands. When management is able to collect information on employee performance, the employee is more likely to comply with policies and rules guiding the task at hand. However, given that employee behavior is sometimes un-observable, many economists argue that employees will decrease effort to better their own individual utility. Hence, the monitoring can act, in concert with incentive programs, as a deterrent force against such opportunistic behavior. The monitoring technologies become the eyes and ears of management, and it is assumed that agents will rationally respond by complying with the terms of the employment contract.

Williamson (1985) contends that agents are not only opportunistic, as argued in Agency Theory, but are also “boundedly” rational. Essentially, the agent has multiple goals, both personal and professional, which may be contrary to the economic, rational interests of the firm (i.e., efficiency concerns). The organization, from this perspective, should therefore be aware that employees cannot be trusted and, as such, the expected misbehavior should send a signal to organizations to prepare accordingly. As the employment relationship plays out, organizations should develop governance structures, which can be in the form of surveillance tools to ensure compliance with the contract. Electronic performance monitoring, for example, may act as a disincentive for the potentially deviant actor. In line with the assumptions of Agency Theory, as the principal gains more information on agent performance, any attempts to misbehave by the agent will likely decrease. For the agent, minimizing behavior will help to compensate for the costs associated with possible consequences such as dismissal or loss of bonus income. The opportunistic behaviors are kept in control with an eye on what is happening on the shop floor. Therefore, principals become aware of any opportunistic behavior that may jeopardize the employment contract.

In a recent economic study, Nagin, Rebitzer, Sanders, and Taylor (2002) explored the relationship between monitoring and worker effort by observing how a variation in monitoring at a telephone call center influenced opportunistic behavior. The authors gained access to a large telephone solicitation company, with various dispersed call centers, and explored both production and worker attitudes. When suspicious bad calls (i.e., those where call-center employees falsely reported that they had solicited customer funds) were reported to employees and their shirking was revealed, the authors found that employees would halt their misbehavior. Conversely, when monitoring was seemingly nonexistent to the call-center staff, but secretly in place by management, opportunistic behavior remained. The economic perspective, and many corresponding studies, portrays monitoring as a positive force for organizations to control employee behavior.

Social Information Processing Theory

Current research calls into question the economic modeling of human behavior in employment relationships. The aforementioned perspectives have come under fire from those who wish to expand on the understanding of behavior beyond the cost-benefit, rational-actor assumptions. Scholars such as Stanton (2000) and others apply the Social Information Processing Theory when examining the influence of monitoring on employee behavior. Stanton argues that monitoring is an effective tool because it sends signals to employees that their misbehavior is out of sync with the organizational culture that defines expectations for appropriate behavior. The monitoring sends social cues to employees about what they should or should not do given the norms and values inherent to that culture. After experiencing the monitoring, such as receiving feedback from the system regarding their task performance, employees will make sense of this experience and behave in accordance with the policies and procedures guiding appropriate behavior.

Stanton and Julian (2002) found that electronic performance monitoring could act as a virtual supervisor by directing employees’ attention to the specific aspect of the monitored task. Their experimental study suggests that employees interpret the target under observation (e.g., performance output in the form of quality or quantity) as a priority and adjust their behavior accordingly. Essentially, when quality is monitored more so than quantity, they found that employees were more focused on the quality of task performance. The monitoring sent implicit messages about what is important and unimportant with regard to performance behaviors.

Monitoring, therefore, can be an effective control tool for management because of the social pressures placed upon employees to comply with expectations. This perspective is somewhat complementary to the economic argument. While it recognizes that employee decisions to comply may be due to the disincentives and opportunity costs for nonconforming behavior, such decisions are also reflective of the social cues embodied in the monitoring and feedback provided to employees.

