Saturday, 18 April 2009

Are bloggers robbing their employers?

Paul Grimmond has just written a post on the Sola panel 'The Long and the Short of It' in which he responds to a recent criticism that the posts on the Matthias Media blog are too long. I was struck by one comment that fed a concern I've had for a long time. The commenter was suggesting that comments needed to be short because people are often reading blogs at work. Now to be fair, maybe he was talking about lunch-time, or perhaps he works a 10 hour day that he breaks up with some blogging. But his simple comment prompted me to think again about something I've pondered for some time.

A new Cyber water cooler?

When do people find the time to read 40-50 blogs and to write regular comments on many of them? Could it sometimes be at work? Could this be a new web-based form of theft? Could Christian workers be robbing their employers of time? Certainly, it appears from research that robbing employers of time is a common activity. In an online survey of 2,057 employees, a compensation company found that about 60% of workers admitted to wasting time at work, with the average employee wasting 1.7 hours of a typical 8.5 hour working day (here). Now I know that employers robbing workers of out-of-work time is also a big problem, which should be of concern to Christian bosses as well. But has the availability of new forms of social networking provided a new type of virtual water cooler that has potential to affect one's work? And is this a serious ethical consideration for Christian workers?

As Christians can we justify ethically and biblically the reading of blogs (or any other type of social networking) at work? If you are a pastor reading Christian blogs at Church, then maybe. If you're an engineer, reading theological blogs in work time, is this okay? Or are you stealing time from your employer? How many Christian employees check Facebook at work? Perish the thought, how many people are wasting their life telling people when they sneeze using Twitter (see a previous post of mine on another blog here)? Is work the main place you now read the newspaper?

The need for a Christian work ethic

Does the Bible speak directly to this topic? No, but there is good guidance that should help us to develop a sound Christian work ethic that will help. For example, Paul's words to the Ephesians:

Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labour, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. (Ephesians 4:28)

In Ephesians 4:17-32, Paul is speaking to believers in Christ and is challenging them to live new and changed lives that are different to the lives of non-believers. We are to put off falsehood and speak truthfully to neighbours. We are to avoid the sin of anger and lead honest lives. One who has been a thief is not to steal any longer, but instead needs to work (toil!), doing useful things that we might share with others in need. We are also to avoid unwholesome talk, bitterness and rage, slander, malice, and we are to be kind and compassionate to one another. Paul lists doing honest work as an important part of the new life of the believer; one of the ways that the believer is to demonstrate that they are new creations. While some might say, “but he's talking to someone who was once a common thief”, and he might even have had in mind someone who was once a thief, I don’t think we can avoid the point. He is writing all these things for the benefit of all Ephesian believers. Paul sees fit to mention doing honest work as opposed to stealing (or taking that which we aren't entitled to take). We are to "put away" (Eph 4:25) such things and instead "walk as children of light" (Eph 5:8).

Three simple questions

We could also look at Paul's comments on slaves and masters that would also help (e.g. 1 Timothy 6), but in the interests of a shorter post (!) I won't. I'd suggest that there is enough clear biblical teaching about the nature of honesty and godliness that would allow each of us to ask ourselves three simple questions:

Is my blogging at work related to my job description?
Is the content of my blogging, facebook checking, online shopping, newspaper reading, twittering [add your own] relevant or helpful to what I'm paid to do?
Does my online reading distract me from the things I'm paid to do, or reduce my effectiveness in any way?

If the answer to either of the first two questions is no, or if you an write 'yes' to the third question, then the course of action for the Christian is simple, stop doing it. It is stealing time from your employer.


Hinch said...

The key question is number 3: Does my online reading distract me from what i'm paid to do, or reduce my effectiveness in any way. If not, i don't see the harm in engaging in such activity, and hence challenge the relevance of questions 1 and 2. A little timeout in the office may actually be beneficial to our productivity:

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Hinch, thanks for your comment, and for the link as well. I left open this possibility in my first paragraph. I'm sure that for some people, in some jobs, this might be the case. For example, employees in the professions who work flexible hours (and at times too many hours) would no doubt benefit from planned breaks. But I'm not sure if this would be equally as relevant to all types of work and work conditions. I'm also unsure how well we monitor the time we spend in this way. Dr Coker also recognises this when he warns that web surfing at work needs to be done in moderation, as "internet addiction can have the reverse effect", which he estimates affects 14% of Internet users. Cheers, Trevor

CJW said...

I would tend, like Hinch, to see some kind of balance between integrity and effectiveness. I know it's a little mundane, but a low-tech example illustrates this well: a (non-work related) phone call from my wife discussing dinner plans could either be a distraction or a motivation to be more productive and then more fully enjoy our time together. The cost to my employer is a two minute phone call and not work related. The benefit to my employer is likely to be much greater, especially if the uncertainty of dinner plans was more of a distraction.

I also would point out that Paul's emphasis on being productive is not as an end in itself: rather it is in order to contribute generously to others. While I imagine that he would expect Christian employees to demonstrate that generosity towards their colleagues and employers, it would definitely be a misuse of his counsel if it resulted in the idea that we live to work, rather than work to live! This is a novel idea for many - both employees and employers!

Trevor Cairney said...

Interesting comment Cam, thanks. I agree with your notion that non-work related interactions might well help to put a spring in your step, but I'm not so convinced by your take on work. True, if you did a straw pole in the street, you'd get few to disagree that we should work to live, is this biblical? From where do you derive this view? We work to earn money so we can be generous and not a burden to others. We work to avoid being idle. We work to honour God and bear witness to him. But does the Bible teach that we 'work to live'? I don't think the Bible says this, but I'm happy to be corrected.

Greg T said...

As a Christian, of course I agree with your reasoning on this issue, Trevor. We should strive to honour God in all areas of our lives, and work is no exception. This means that it is unacceptable to do anything at work which equates to stealing from our employers, or acting dishonestly in any way whatsoever. On that basis, spending time posting blog comments, surfing the net, etc, when one ought to be working, is no better than stealing items from the stationery cupboard.

I stress “when one ought to be working” because I don’t think it’s quite as simple as “don’t blog or read the paper online, etc, at work”. I am going to suggest that the principles we ought to follow on this issue might “look” different in their application from person to person. Among other reasons, workplace conditions and rules vary enormously. I happen to be blessed (as I see it) in that my employers are relatively liberal in the area under discussion, with “reasonable” internet usage allowed. I know of a company where even the receipt of personal emails is forbidden. Furthermore, my work hours are reasonably flexible, within certain parameters.

The key point for me is striving to give my employers value for the money they pay me, which means that over the course of a month or a year, I will aim to spend at least a little more productive time at work than I am strictly required to according to the terms of my employment. In practice, this means, for instance, that I might occasionally spend a little time composing a blog comment (as I am doing now!), but might do it in lieu of taking a lunch break (or take a shorter one). Alternatively, I might stay later in the evening to compensate.

I am also sympathetic to the idea that regular, short breaks might actually increase a person’s productivity. I suppose I would add the caveat that it is all too easy to rationalise from such a position and find ourselves abusing the practice.

Having said that, I certainly respect the views of people who like to be able to account for every minute they spend at work, and who would find a system such as the one I use too difficult to manage. I’m certainly not recommending my method as a model for everyone.


Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks Greg, a helpful addition to the discussion.