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Three Ways to Deal with Employee Downtime

Sometimes a small question is actually about a bigger issue. This was the case when a faithful reader’s recent question got me thinking in two different directions: What could she do about an employee who goes on Facebook during the workday?

My reader is a senior executive in a business that’s small enough for her to notice such “bad behavior” herself. I asked her if she ever went on Facebook when she was having lunch, and, learning that she did, checked to see if she’d mind if her employee also did it during lunch.

When she said it would be fine, I suggested that the real problem might not be Facebook, but rather the idea that someone was misusing time — goofing off, in other words — and asked what she would prefer they do during downtime.

From Free Time to Free Thinking

The exec thought carefully, and answered that she wanted employees to come up with new ideas to help the company instead of just entertaining themselves.

Wanting someone to generate new ideas is a long way from expecting them to be consistently busy, I pointed out, and it’s not realistic to think most employees would have new ideas without prompting. But if she periodically asked them targeted questions about what would work better, make things easier, and help them get their jobs done in a more efficient or satisfying way, they’d be more likely to come up with relevant specifics.

Consider Behavior, Structure, and Intent

As for the general issue of employees taking advantage, consider these three different alternatives:

  1. You can confront them, and if you believe there’s bad intent or a consistent pattern of harmful behavior, then confrontation followed by corrective action is probably appropriate.
  2. But first, consider redesigning the work environment to ensure that everyone’s busy and productive, and can tell that their work is needed and valued. This usually requires rethinking what their job content should be, and how else they can contribute to a productive outcome for customers and the company. You may need to provide additional retraining or development, further demonstrating your investment in the employees. Making sure they understand the importance of their roles and tasks helps too: Fully engaged, committed employees don’t feel the urge to spend much time on Facebook at work.
  3. And it’s always worth trying to change your assumption that they’re trying to get away with something. Perhaps they were only doing what they’ve seen others doing and thought it was legitimate, or it was acceptable on their last job. Maybe you’ve blown a two-minute or once-in-a-while thing into an unnecessarily bigger deal. Or maybe they just don’t have the same personal level of drive and commitment that you do.

Expect the Best

You’re most likely to get employees’ best behavior when that’s what you expect (read: believe in, not just require). Be sure you’ve been communicating how highly you think of your employees, the pride you take in them, and the contribution they make to your business — not just the way you expect them to spend their time.

Onward and upward,


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Three Ways to Deal with Employee Downtime
You’re most likely to get employees’ best behavior when that’s what you expect (read: believe in, not just require).

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