The New Age Of Electronic Surveillance: Monitoring Personal Web Usage

Bringing together information technology with most aspects of work life has created an environment where new forms of misbehavior and types of surveillance are emerging in the modern organization. Monitoring that specifically observes Internet activities, including Web surfing, e-mail, instant messaging, and file sharing has become commonplace in workplaces within the United States and abroad. It is important to note that there is a considerable difference between the previously discussed electronic performance monitoring and new PWU-based surveillance (Urbaczewski & Jessup, 2002). While both exist to observe employee behavior, the former is focused specifically on employee task performance and often results in targeted feedback and suggestions for enhancing that performance. However, the latter type of monitoring, which is the focus of this research-paper, exists to ensure compliance with specific policies regulating Internet activity in the workplace. Although some may argue that PWU-base monitoring is designed to expose unproductive employees, the overarching design and implementation of this particular type of surveillance focuses solely on logging and reporting unauthorized Internet usage.

The PWU Trend in Today’s Workplace

The Internet has created a playground for users to do personal work at work; employees are now able to cross the boundaries of their work and personal lives to engage in a variety of activities, including financial, family, and leisure. In organizations that offer Web access to employees and managers, PWU has become second nature for users and often problematic for employers. In a recent study, Anandarajan and Simmers (2004) found that PWU activity is multidimensional and can be categorized based on its severity of impact on the organization. For example, some forms of PWU are described as disruptive, such as visiting pornographic or gambling Web sites or exchanging inappropriate e-mails between friends or coworkers. At the other side of the spectrum, employees often engage in recreational and personal-learning usage, which might include planning trips and inquiring into education opportunities. Regardless of the type of Web sites visited or related Internet activity, many organizations define PWU as rule-breaking misbehavior. In addition, recent studies have shown that this new form of misbehavior is on the rise.

In the private, public, and nonprofit sectors, PWU has become the norm. Studies in the information security industry, such as the collaborative survey by the Computer Security Institute (CSI) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) (Richardson, 2007), have found that employers are reporting abuse of Internet privileges at work. One of the central themes in this report is insider abuse of network access, which includes simple policy violations such as PWU. The most recent survey found a 17% increase, from 42% to 59%, in organizations reporting insider abuse of Net access since the previous study.

Various media outlets and oversight bodies in the federal government have exposed two very prominent examples of this increase in PWU. Both the Internal Revenue Service (IRS; Milbourn III, 2003) and the Department of the Interior (DOI; Devaney, 2006) have come under scrutiny for excessive cyberloafing by their employees. With respect to the IRS, an audit conducted by the Treasury Department found that during a 7-day period, employees were found to use e-mail and the Internet for more than 8,000 hours for nonbusiness purposes. At the DOI, a more recent audit by their Inspector General reported that employees spent over 2,000 hours in the course of 1 week visiting gambling and auction Web sites. Frequent visits to sexually explicit and gambling Web sites were also indicated in the report. These findings are consistent with industry surveys, which suggest that both public and private organizations are vulnerable to this new form of personal work at work.

Why Is PWU Problematic For Organizations?

Select scholars and practitioners contend that some forms of PWU may actually be beneficial to the individual and organization (e.g., Anandarajan & Simmers, 2004; Mahatanankoon et al., 2004), such as using the Internet as a learning tool (i.e., educational Web sites and current events), to reduce stress or for balancing work-life demands. Nevertheless, decision makers are concerned with the intentional or unintentional adverse effects of PWU on the organization and its stakeholders. Specifically, PWU may create vulnerabilities for the legal, financial, and data-security interests of the organization.

With respect to the legal aspects of PWU, employees may purposely or inadvertently download or distribute pirated software, audio, or video files. “Softlifting” is a form of piracy that involves sharing and copying software onto other computers contrary to the negotiated license agreement. A copyrighted file or software program downloaded or distributed via the organization’s internal network or its mere presence on the computer system is often considered copyright infringement. In addition, employees may use the Internet at work to transmit sexually explicit or inappropriate messages to other employees, which may offend the recipients and result in sexual harassment or discrimination lawsuits.

Even seemingly innocent acts of PWU can result in potentially harmful results for the organization. In some cases, visiting certain Web sites may open the door to hackers or viruses that could place the data on the network at risk for attack or manipulation. This is a considerable concern for health-care and financial industries, which are regulated by federal laws to protect the information on its network. Both the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act require organizations to ensure that customer-citizen data are secure and confidential. Many organizations, due to the pressures associated with these laws, institute policies and monitoring technologies to protect the network from unauthorized access or malicious attacks.

