The seven deadly sins of workplace technology

Some tips on how not to use technology in the workplace…

Working in HR, I occasionally come across poor behaviour in the workplace. In today’s workplace it often involves technology. Anyone who has attended a bullying / harassment / discrimination education session that I’ve run in the past will have heard me say that as soon as someone invents a new piece of technology, someone else invents something stupid and possibly career-limiting to do with it.

Here are my “7 deadly sins of workplace technology” that are guaranteed to get you offside with colleagues, clients or your boss. And yes, I have come across them all…

1. Sending offensive material using workplace technology

This one has to be #1 simply because it has been happening for so long and continues to happen. Only recently, Thales, a large international employer, made the news for having to reinstate 3 employees they had dismissed for sending offensive material to each other at work. They were reinstated in part because they managed to convince FWA that they weren’t sufficiently aware of the relevant company policy, as they hadn’t received recent training and had not had a company email account when the policy was last communicated to the workforce. I think it’s highly unlikely that will ever happen again at Thales, and many other employers will have taken notes as well.

The reinstatement was clearly a happy outcome for the employees, who nevertheless would have been shamed in front of their colleagues and went through the angst of losing their jobs.

In case you’re not sure what constitutes “offensive material”, it’s anything of a sexual nature; anything of a racial nature; anything that denigrates or makes fun of or someone or something related to any of the grounds under anti-discrimination laws, basically.

You can’t always stop your colleagues sending you offensive material, but don’t forward it on. Let them be the ones in the firing line if they’re silly enough to continue.

2. Sending an email or a text that makes it very clear that the recipient is clearly an idiot, and copying others in.

An ex-colleague of mine used to copy the most senior HR people in the company into scathing emails replying to queries I had raised (sometimes challenging his opinion). It was belittling and embarrassing, even though the behaviour said more about him than me.

This can constitute bullying if it’s recurring. Bullying is generally defined as behaviour that “belittles, humiliates, intimidates or embarasses” another person – shaming them by treating them like an idiot in front of others (even over an email) definitely ticks those boxes.

Disappointingly, when I raised a complaint about the behaviour with his manager, I was told to speak to the colleague about it directly and no attempt was made to deal with it. I lost trust in the senior manager and watched the colleague act the same way repeatedly towards others for the rest of my time at that company. His knowledge was respected, but he was fairly widely disliked.

A business colleague told me of a similar situation he was in, in which HR had pulled the perpetrator aside and told them their behaviour was unacceptable almost immediately. A much more appropriate way to deal with the situation and hopefully a more common response than the ostrich approach my complaint was met with. Don’t be the person that HR is pulling aside….

3. Engaging in email wars.

This is often combined with #2. Yes, I know that introverts often prefer to communicate by email (I happen to be one) but if a couple of emails turns into a back-and-forth debate, it’s time to pick up the phone or go and speak with the person. Chances are the communication is being misunderstood at one or both ends and actually talking about it will help resolve it (who would have thought?)

4. SHOUTING AT PEOPLE in emails or texts.

A service provider’s employee once SHOUTED AT ME THAT SHE NEEDED TO KNOW IF I HAD A VACUUM CLEANER (I had forgotten to tell her). I dropped the provider shortly afterwards. That company lost business because of what appeared to be a really discourteous approach to email. In fact, perhaps she just didn’t know and thought that CAPITALS WOULD GET MY ATTENTION. (They did.)

Employers who are giving employees email accounts need to ensure that they cover off on what’s acceptable, and what’s not. (Remember Thales?)

5. Delivering bad news via text or email.

Keep texts or emails for positive or factual communications. Negative feedback should be delivered face-to-face or at least verbally, so that the recipient has a chance to clarify what you’re telling them, understand it and respond to it. Giving bad news in person shows integrity and courage. Stand up and be accountable for delivering bad news and taking the flak that might come with it.

6. Accessing websites that you are not sure you should

Common sense is the key here. This can be as innocent as updating your facebook status or as grubby as accessing pornography using the work computer. Let’s start with the innocent.

There’s a good chance that your employer’s IT team has facebook or other social media blocked, unless you’re specifically able to use it for work purposes (advertising, branding etc). Again, if an employer allows employees to access social media at work, they must communicate the expectations around its use or it’s almost guaranteed to be misused at some point.

Even if you’re not blocked from it, keep access during working hours to a minimum if you absolutely can’t keep away from it for 8 hours; around your normal break times would be the only time I would recommend updating your status. It’s just not a good look in terms of your commitment to your employer.

Moving onto the grubby, websites containing particular words are also often blocked from work networks. Some companies will have an alarm that gives feedback to the IT team if someone tries to access a blocked site. At one client’s site, I had to deal with a situation where the system locked up the computer completely and came up with a red flashing message – a bit hard to hide.

The employee was found to be accessing child pornography on night shift using another person’s login. Needless to say, his employment tenure was limited. (Not that he understood that – the union had to convince him to resign because he didn’t believe he could be dismissed for it.)

Accessing job sites from the work computer is also not good form unless that’s what you do for a living 🙂

7. Overusing it

Last but not least, let’s talk about overuse.

Technology is great. It has done so much to improve workplace efficiency and allow us to do things differently since I started work in the early 1990’s – the days where very few people had computers on their desks, mobile phones were the size of bricks and “accessing electronic records” meant getting motion sickness scrolling through microfiche at the library.

But there is a tipping point where technology stops helping us and starts interfering with how we do our job. Hiding behind emails or electronic event logs instead of going and having a conversation; getting bogged down or distracted with too many messages; being contactable all the time on your personal mobile as well as your work mobile; all of these things can actually detract from how effectively you’re performing the job that you’re being paid to do.

Think about whether your email is just going to be more clutter for someone who receives hundreds every day – if it’s an important message, what is the risk that it will be overlooked? If it’s not an important message, what is the likelihood that the person will ignore your next one?

Take some time out where you let calls go to your message bank to enable you to have non-distracted thinking and working time. You will deal more positively with people on the other end when you are prepared to talk to them and their call is not just another interruption in your busy schedule.

Finally, next time you go to shoot off that email or text, consider whether a phone call or a face to face conversation would serve your purpose just as well. You might even find that it improves your working relationships – something that is a lot harder to do from behind an email or text.


So… there you have it… my 7 deadly sins of workplace technology. Perhaps I’ve left out some of your pet hates, and undoubtedly there will be new ones that come up with new technology in future. Hopefully if you’re not already you can take some of these on board and avoid stunting your career or your working relationships by misusing technology 🙂

Written by Yvonne Walker

HR with ease(R) are experts in performance management, workplace diversity and inclusion. From workforce planning, indigenous and minority participation strategies, workforce education, investigations into behaviour that is not supportive of diversity through to analytics and reporting, we help employers understand how diversity can boost their bottom line and put practical strategies in place to achieve and maintain it.

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