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The Ethics and Etiquette of Multitasking in the Workplace

RAQUEL BENBUNAN-FICH

Digital Object Identifier 10.1109/MTS.2012.2211391 Date of publication: 24 September 2012

IEEE TECHNOLOGY AND SOCIETY MAGAZINE | fALL 2012

1932-4529/12/$31.00©2012IEEE

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  • C ompared to other eth- ical problems modern organizations face, ranging from finan- cial fraud to employee

misconduct, our technologically- induced diffusion of attention may be deemed inconsequential. How- ever, the failure to devote enough attention is frequently the root of many current moral quandaries in the corporate world. Nowhere is this phenomenon more evident than in the tendency to multitask with technological devices while at work. Multitasking behavior is deeply ingrained in many human activities in today’s society, and its benefits and drawbacks have been thoroughly debated. However, the ethical dimension has not been fully addressed. 1 The focus of this article is to analyze the ethical issues of multitasking behavior in the workplace. A logical starting point for mak- ing the connection between multi- tasking and ethics is the definition of multitasking, which is com- monly associated with undertaking multiple tasks at once. Multitask- ing takes place when an individual performs more than one unrelated activity at the same time. Accord- ingly, there are two key criteria to define this behavior: task inde -

the person is engaged in the pursuit of the same goal. When mobile technological devices are added to the mix of tasks and time, the definition of multitasking becomes more chal- lenging. If an executive takes notes electronically on a laptop during a meeting, is he multitasking? If his use of the computer is restricted to taking notes, he is not. This is simi- lar to taking handwritten notes. The problem, however, is that computer use typically extends to other activ- ities, which are often unrelated to the meeting [3]. These other unre - lated tasks are masked by the use of the laptop for note-taking. Evidence of multitasking behav- ior is everywhere, whether it is working on a laptop during a meet- ing, maintaining a work-related conversation with a colleague over a cell phone while attending a family event, or checking hand- held devices during face-to-face interactions. There is some sense of social rudeness when encoun- tering multitasking in everyday interactions and social norms may be evolving to accommodate this behavior [4]. However, when mul- titasking occurs in the workplace, in addition to impoliteness, there are ethical ramifications stemming from dividing human attention.

While multitasking contributes to the illusion of productivity, it often causes performance degradation.

pendence and performance con- currency [2]. Everyday examples such as talking on the phone while driving or folding laundry while watching TV illustrate these two principles nicely. In these cases, a person is actually performing two independent activities simultane - ously. Conversely, taking handwrit- ten notes during a meeting is not representative of multitasking as

1 for an exception, see [1].

Multitasking and Attention

Collectively, society rationalizes – and sometimes excuses – multitasking due to the ever- increasing demands on our time. While multitasking contributes to the illusion of productivity, it often causes performance degradation. Workers who multitask experience

2 Linda Stone coined the term “continuous partial

attention”. for a more extensive discussion of this concept, see [5].

voluntary and involuntary discon- tinuities in the execution of their tasks. Voluntary interruptions arise from self-imposed breaks in the flow of work to attend to other tasks, while involuntary ones origi- nate from getting sidetracked due to notifications from electronic devices and communication sys- tems. Consequently, technologi- cally empowered workers are in a perpetual state of continuous par- tial attention. 2 The unwillingness or inability to devote full atten- tion is frequently the reason for errors and omissions at work and elsewhere. Technologist Linda Stone describes attention as “the most powerful tool of the human spirit. We can enhance or augment our attention with practices like medi- tation and exercise, diffuse it with technologies like email and Black- berries, or alter it with pharma- ceuticals. In the end, though, we are fully responsible for how we choose to use this extraordinary tool” [6]. She draws a distinction between continuous partial atten- tion and multitasking [7]. While admitting that both are attention allocation strategies, she asserts that they are driven by differ- ent impulses. Continuous partial attention originates from the desire not to miss anything, while multi- tasking is motivated by the need to be more productive and efficient. Hyper-vigilance, she argues, is not a characteristic of multitask- ing. In practice, however, when individuals are constantly scan- ning the environment for person- ally relevant cues, in a state of hyper-vigilance while at work, multitasking occurs. This is most notably the case when hyper-vig- ilant employees are continuously checking their email or maintain- ing electronic communications while performing other tasks, such

as attending a meeting.

At an extreme, continuous par- tial attention could become total inattention which, ironically, is the

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IEEE TECHNOLOGY AND SOCIETY MAGAZINE | fALL 2012

opposite of hyper-vigilance. Total inattention can be lethal, or some - times just embarrassing, as illus- trated by the well-publicized news story of the “errant” commercial airline pilots [8]. The pilots missed their destination because they were engrossed in their laptops during the flight. While fortu- nately nobody was hurt, the story is a good reminder of the poten- tial dangers of inattention associ- ated with multitasking. An earlier transportation-related incident did not have such a happy ending. In California, a train engineer tex- ting on his cell phone while at the controls caused a crash that killed twenty-five people [9]. While not all instances of inattention can be blamed on multitasking, digitally- enabled connectivity usually leads to partial attention at best, and to total inattention at worst. The powerful allure of techno - logical devices that monopolize our thoughts at the expense of aware - ness of our surroundings is evident everywhere. Given the widely rec- ognized magnetism of technology gadgets, it is easy to argue that multitasking is unethical when lives are at stake. In fact, the poten- tial to harm oneself and others is at the core of recent rulings ban- ning texting while driving, which is now illegal in many places. Is multitasking less unethical – or perhaps unrelated to ethics – when no physical danger to human life is involved?