In addition to legal and data-security concerns, many managers view PWU as time-wasting activity that could have an indirect impact on the bottom line. A recent survey (Malachowski & Simonini, 2006) reported that PWU, cited as the top time-wasting activity in the workplace among survey respondents, contributes to billions of dollars worth of lost productivity in the domestic economy. The 2006 study reports that 52% of respondents cited PWU as their top time-wasting activity at work, which is an increase 7% from the previous year. On average, employees admitted to 1.86 hours per day of time-wasting activities, including PWU. On a related note, downloading legally purchased audio or video may adversely affect the network and cause the system to slow down. This loss of bandwidth capacity could then disable or hamper business-related Internet activity, which may create inefficiencies for business operations.

PWU-Based Monitoring Technology

The risks associated with PWU have prompted organizations to take proactive actions to mitigate any potential problems posed by personal Internet activity. In concert with policy statements and training, organizations are now employing electronic monitoring software to deter PWU and protect its network. The American Management Association (AMA; 2005) recently reported that 76% of those surveyed instituted electronic monitoring technologies to observe PWU-related activity, including e-mail and Web browsing.

While there are a variety of commercial software programs available to organizations, the primary function of the electronic monitoring is to observe and log behavior, along with the ability to generate usage reports (Urbaczewski & Jessup, 2002). The reports are usually customizable and can indicate the specific nature of the user behavior. This may include a list of Web sites visited, the frequency of visits, the time of the visits, and keyword searches in e-mail communication. In some cases, organizations often require users to log into the system, whether it is network or the Internet itself, once the computer is turned on. Therefore, these reports can link usage to specific users and/or groups of users in a particular business unit.

The monitoring system may also allow the organization to identify specific Web sites, or categories of Web sites, that can be deemed inappropriate based on organizational needs. Once identified, the information technology staff responsible for security can then block user access to these Web sites. The recent AMA survey found that 65% of the respondents used this blocking technology to disallow access to specific sites, which was a 27% increase from the previous study in 2001. While the blocking is a useful char-acteristic of PWU-based monitoring software, it may become bothersome for users in specific instances. Web sites that are deemed personal in nature, such as news, entertainment, or auctions may also be required for official business use. In this case, the end user or the information technology officials are often given override capabilities to permit access in such cases. The presence of such monitoring technology, along with coinciding policies and training, attempts to detect, prevent, and deter PWU misbehavior. A study by Mirchandani (2004), using similar assumptions underlying Agency Theory, found that monitoring could be a useful tool for identifying rule-breaking behavior. The monitoring discourages users from continuing PWU, because their acts are being tracked and communicated to those with the authority to punish misbehavior.

Reactions to PWU Monitoring: Compliance Or Defiance?

Numerous factors affect an organization’s decision to institute electronic monitoring. While these antecedents contribute to our understanding of this unique context of monitoring, the consequences for those being monitored demand attention as well. Specifically, user reactions to the monitoring experience are important indicators of the effectiveness of this managerial control tool. Does the electronic monitoring encourage compliance with policies or does it result in an unintended consequence, such as user defiance? Recent research in organizational studies has revealed that user reactions to electronic monitoring, PWU-based or otherwise, are complex and often tied to individual-level factors, along with group- and organizational-level phenomena. The former will be the focus of this section.

As Spitzmuller and Stanton (2006) recently found in their study of user reactions to different types of monitoring, a number of determinants help explain the intention to comply or resist the monitoring and the messages inherent to that control tool. Along with other researchers, they conclude that attitudes toward monitoring play a significant role in determining user-response behaviors. This follows the assumptions of Ajzen’s Theory of Planned Behavior, which contends that attitudes reflect our intention to behave. Toward developing a conceptual framework for understanding electronic monitoring in this particular context, three specific factors will be presented in this research-paper. These include fairness perceptions, psychological contract assessment, and affective consequences associated with the monitoring (i.e., discrete emotions, stress, and well-being).


