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How to Shop (and Not Get Fired) at Work

Online shopping peaks this time of year, but many companies keep a close eye on workers who overdo it on the clock.

Like many of us, the end of the year is a particularly busy period for Susan. As a consultant, she has clients who are scattering to finish end-of-year projects, and her personal life is filled with the typical rush to decorate the home, hunt for gifts, and still find time for normal errands and child-care needs.

But there’s one thing that really makes her feel guilty: when she shops at work, which she sometimes has to do for sanity’s sake. “I think it’s the culture,” says Susan, whose name has been changed. “No one has time to do otherwise.”

As holiday music fills the radio waves, lights litter the streets, and shopping for gifts gets lumped into an already inundated schedule, many employees struggle to cope. According to technology firm Robert Half, 75% of employees do some shopping for the holidays while on the job. Yet, a third of employers say they don’t want employees using work computers for personal purposes during work hours, according to CareerBuilder. And 24% of managers have fired an employee for their online shopping or other non-work-related internet activity. 

24% of managers have fired an employee for online shopping at work.

You don’t want to find yourself with a holiday hangover on the job due to your online perusing. So keep these tips in mind if you’re planning on seeking out deals while at work.

Set specific time limits.

Handling personal needs during the workday is something employees have had to juggle for a while, since punching a time clock has become irrelevant for many employees. In the past, it was easy: break times and lunch hours were clearly defined (with some offices totally shutting down from 12 pm to 1 pm), giving you time to get those personal errands done.

Now, though, the onus is on you to set aside a limited amount of time for shopping to ensure you don’t fall down an online honey hole, wasting hours, says Jill MacFadyen, a career coach in Chicago. She suggests setting a timer on your computer for five or 10 minutes, depending on how much time you have. Only shop within the allotted time you’ve set. If you’re an otherwise talented employee, most employers will overlook a few minutes here or there.

Enable online blockers.

If you find yourself unable to hold yourself to the timer’s limits or keep going back to your shopping throughout the day, use the same technology that allows you to surf the sites to keep you in check. Elana Konstant, a New York City career coach, suggests using online blockers, such as Cold Turkey, to prevent you from going to certain websites during parts of your day. Start with committing to 30 minutes of uninterrupted work time, and then build in a five-minute break. If during those five minutes you want to shop, then do so. As you build your focus, increase the work times to 90 minutes, with 15-minute breaks.

Follow the culture.

Whether you shop or accomplish other personal needs during those built-in breaks “depends on the work culture you’re in,” Konstant says. “It isn’t just an individual choice.”

You can sometimes circumvent this issue by understanding your office needs. If you have deadlines for Thursday, then shopping on a Wednesday may be difficult for a manager to overlook. But maybe there’s a natural downtime on Friday as everyone resets, which would make it more acceptable to knock out some shopping. That said, if your manager has a zero-shopping policy, then it’s best to stick to it.

Remember, they’re watching.

Susan, the consultant who shops online at work, says there’s one thing she never does: her personal banking on work computers. She’s worried her company would see what she was doing, plus get insight into her own personal savings. 

It’s a smart move, says MacFadyen, who worked in human resources at large engineering firms before becoming a career coach. “If you do it from your company phone or computer, your company knows exactly what you’re doing,” she says. That’s true, whether you’re checking your savings, searching for your next vacation spot, or buying that Harry Potter training wand that’s 50% off.

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