How to React to Being Caught Screwing Around Online at Work

If you have a desk job, chances are you at one point or another took a moment to check a personal email account, set your fantasy football lineup, or make dinner reservations. Most workplaces expect that employees are going to take a quick moment during some downtime to tend to personal matters. Regardless, no one wants to be caught in the act of screwing around online by a superior.

This article isn’t about avoiding being caught; this assumes you already have been caught. You’re on ChristianMingle checking out the freshest local ladies, clicking on Jessica’s profile, when you suddenly realize your boss is standing right behind you. Face it: he or she has seen your screen.

Your first reaction is likely to close the screen, whether that means switching tabs in a browser, pressing Alt + Tab to change applications, fully powering down the monitor, or simply blocking the screen with your hands or body. All of these things will result in you appearing guilty. Now not only has the boss seen that you’re disregarding company policy, but you’re trying to cover up for it. Bad look.

If this is the scenario that you’re facing, the worst thing you can do is lie. “Oh, I clicked the wrong link, I swear I wasn’t trying to look at that dating site.” No one will buy that, and now you’ve added lying onto abusing company equipment. There is the tiniest of chances that you’ll be believed, and that may be your true ticket to freedom. But that’s a true 1-in-100 or worse chance. Quickly apologizing is the preferred route here. “Oh, golly, sorry about that. I just needed to quick check something,” and then promptly shifting the conversation to work. “So what can I do for you, sir?” Admitting guilt is a tough pill to swallow, but your punishment, if any, is likely to be lesser.

Your last shred of hope in this scenario is that they don’t know what they’ve seen, and that you can quickly spin it as being work-related. “I was just clicking around to make sure our banner ads were appearing properly. Guess I still have some work to do.” Still, that is a lie, and you could be pressed to answer follow-up questions about the made-up project.

If you decide not to cover up your screen, you now face several new possibilities. Blatantly leaving the screen uncovered may show that you don’t believe what you’re doing is wrong. “Uhh, Brendan, what is that site you’ve got up on your screen there? That doesn’t look work-related.” “This? Nope, it’s not! I was checking out these babes on ChristianMingle! Get a load of Jessica here!” Your boss may either applaud your openness or rip you a new one. Sometimes it’s best to just plead ignorance and take the heat, then apologize.

Another possible outcome to leaving your screen uncovered include your boss ignoring your screen. Given that you’ve decided to leave the page up, he or she can only assume it’s work-related and that there’s no reason for you to hide your screen. You may also just decide to be overly honest and apologetic, and punish yourself before they have a chance to. “Sir, this here is a dating website. I know it is against company policy to use our equipment for my personal relationships, but I just received a notification that Jessica had winked at me and I was curious. I apologize for my behavior. I will go ahead and pack up my stuff. I’ve let you down.” In this case, the boss will show some compassion, feeling perhaps you are being too hard on yourself.

To reiterate, the two basic responses to being caught messing around online at work are to either quickly change the screen, or leave the screen as-is. Both options leave the door open to a wide range of possibilities depending on your profession and your superior’s current mood.

My Hot Take:
I’ve been caught countless times doing something non-work-related. One time in 2009, I was watching YouTube when the VP sidled in behind me and gave me a long, stern talking-to. I didn’t attempt to minimize the window or cover anything. In the heat of the moment, I decided it best to just sit there and quietly take it, then apologize and go back to work. Thankfully I work in an industry (marketing) where seeking out ideas and inspiration online is actually encouraged and oftentimes part of the job.

Covering the screen or closing the window only admits guilt, and unless you are certain this will result in your firing, lying about what you were doing is probably only going to make things worse.

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