When users’ PWU activity is monitored, the degree to which they perceive that the monitoring is justly designed and implemented may influence their attitudes and corresponding behavioral response. For example, if the monitoring collects personal data on employees, which is likely the case in the PWU context (e.g., personal banking, e-mail content, vacation planning, etc.), users may perceive that the monitoring target is irrelevant to the interests of the organization. In an experimental study on computer surveillance, including PWU, Alge (2001) found that the relevance of the collected data had a negative effect on privacy perceptions. If the monitoring collects data that are deemed private by the user, such as content from personal e-mails or the types of Web sites visited, this study suggests that the monitoring will be perceived as being procedurally unjust. In addition, this study points to the influential role of user participation in the monitoring design and implementation on privacy and fairness perceptions. Alge found that users who were able to voice their opinions and engage in the decision-making process (e.g., what data are collected and how the data are used) were more likely to view their personal data as being kept private and the monitoring as a fair tool for management. It is important to note, however, that while employees may have expectations for privacy when engaging in PWU, the organization is legally permitted to monitor activity on its network (Nord, McCubbins, & Nord, 2006). The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) protects the organization and its decision to monitor employee communications to ensure authorized, legitimate information technology use.

Nevertheless, the fairness perception linked to privacy expectations is an important variable when considering user attitudes to monitoring, including employee satisfaction. Current research (Alder & Ambrose, 2005; Urbaczewski & Jessup, 2002) suggests that fairness perceptions associated with the privacy or design of the monitoring system affect employee satisfaction. Employee attitudes, such as satisfaction, have also been found to influence one’s intention to behave according to the policies underlying the monitoring system. Spitzmuller and Stanton (2006) found that negative monitoring attitudes are more likely to result in defiant behavior, including continued misbehavior irrespective of the monitoring or attempts to bypass the controls altogether. In the PWU context, this may involve users sending personal e-mail through the organization’s e-mail program, which may not be monitored, rather than using their Web-mail account that is under surveillance.

Psychological Contract

Using the framework of psychological contract theory, some contend that monitoring represents a symbol of distrust and disloyalty and may result in an array of adverse psychological effects for the employee. Economist Frey (1993) believes that the conventional wisdom associated with Agency Theory is one sided and too simplistic to accurately assess the complexity inherent to an employment relationship. More specifically, he makes the case that the stereotypical extrinsic-based employment contract must also take into consideration the psychological repercussions associated with monitoring activity.

He postulates that a psychological contract exists between the principal and agent, and therefore worker morale and motivation are dependent upon the employer’s adherence to that contract. The crux of Frey’s (1993) disagreement with Agency Theory is the disregard for this implicit contract. The terms of this agreement are based on mutual trust and respect, where the principal recognizes and acknowledges the importance of worker feelings, attitudes, and ability to make sound decisions. He believes that when a stringent monitoring structure is developed and implemented, with the supposition that the agents are going to violate the explicit contract (i.e., shirk due to the opportunity costs associated with the working agreement), agents may perceive that the implicit contract has been violated. Essentially, the monitoring activity signals to the agents that the employer possesses some level of distrust for their activity, and therefore the agents’ work morale is invariably reduced. The monitoring itself may be synonymous to a prenuptial agreement in a marriage. To most, a prenuptial agreement may send signals of distrust and anticipated contract breakdown. The monitoring may suggest a similar message to agents about the basis of a distrusting relationship with the principal. If agents perceive a violation in the psychological contract, they may indeed engage in destructive behavior such as a potential reduction in effort. For instance, applying the psychological contract framework to the context of PWU-based monitoring, individuals may interpret the monitoring as a source of discontent and react by increasing their personal use of the Internet irrespective of the existing surveillance.


