Using Policies to Address Employees' Personal Use of Business Equipment

Filed under Managing the Workplace. Fact checked on May 24, 2012.

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A whole host of problems can arise when employees use business equipment for personal purposes. Loss of productivity and the misuse of business resources can be curtailed with workplace policies that address the personal usage of business equipment.

Every business involves the use of some sort of equipment which employees need to do their job, and this equipment is generally provided by the business. While some personal use of business equipment is realistically to be expected, problems can arise when the personal use is excessive.

Problems that can arise in the personal use of equipment that belongs to the business, such as computers, tools, or vehicles, include:

  • broken equipment, which may cause disputes over who is responsible for repair
  • lost productivity, as employees use work time for personal tasks involving business equipment
  • premature wear and maintenance on the equipment
  • morale problems if certain personal use habits are suddenly curtailed or if only some employees are allowed to use the equipment

No matter what your policy is or how much you try to control it, employees will probably use your equipment from time to time for personal purposes. The best way to handle the inevitable is to allow a reasonable amount of slack, but to be consistent and vigilant in creating and enforcing rules to make sure that the personal use doesn't get excessive.

For example, for many businesses, employees use computers for the most important aspects of their work. So, what happens when employees begin doing personal business on these machines?

Example

Mark uses the computer in the course of performing his job duties. Every so often, Mark will use his break time to play games on the computer. You've never seen him playing computer games on company time, and it doesn't seem to be affecting his work or the work of other employees. Do you tell Mark to stop?

Asking him to stop is probably the wrong approach. Work rules that get too restrictive tend to have more of a negative effect than a positive one. If Mark is doing it on his own break time and he's not bothering other employees or tying up the computer, there's probably no harm in allowing him to do it. However, you might want to make a mental note to speak to Mark about it if the game playing gets excessive.

And if you do ask him to stop, be sure that all other employees who may be playing computer games on break time are also asked to stop as well.

The better path to take is to let it slide. If Mark is a good employee who always gets his work done, so long as his break time games don't disturb other employees, tie up computer resources or get excessive, allowing him to play games on his break time shouldn't cause any problems. Be sure to cut other employees in the same situation the same slack though, in the interest of fairness and consistency.

Personal use of equipment that doesn't interfere with work is one thing, but how do you handle situations where the employee plays games on the computer (or does some other kind of personal business) during work time? Your equipment and your employees' habits will guide your handling of personal use situations. Be sure that whatever use you allow or prohibit is clearly communicated to all employees and is consistently enforced.

Creating a Policy for the Personal Use of Business Equipment

The type of policy you create to regulate the personal use of business equipment will depend on the type of business you operate and the equipment used in your business. For example, if the equipment in question is a vehicle, then there is a different set of ramifications to think about, including employer liability if a person is injured or property is damaged when an employee is using your business vehicle.

Another example is controlling the use of work computers. For example, your policy regarding the personal use of business computers could state that:

  • Email and other computer files provided by the company are to be used for business purposes only.
  • Use of computer facilities for personal reasons is strictly prohibited (or, personal use may be permitted subject to approval).
Tip

You may not want to allow an employee to use the computer to create a flyer for her son's debate competition and to print 100 copies on your laser printer with your paper. On the other hand, however, you may want to allow an employee who is taking a night class to use the computer during lunch and break times to for school work. The key is to create a policy that allows you to determine acceptable use and to apply that policy fairly and consistently.

  • All computer passwords and codes must be available to the company at all times.
  • No employee may add unauthorized or pirated software or files to any machine owned by the business.
Warning

If one of your employees buys a great piece of scheduling software for use at home and also installs it on your business's computer, you may be breaking the law. Software has strict copyrights, and "pirating" software is tantamount to stealing and the company is liable. If you want the software, buy it and install it.

