Little Stuff that Matters: Assets, Ethics, and Occasional Use

Let’s face it, ethical perfection is virtually impossible to achieve. Who hasn’t driven over the speed limit, cut the tag off a mattress, or found themselves on the wrong side of the law in some minor way? Who hasn’t checked his or her personal email at work, shopped online, made personal phone calls, or used the color copier for garage sale flyer. Even the most ethical person faces these dilemmas because life is full of these little decisions. Sure, there are clear rules about appropriate use of company resources but you may sometimes feel uncertain about where you stand ethically

Fortunately, in most workplaces there’s a principle called “occasional use” that keeps the majority of workers from losing their jobs simply for checking their online auction during their break or dropping kids off at school with the company car in an emergency. Occasional use means just that; you can use company resources for personal use as long as the use is truly occasional. Unfortunately, as companies grant occasional use to promote peace, harmony, and convenience at work, employees always seem to find ways to push the boundaries.

Before you use the company printer to make party invitations or fax personal documents to your realtor, you need to have a crystal-clear understanding of what your company’s policy is regarding occasional use. It is your responsibility to know this information without being told. Policies can vary widely depending on whether your company is a public entity, large corporation, private company, or family business. In fact, in some cases there may be no allowance at all for any occasional use. You duty is to be informed and not assume anything without fully understanding your company’s policy.

If your employer does allow occasional use, you need to exercise good judgment and responsibility so that you can’t be accused of abusing the privilege. Herein lies the key principle: using good judgment. This is where most of us get into trouble. Countless employees have ended up unemployed for surfing the web or using company tools “occasionally,” while others have gotten off without a hitch. Although both kinds of employees did the same thing, the unemployed one showed bad judgment regarding the circumstance, context, or who was present. Good judgment considers all these things as well as subtle things such as mood, environment, and atmosphere.

Since every situation is different, you must take the most conservative, careful approach possible. It’s always better to take the time to ask, think, and adhere to a “minimal use” policy rather than push the ethical envelope. Remember, if your occasional use looks bad (in any way) to you, then it looks ten-times worse to others.

Let’s look at some simple guidelines:

1. Your occasional use should be truly incidental and reasonable in duration. Incidental means that your use is by chance, irregular, or unintentional. As a rule, if you have to spend more that 5 minutes doing something personal on the job then you should wait until your break.

2. Your occasional use should not adversely affect your job performance or be a distraction to others in any way. Your employer pays you for your time and expects that you give your full attention to your duties. If your activity gets attention from others or distracts you, then you’ve crossed the line.

3. Your occasional use must not support a personal business or aid a competitor in any way. This is a hard line that shouldn’t be crossed no matter how minor the use. Absolutely no time or resources for second jobs, side-businesses, or outside consulting should be done at any time at work.

4. Occasional use should never involve illegal activity or could be considered offensive (such as viewing or creating sexually explicit, hateful, violent, or threatening material) as it can cause embarrassment for the company and legal difficulties.

Pushing occasional use too far is considered theft. All the “stuff” your company provides for you to do your job has a specific purpose and boundaries for use. Allowing occasional use should be considered a privilege and not a right. With that privilege, you have the responsibility to behave wisely and use the best judgment possible.

By allowing occasional use, your company acknowledges that you’re a human being with personal needs. It’s a normal, healthy accommodation that makes for a more pleasant work environment and stronger employee/employer relationships. As long as you don’t forget the meaning of “occasional” then you’re pretty safe at work. Just don’t expect the meaning of “occasional” to prevent you from getting that speeding ticket.