Various aspects of an individual’s experience can influence how one behaviorally reacts to a monitoring experience. The varying perspectives that explain the relationship between monitoring and behavior largely do not consider the affective side of human behavior. Whether employees adhere to the policy vis-à-vis the monitoring or defy the policy due to a perceived injustice or psychological contract breach, we may learn a great deal about the behaviors by understanding the emotional responses of those being monitored. Emotions often induce behavior; they are based on our interpretation of a particular event and guide how we react. If we can systematically examine how employees feel about their experiences with the monitoring, we can be better prepared to explain consequential behaviors.

Agency Theory and economic assumptions do not include emotions as relevant variables. Agents, according to these theories, are rational actors, and as such the models depicting behavior disregard any form of affective characteristic. However, understanding the relationship between monitoring and behavior can be greatly advanced by incorporating the role of emotions. For instance, when an agent is afraid of the monitoring because of possible consequences associated with shirking, such as suspension or termination, and ceases the shirking behavior, the rational explanation becomes clouded. The motivation for the responding behavior may be linked to the costs associated with the misbehavior being made known to management, but the emotional reaction that precedes the behavior is anything but rational.

Those who have provided alternative approaches to studying monitoring and behavior have also disregarded the potential explanatory power of emotions, including Stanton’s (2000) conceptual model of employee reactions to monitoring. The model only briefly notes the existence of psychological arousal induced by the monitoring, but the explicit role of discrete emotions such as fear, anger, frustration, or pleasure are overlooked. For those who have considered the power of affectivity, research has shown that monitoring may have emotional consequences. Holman (2002), for example, found that electronic performance monitoring adversely affects employee well-being. This includes increases in anxiety, depression, and job dissatisfaction. Certain managerial activities, such as PWU monitoring, could actually produce toxic consequences, including frustration and anger.

In addition, perceived psychological contract violation regarding the monitoring activity may contribute to this emotional toxicity. For example, if the agent believes that monitoring is a willing act sponsored by the principal, rather than one mandated by outside forces (e.g., legislative mandate), the agent is more likely to feel that the contract is being violated. In a sense, the monitoring may violate an agreed-upon commitment to treat individuals in the organization with mutual respect and as adults, rather than as children. The monitoring may be perceived as a violation of that commitment, where the employees are treated as children and management assumes the role of parent. When a contract violation occurs in this type of relationship, emotional responses are likely to be intense.

Potential Contributing Factors: Peer And Organizational Effects

While the monitoring itself may induce both attitudinal and behavioral reactions, it is important to also highlight potential moderating factors that influence the way users interpret their experience with the monitoring and PWU. The fairness perceptions, privacy expectations, psychological contract assessments, and emotional responses are greatly shaped by group- and organizational-level variables. The shared norms and values among the peers regarding the monitoring and PWU may influence the compliance or defiance behaviors of those under surveillance. In addition, at the organizational level, the type and design of the PWU monitoring, along with the workplace climate, play a role in determining how and why users make sense of their interaction with the monitoring system.

Group-Level Factors

Some forms of PWU, which is the target of this type of electronic monitoring, can be socially acceptable among peers in organizations. The degree to which PWU is a normative behavior within a subculture may determine the level of compliance with the policy and reactions to the monitoring. The socialization and organizational culture represent the shared meaning system in which members ascribe to norms and values manifested in their interaction with the organizational community.

Studying the influence of social interaction on antisocial behavior, Robinson and O’Leary-Kelly (1998) hypothesized that individuals experience a “monkey-see-monkey-do” effect in which socialization and interaction in their group could lead to morphing the misbehavior of their coworkers. Grounding their assumptions and hypotheses in Social Information Processing Theory, they contend that group members receive social cues about expectations for acceptable behavior at the group level and learn from role models about how to behave. The normative misbehavior may be expected and legitimate at the group level, but could be defined as illegitimate behavior from the organization’s perspective. The survey study of 187 employees from various occupations found support for their hypotheses that the expectations for misbehavior at the group level influences the extent to which individual group members engage in such behavior. The role of social interaction and cultural norms and values influence how individuals think and feel about their experiences in the organization.