  • Employees may not use computer files or software brought from home or other sources on the business computer (to avoid viruses).
  • The company reserves the right to enter, search, and monitor the computer files or email of any employee, without advance notice, for business purposes such as investigating theft, disclosure of confidential business or proprietary information, or personal abuse of the system, or monitoring work flow or productivity.
  • Software or other business information on the computer should not be copied and taken from the business premises without permission.
Tip

Some companies also place the policy on log-in screens to appear each time the computer is turned on, to dissuade employees from personal use of the equipment.

Controlling Excessive Personal Use of Equipment

Sometimes the usage of certain company equipment in and of itself is not an issue, rather it's the work time that the use wastes.

Example

Victoria is a good employee. The office atmosphere is pretty relaxed, and she fits right in. While looking over the monthly summary of copies made, you notice that under Victoria's assigned code there is a large volume of copies that have been made and not charged to any clients. You discover that Victoria has been running off copies of minutes and letters for her condo association. How should you handle this situation?

Asking Victoria to stop is probably the best way to handle the situation. While making a few personal copies here and there may be harmless enough, because Victoria is using this equipment during working time on a regular basis, you are experiencing a loss of productivity. You may also be sending a message to other employees that personal use of equipment during work time is OK. Is this the message you want to send?

And although the cost of copies may not seem like a big deal, the paper costs for copy machines can add up, and the maintenance of these machines, in particular, is also related to usage. Tying up a copy machine so that other employees can't make copies for clients or customers can also be a problem.

The exchange with Victoria doesn't have to be formal or adversarial, but be sure to stress to her that the copy machine is to be used only for business purposes. Be sure that all employees are held to the same rules. If appropriate, post a notice near the copy machine indicating that it is for business use only.

Handling Excessive Personal Calls and Texts

Due to the popularity of cell phones, and if there's a telephone on or near your employee's desk or workstation, personal texts and calls during business hours will be made and received. However, it's important to keep a handle on phone abuse because it results in lost productivity and in some cases, the inability of customers to reach your business.

So how do you control excessive phone usage? This can be a tough issue to handle. You don't want to make it impossible for employees to use the phone if they must (as in the case of an emergency). Some telephone service providers can selectively block calls to certain area codes and exchanges. You can also place all phones in locations where you can see and hear the speaker, as a way of discouraging personal calls.

Personal long-distance calls can be controlled by tracking the bills and make sure that all the calls are to cities and companies related to business.

Tools to Use

The Business Tools contain a sample long distance call log that you can download and copy. If phone use for personal reasons appears to be an issue, you might want to give it to employees and ask them to turn one in each month. Verify it against the phone bill. This should serve as a deterrent to unauthorized calls and give you more information about phone calls for business reasons. Pay close attention to numbers that appear month after month. Make sure there's a business reason for calling these repeat numbers.

Another possible strategy would be to ask the phone company to itemize the phone bills by extension, if your phones are all under the same number.

It's even harder to control local calls or calls and texts made on cell phones. The only way you're going to know if an employee is spending too much time on the phone is to witness it or to have other employees report it to you.

What to do if personal phone usage becomes an issue. If it comes to your attention that an employee is spending too much time on personal phone calls or texts:

  • Take the employee aside to discuss the matter privately.
  • Explain what you've seen — don't accuse (20 minute conversation to employee's friend last Friday).
  • Explain why it concerns you (work is falling behind, customers can't get through, other employees can't concentrate).
  • Listen to any explanation that the employee might give (maybe the friend is suicidal — you never know) and allow for flexibility or a possible accommodation or solution.
  • Ask the employee to limit calls to break time or lunch time and to keep them to a maximum of 10 minutes (or whatever length you choose) unless it's an emergency.
  • Be sure that the employee understands that your discussion is not a personal attack.
  • Assure the employee that others will be held to the same standard of personal phone usage conduct.
  • Thank the employee for future cooperation
  • Be sure to hold other employees to the same standard.

Remember — consistently and fairly applied rules and policies are the most effective and will help keep your workplace running smoothly!

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