Multitasking during Meetings

In the workplace, a distinction must be drawn between tasks that are directly performed and the collec- tive endeavors in which the individ- ual participates. Doing research for a client is a direct task where per- formance objectives and account- ability are usually well-defined. In contrast, sitting at a work meet- ing is a collective endeavor where either the objectives or the individ- ual contributions are loosely speci- fied. A meeting is a mutual activity

The powerful allure of technological devices that monopolize our thoughts at the expense of awareness of our surroundings is evident everywhere.

where the attention of all partici- pants is (supposed to be) focused on a single speaker or on the exchange between speakers. Meeting par- ticipants are expected to maintain “a single focus of cognitive and visual attention” [10]. Typically, in workplace meet- ings, employees tend to check their email while documenting the meeting. As an academic study on work virtuality notes: “Descrip - tively speaking, most Intel employees at the middle ranks are familiar with the practice of carrying laptops even to face-to- face meetings, and handling email emergencies for other non-present activities while meeting face to face with a group” [11]. The image of people hiding behind their laptops working on other things during a meeting is com- monplace. This is the ugly side of multitasking, but is it unethical? Competing arguments have been proposed to explain the link between multitasking and attention. On the one hand, this behavior could be viewed as a manifestation of “Multitasking Attention Deficit.” In the pursuit of high levels of productivity, people fill up time during slow meetings by turning their atten - tion to other tasks [4]. The notion of deficit underscores the need for communicating messages in a very efficient way (“ten seconds or less”) to avoid downtime. On the other hand, the behavior could be viewed as “Multitasking Attention Dexterity,” a display of people’s ability to simultaneously attend to different streams of incoming information. The idea of dexterity symbolizes a new way of mastering

information intake [12]. It seems that such dexterity explains the standard format for contemporary TV newscasts, where audio infor- mation is accompanied by a news ticker or screen crawler with other news. Although this approach might be perceived as an efficient way to convey information, results of empirical studies suggest that, when people try to process com- peting messages in parallel, key information is lost. The collective nature of work- place meetings with loosely defined individual responsibilities is a fer- tile ground for people to engage in texting-under-the-table or covert- laptop-multitasking. Is this a case of willful misconduct or blissful ignorance about the ethical con- notations of this behavior? In either case, there is no question about the impoliteness of denying attention. Digitally-enabled multitasking during meetings is perceived as a signal of incivility or inconsiderate behavior towards others [13]. But etiquette and ethics should not be confused. Paradoxically, people tend to be somewhat incon- sistent when judging the manners exhibited by others. They express annoyance and frustration when others check their phones or lap - tops in meetings, but they admit to doing so themselves from time to time [13]. Despite the hypocrisy, there is wide consensus on the lack of etiquette, but not enough aware - ness of the ethical issues involved in the matter.

Ethical Analysis

Multitasking behavior in workplace meetings brings about conflicts between individual benefits and the

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The application of the universality principle suggests that in order to be morally acceptable, every attendee should be able to multitask during a meeting.

overall social good [4]. Since these conflicts qualify as moral dilem- mas, an analysis from the perspec- tive of ethical theories provides a structured framework for moral reasoning. Two different theories, deontology and utilitarianism, offer alternative viewpoints but lead to similar conclusions. Deon- tology (or duty-based ethics) states that an act is right or wrong in and of itself, regardless of its conse - quences. Upholding one’s duty, or obligations to another individual or society, is considered ethically correct [14]. In contrast, utilitari- anism (or ends-based ethics) pro - poses that the moral worth of an action is determined by its conse - quences and these consequences are measured by the contribution to the overall utility. According to this theory, the choice that yields the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people is the ethically correct choice [15]. An application of deontological reasoning through the principles of Immanuel Kant [16] indicates that the morality of the actions lay in an analysis of the act itself. Kant’s categorical imperatives have been formulated in two different ways:

the universality principle and the reciprocity principle. The univer- sality principle postulates, “Act only on that maxim which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” The reci- procity principle proposes, “Act as to treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end, never as means only.” Thus, to determine whether a potential action is right, everyone else should be able to perform the same action under