Extending this to the PWU context, Blanchard and Henle (2006) found that employees engage in cyberloafing when others around them view it as acceptable, including supervisors. With respect to the monitoring itself, further research must examine the influence of group members on individual behavioral responses. Nevertheless, students and scholars alike may apply the hypotheses of Kidwell, Roland, and Bennett (1993) to help explore whether norms and values in a subculture are potent factors in determining employee reactions to PWU-based monitoring. They contend that norms and social cues expressed by fellow employees or members of a workgroup may have a considerable effect on individual responses. The norms act as a regulatory mechanism, and conformity is heavily dependent upon the degree to which individuals internalize these norms through interaction. Equity, reciprocity, fairness, and peer-compliance norms define the extent to which individuals exert effort. If the utility of exerting effort is decreased by perceived unfairness associated with the employment relationship (e.g., monitoring), Kidwell et al. hypothesize that the propensity to withhold effort is likely to increase. If, however, the relationship is considered fair and fellow employees are providing the desired effort, regardless of whether the individual experiences a cost associated with exerting effort, the model suggests that individuals will adjust effort accordingly because of motivations to comply with social norms.

Organizational-Level Factors

In addition to the peer-effects, certain organizational characteristics may also affect individual reactions to the monitoring system. Related to the fairness perceptions just discussed, along with the assessment of the implicit psychological contract between employee and employer, the design of the monitoring system will likely shape user attitudes regarding PWU monitoring. Any existing sanctions associated with knowingly violating the policy enforced by the monitoring may also influence user reactions. Lastly, the ethical climate within the organization may send social cues to users about the role and purpose of the monitoring in upholding certain ethical standards for behavior.

Researchers have found that job satisfaction and monitoring attitudes reflect the way in which the surveillance program is designed and implemented. Specifically, the experimental study by Urbaczewski and Jessup (2002) suggests that when the monitoring resulted in feedback regarding performance-related activity (i.e., how well they performed on a specific task), their level of satisfaction increased. However, when the monitoring feedback simply reported when and where they engaged in cyberloafing, users were less satisfied with the monitoring. This speaks to the type of information being collected and redistributed to the users. It seems as if the monitoring designed only to control for PWU behavior contributes to user dissatisfaction, while incorporating a performance aspect of the monitoring may be more beneficial for the organization and those under surveillance.

At the same time, research by Mirchandani (2004) suggests that organizations must also communicate the potential consequences associated with violating the Internet usage policy, which would be made known to management by the monitoring system. This could be in the form of an information-security-awareness training program, which would clearly articulate organizational policy and sanctions for violating that policy. This study, based on interviews and a survey of both employees and managers, suggests that respondents found remedies such as taking the Internet away from abusing employees or reprimanding those users were effective in curbing PWU. However, a study of the telecommunications industry (Batt, Colvin, & Keefe, 2002) links electronic monitoring with higher levels of quit rates because of the distrusting and toxic consequences previously discussed. This and other studies suggest that further research must examine how the monitoring and associated sanctions influence attitudes, organizational citizenship behaviors, and job withdrawal over time.

The current ethical climate reflected in the organizational culture may also shape user perceptions about monitoring and PWU. A recent study by Peterson (2002) examined the role of ethical workplace climate as an antecedent to deviant workplace behavior. Ethical climate was defined as the shared meaning system surrounding what is ethically appropriate behavior and how ethical issues are dealt with in the organization. The survey of 194 business professionals in various occupations revealed that indeed the ethical climate is an important organization-level antecedent. For example, Peterson’s findings suggest that in an ethical climate where employee well-being is a major concern for all involved, employees are less likely to engage in deviant behavior. Conversely, Peterson also found that there is a greater chance of production deviance (e.g., doing personal work at work) in a climate where employees are mostly concerned for themselves. In addition, the study’s findings indicate that when there is an ethical climate in which a minimal concern for adherence to organizational policies, such as those communicated by the PWU monitoring, deviance is more likely to occur.

electronic-monitoring-of-personal-web-use-at-work-research-paper-f1Figure 86.1   Monitoring PWU in the Workplace

Toward A Conceptual Framework: Monitoring Pwu In The Workplace

The decision to employ electronic monitoring to observe PWU reflects the legal, financial, and information security concerns of management. While complementing training and policy, PWU-based monitoring is a tool for preventing and deterring this type of rule-breaking behavior. The monitoring may reflect the rational interests of the organization, but there are human consequences that require further investigation when considering user response. Figure 86.1 reflects an effort to conceptualize a framework for under-standing the major antecedents and consequences inherent to PWU monitoring as a type of managerial control in the modern organization.

