Using the Internet Social Media at Work

This question is based on a question posed to the “Ethicist” column in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. My colleague at work spends most of his time posting to the website, Reddit. He could be posting information about his boss or work environment that could jeopardize his employment. In any case, I believe he is too immature and ill- suited for our profession. Do I have an obligation to tell him that this behavior could hurt his career?

A. Prior to your question, I have never heard of Reddit before. However, after looking at the website, it looks like one of the old-fashioned bulletin boards where people post something about themselves or others. The question you raise could probably apply to someone who writes about work on Twitter or even Facebook. Social media websites have made this problem ubiquitous in most business environments—far more than employers are willing to admit. Electronic devices have become a prosthesis for most of us living in the 21st century. Twenty years ago, the futurologist Ray Kurzweil has predicted that within the next couple of decades, man will merge with the machine. Largely, we are already witnessing this phenomenon.

Based on what I have read on this subject, your co-worker is hardly alone. As one professional from Forbes Magazine notes:

  • There are many activities  employees do that waste time at work. Excessive meetings, co-worker interactions, office politics, and fixing mistakes are a few. According to a recent survey, one of the biggest culprits is surfing the Internet. Specifically, the survey revealed 64 percent of employees visit non-work related websites every day at work. Of that group, 39 percent spend one hour or less per week, 29 percent spend 2 hours per week, 21 percent waste five hours per week, and only 3 percent said they waste 10 hours or more doing unrelated activities. (My experience as a CEO tells me these figures are probably underestimated.)[1]

Ask yourself the following question: Is it my responsibility to supervise how my fellow co-workers are using their non-work related activities? In my opinion, this is what a supervisor is there to oversee. Otherwise, you risk creating a hostile workspace where nobody trusts their co-workers. On the other hand, you may want to casually mention to the corporation manager that it might not be a bad idea to send out a memo regarding the proper use of office time and Internet usage. If nothing else, it would broadcast in a subtle but effective manner that there will be consequences for people who misuse their time at the office for personal pursuits. Sometimes the fear of losing one’s livelihood is powerful enough of an incentive.

Many corporations install software on suspected computers that monitor websites and even keystrokes that are imputed into the computer. Now, assuming you are on good terms with your co-worker, you may want to try telling your co-worker in a friendly manner that today, spying on our neighbor is no longer the domain of “Big Brother” (e.g., the CIA or the NSA). Today even “Little Brother” has that capability. Beyond that, anyone—regardless of their income—can spy on a spouse or anyone else if they so desire. The loss of privacy in our society has made us more vulnerable to intrusions into our personal space. If you are not on good terms with your neighbor, then you would be wise to not say anything for your behavior may be tainted by an animus that borders on hatred—a clear violation of biblical law that requires us to act with love—not with hatred.

  • You shall not hate any of  your kindred in your heart. Reprove your neighbor openly so that you do not incur sin because of that person. Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against your own people. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  I am the Lord (Le 19:17–19).

It seems to me that company managers must bear the ultimate burden of monitoring their workplaces. Doing so not only ensures greater productivity, it also protects their business from people accidentally or willfully revealing information that could prove damaging to their workplaces, not to mention minimizing potential workplace problems such as sexual harassment or employee job performance problems.

In terms of Jewish texts, there are ample texts that speak about taking personal accountability whenever one is working for the public, which I believe also applies whenever we work for anyone. In Exodus 38:21-40:38 (a.k.a., Parshat Pekudei), the Torah begins with a complete inventory of what all the items Moses collected for the Tabernacle. This principle is confirmed when we read how Moses gives an accounting of the raw material brought to the Sanctuary: gold (29 talents, 730 shekels), silver (100 talents, 1,757 shekels), copper (70 talents, 2,400 shekels) etc.  The first thing that strikes us is that this seems to be an accountant’s report on Moses’ business affairs. This ought to strike the reader as odd. If Moses, the man who gave the Ten Commandments, isn’t above suspicion, then who is?  Was all of this accounting really necessary?”  The answer is simple of course! Leaders must be beyond suspicion. This principle pertains to lesser mortals as well.

Oftentimes we define a Tsadik in Judaism as someone who is “righteous” and pious in matters of Jewish law and practice. Yet, the real meaning of tsadik is someone who acts with complete and personal integrity. Saintliness may be for exceptional people, but most people are at least capable of acting honorably and with integrity.



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