similar circumstances. The appli- cation of the universality principle suggests that in order to be mor- ally acceptable, every attendee should be able to multitask during a meeting. If this were the case, the meeting as a single mutual activity would have no purpose. Even if only a few people multi- task while others participate in the meeting, the behavior would still be morally reprehensible. In this scenario, non-multitasking par- ticipants would be used as means to achieve another end ( justify or vouch for the physical presence of the multitasking employees at the meeting). from the perspective of utili- tarianism, multitasking in work- place meetings would be right if it resulted in a net increase in happiness for all of those affected by this behavior. To calculate net happiness, it would be necessary to consider whether the results of the individual’s multitasking activ- ity benefit more people than those negatively affected by his/her inat- tention to the meeting. While a precise estimation is difficult and context-dependent, the happiness maximization principle suggests that if the employee is handling an emergency with the potential to generate happiness for a large num- ber of people, he should not be at the meeting causing unhappiness to the rest of the attendees. from this viewpoint, multitasking behav- ior during workplace meetings is unethical because it does not maxi- mize utility for the greatest number of people. Despite their different approa- ches, ethical reasoning from the perspective of deontology or

utilitarianism yield similar con- clusions in this scenario. These ethical analyses refer to a par- ticular instance of workplace multitasking, when workers are attending a meeting and choosing to divide or divert their attention to other tasks with texting-under- the-table or with covert-laptop- multitasking. Altering the scenario or the circumstances may yield different conclusions when these ethical frameworks are applied to other instances of workplace multitasking. Since neither deon- tological universality, nor utili- tarian happiness maximization is achieved, the analyses presented here indicate that multitasking behavior during workplace meet- ings is unethical. If this is the case, why is this behavior so per- vasive? There are several potential explanations ranging from lack of awareness to absence of rules regu- lating behavior.

Codes of Ethics and Regulation of Behavior

Lack of ethical awareness sur- rounding technology issues is not a new phenomenon. When email communication and Web brows- ing first became ubiquitous in the workplace, many firms had not yet developed clear guidelines to specify what was allowed; they did so much later [17]. We are facing a similar ethical gap with respect to multitasking and the use of mobile devices in the context of other work activities. The absence of explicit rules about what is permissible or morally acceptable at work pro - duces a failure to admit or assign ethical responsibility. What if multitasking is part of the job description? If a job posting calls for multitasking abilities, “it usually means working on several projects concurrently though not all at once” [18]. It certainly does not mean to stretch one’s atten- tion over diverse activities and try to perform all of them at the same time.

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Professional codes of conduct in many disciplines regulate the behavior of their members by requiring them to perform their jobs to the best of their abilities with honesty and integrity. Is it ethical for a lawyer to bill a client for his time if he only gave partial attention to the client’s case during that time? Is it ethical for a doctor to have a health-related conversa- tion with his patient while brows- ing his personal email? In any other profession, is it ethical to deny full attention to the task at hand? In addition to professional codes, some companies have their own corporate code of conduct to define ethical standards of employee behavior, workers’ rights and work- place issues. The existence of a cor- porate statement and its enforcement is entirely voluntary for most com- panies. Although some regulatory bodies, such as the New York Stock Exchange (see, for example, [19]), require companies to adopt explicit corporate policies regarding ethics, these statements are not a guarantee of ethical employee behavior. fur- thermore, these codes usually cover highly visible instances of employee behavior, ranging from financial fraud to whistle blowing. for the day-to-day issues of meeting behav- ior, a few companies have resorted to stronger regulations like banning laptops and handheld devices from corporate meetings, a rule known as “top-less” meetings [20].

Performing Under the Influence of Multitasking

Multitasking behavior at work aided and abetted by technologi- cal devices qualifies as unethical conduct. Though not as visible as the moral failings of celebrities or politicians and not as financially damaging as the wrongdoings of some top corporate executives and financiers, it is nevertheless appli- cable to most workers. Attempt- ing to perform different tasks

simultaneously reduces the qual- ity of the work and might as well be called “performing under the influence of multitasking.” The cognitive impairments associated with multitasking are comparable to the diminished intellectual abilities resulting from influence of drugs or alcohol. Therefore, to work with technologically-induced distractions is morally irrespon - sible. By focusing the discussion on the ethical repercussions of multitasking, this article seeks to call attention to this issue and to raise awareness among employees everywhere. On the issue of personal work ethics and multitasking, employ- ees are paid to be completely alert at work and fully engaged in their work tasks to the best of their abili- ties. When attention is divided, no task is the beneficiary of the full extent of our abilities. Partial atten- tion diminishes one’s capacity to work well and use all of the men- tal resources in the pursuit of the goal associated with the task. As a result of juggling multiple tasks, wrong decisions are made, incor- rect information is conveyed, and mistakes are committed. With the illusion of multitasking productiv- ity comes the risk of forewarned underperformance. Regardless of the magnitude of the potential con- sequences, or whether such con- sequences ever materialize, this behavior is risky and irresponsible. Purposely denying full attention to work tasks in general – or work- place meetings in particular – is in most cases unethical.

Author Information

Raquel Benbunan-fich with the SCIS Department, Baruch College, CUNY, New York, NY.

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