Future Directions

Given the extant research on electronic surveillance, and PWU monitoring in particular, many areas for further empirical inquiry exist. For example, students and scholars should consider the relationship among monitoring, PWU, and performance variables in an actual workplace context. Urbaczewski and Jessup (2002) took a first step in examining user satisfaction with PWU monitoring, task performance, and monitoring effectiveness, but the experimental setting with student subjects lacks contextual richness associated with an organization or multiple organizations with differing policies, employee demographics, tasks, and monitoring systems. With many organizations currently collecting PWU data, there is a breadth of opportunity for researchers to examine the human and performance consequences associated with PWU monitoring outside of the laboratory. Self-report data, such as from interviews and surveys, are quite useful for examining emotional and attitudinal reactions, such as with the study by Mirchandani (2004). Nevertheless, quantitative PWU and performance data collected by the organization over time will have great utility for determining the degree to which monitoring is an effective way of curbing this type of shirking.

Another relevant area for continued study of PWU monitoring is to empirically investigate the potential effects of altering the monitoring design and degree of user participation in the decision-making process. Existing research in electronic performance monitoring (e.g., Douthitt & Aiello, 2001) suggests that those who have more say in the way the monitoring is designed and the type of information collected are more willing to perceive the control tool as legitimate and fair. In the case of PWU, will users who participate in decision-making processes, such as determining which sites are to be blocked or the type of Internet activity monitored, develop positive attitudes toward the monitoring? Will this translate into greater compliance with the monitoring and policy? User participation may also extend to permitting override capabilities for work-related Internet

activities that may be blocked by the monitoring software. This may create a sense of partnership between the users and the information security staff responsible for monitoring. Again, the specifics of the monitoring design and level of participation may be manipulated in a field experiment or explored in case-study research to determine the effects on user-response behavior.


While many aspects of PWU monitoring require further research, there are a number of recommendations for organizations currently experiencing PWU and examining the possibility of employing monitoring systems. Individuals often conduct personal work at work to help balance the work and life demands placed upon them. In an effort to protect the network and ensure proper Internet usage, organizations may consider implementing policies that define and permit acceptable use during certain times of day so users can manage their personal and professional lives. Providing some degree of freedom may alleviate any psychological contract violation concerns associated with the monitoring. Permitting access to PWU that benefits the individual and organization, along with communicating to the users that the monitoring exists to protect them and the data, will likely contribute to ethical PWU and compliance with existing policy.

For example, training may be a forum for expressing the importance of security and mutual trust. It is important to note that employees who believe that management views them as distrusting are more likely to engage in misbehavior. Therefore, if employees are provided some discretion, involved in the monitoring process, and made aware of the policy and measures to ensure accountability for those abusing the system, the extent to which users comply and engage in Internet stewardship is likely to exist. A stringent and obtrusive electronic monitoring system may be counterproductive; organizations may be better served by implementing a more inclusive, self-regulatory approach to curbing inappropriate forms of PWU.


The workforce of the 21st century is and will continue to be technologically sophisticated. However, that does not necessarily mean individuals operate like machines. Strict monitoring and policies assume that users are rational actors who abide by rules set by management. The prevalence of PWU, along with the corresponding structures to monitoring such behavior, is a managerial paradox. Decision makers must come to grips with the complexity associated with the factors involved in electronic monitoring in this context. While organizations observe PWU for numerous reasons, the effects on those being watched may create unintended consequences for management. The emotional and attitudinal factors that underscore user compliance or defiance must be seriously considered as relevant variables in the decision to monitor personal Internet activity in the workplace.


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