columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

A reader asks:

I have a couple of employees who are using their time and company resources during work to chat with each other, like sending lots of personal emails to one another during work hours. What is the best way to address this without alienating them? It seems to be ongoing throughout the day and is affecting their work.

Green responds:

Well, coworkers emailing each other during the work day is pretty normal, even when it's not strictly work-related. That in and of itself isn't a real problem.

If it's excessive to the point that it's affecting their work, that's an issue -- but in that case, the issue is their work and their productivity, not the fact that they're chatting or emailing.

So, focus on that. Be direct with each person involved that you're concerned that you're not seeing the quality or quantity of work that you'd like to be seeing. As part of that conversation, you can certainly mention something like, "I've noticed that you spend a lot of time emailing with Imogen and Fergus during the day, and that might be part of the problem. Can you pull back on that and see if it helps?" But that shouldn't be the main thrust of the message -- the main message is "I'm seeing issues X and Y in your work, so let's figure out how to solve them."

The reason that you should focus on that and not the chatting is because ultimately it's the work that matters. If they stopped the chatting and emailing but nothing changed about their work, you'd still have concerns, right? And if they were performing at a high level, you presumably wouldn't care if they were doing some chatting at the same time.

Some managers hear that and think, "Well, it's knowing about all this chatting that makes me think that they're not using their time well -- if they have time for so much socializing, don't they have time to be more productive as well?" And that's not an irrational line of thought -- but even then, the answer isn't "make them stop chatting and emailing." Instead, if you're concerned that they have large swaths of time that they're not using well, address that more directly. It's fine to say something like, "Hey, I've noticed you're spending a lot of time chatting with Imogen and Fergus, and I want to be transparent with you that it's made me wonder if we could be using your time better."

You might hear a response that changes your thinking -- for instance, that they're chatting with each other while they wait for a work process to finish running and that there's nothing especially productive they can do with that time. You might hear that the emailing is happening while they're eating lunch at their desks. Or, maybe not -- maybe you'll hear that they didn't realize how much time they were spending on it. Either way, it's a useful conversation to have so that you're all on the same page and you're not worried about something you haven't named to them as a problem.

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