Setting Off Alarm Bells at Work
What can a person do to set off alarm bells at work?
I don’t mean this figuratively, I mean it literally — actual sirens going off in the office.
In most office environments, to trigger an alarm you would need to start a fire under a smoke detector, try to exit through an emergency door, or perhaps break into a safe.
At the administrative headquarters of the Chicago Public Schools, there is another activity that will set off alarms.? A friend of mine, Susanne Neckermann, found this out the hard way on a recent visit there.
Here’s how Susanne described it to me:
I went down to the Chicago Public Schools office today to talk about administrative issues surrounding a field experiment I’m conducting in the schools. As it turns out, none of the people that I wanted to reach were in their offices, so I ended up sitting there working away on my laptops using the guest wireless login.
Getting tired of “business” mails, I clicked on a link to facebook in one of my emails. The second that I clicked on that link an enormous alarm went off.
Apparently, the use of such internet sites is not tolerated by CPS and rather than block those websites altogether, accessing them causes this ear-piercing noise to go off that sounds something like a fire-department wagon passing directly by you.
Horrified, I was able to navigate away from the page as fast as I could, which made the noise stop. I must have looked quite stunned and glanced over at the CPS person that was with us in the room. She stated quite matter of factly, “Oh, did you try to go to facebook or youtube? They instituted that alarm as some sort of public shaming.”
The idea of the alarm is actually quite interesting from a deterrence standpoint.? The most straightforward thing for an employer to do to keep employees from using a particular website at work is just to make that website inaccessible from the work-based network.? (Many Islamic countries adopt this approach; when I was in Dubai, I discovered that they would not let me get access to the website where I bet on horse racing, which I thought was quite odd given that some of the biggest horse races in the world occur in Dubai.)
While denying access to particular websites will keep workers off those banned sites, there may be close substitutes available.? For instance, if the goal is to prevent workers from looking at pornography, there are thousands of competing sites.? It might not be easy to figure out how to ban every one of these.? Indeed, employees might spend more time searching for sites that are not banned than they would have spent on the banned sites in the first place.
In that regard, there is a certain brilliance to the alarm bell approach.? The firm lets people know that certain classes of sites are banned, and that an alarm will go off when they hit one of those sites.? The firm gives the workers an incomplete list of which sites are banned.? Thus, the worker can never be quite sure when they go to a site that should be banned (but may or may not actually be alarmed due to the difficulty of identifying and banning every naughty site), if they will trigger the alarm.? The firm turns the information asymmetry that exists between the worker and the firm into a tool that works for the firm instead of against it.
The other good thing about an alarm, as opposed to an outright ban on a site, is that there may be times when a worker really does want to get to a banned site for a good and important reason.? It will be unpleasant while the worker is on the site because of the alarm, but at least the option exists.
So hats off to the folks at the Chicago Public Schools for finding a clever solution to a tough problem.? Let’s hope they teach that cleverness to the students in the system.
And let’s hope that visiting the Freakonomics blog doesn’t trigger any alarms.