We’ve all done it: snuck a peak at our Facebook timeline in between scheduling meetings; paid a phone bill online after a work call with a client; checked out a new lasagna recipe recommended by a co-worker before starting a lunch break.
Computers have become ubiquitous in the workplace and so too has their occasional use for employees’ personal purposes.
Computer Use and Time Theft At Work
For employers, catching a glimpse of Facebook’s telltale blue or personal e-mails on an employee’s office computer during working hours is frustrating. They’re supposed to be working, after all. Surfing the net isn’t what you’re paying them for!
At what point does an employee’s personal internet use during work hours become worthy of reprimand? Can an employee wasting work time browsing the internet for personal interests amount to time theft? The case of Andrews v. Deputy Head offers some sobering insights.
Andrews v. Deputy Head (Citizenship and Immigration Canada)
In this case, Franklin Andrews, a federal bureaucrat with Citizenship and Immigration Canada, drew international attention when his internet surfing at work caused a legal debate about time theft.
In 2009, after 27 years working for the government, Andrews was fired after it was discovered that he had been spending more than half of every working day surfing the internet for news, sports and even a substantial amount of porn.
Andrews appealed his termination to the Public Service Labour Relations Board. He insisted that he hadn’t been given enough work to do and was simply bored. He further pointed out that he had never missed a deadline and regularly received positive feedback about his work.
The lawyer representing the Department of Citizenship and Immigration argued that this egregious wasting of work time – and therefore taxpayer money – was as “fraudulent as falsifying a time card” and should therefore be considered time theft. The lawyer also suggested Andrews should have asked for more work if he wasn’t given enough.
The adjudicator, Kate Rogers, agreed that Andrews was in violation of workplace policies by downloading porn. However, she did not believe that he had committed time theft. She argued that frittering away time on the internet was not an overtly fraudulent act. Moreover, Rogers was astonished that such significant time-wasting had been overlooked for so long. Rogers decided that a long suspension would have been a more appropriate disciplinary action. She ordered that Andrews be reinstated immediately.
Takeaway for Employers
Employers may look at the Andrews case and despair. If the government wasn’t able to fire an employee for spending half of his working hours looking at news, sports and porn, what recourse does the average employer have to deal with improper computer use during working hours?
Cutting off internet access entirely isn’t an option in today’s business environment and blocking specific sites can be difficult to enforce. Furthermore, overbearing policies can create low morale if employees feel that they are not trusted.
Just because an employee’s computer isn’t open to a word document, spreadsheet or an Adobe product, doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re wasting your time. Employees may want to use their lunch or coffee break to browse freely. A quick peak at a photo of their nephew might be just the two-minute distraction an employee needs to reset their focus for the next two hours.
Workplace Policies Are Your Best Defense
Therefore, clear, comprehensive and well-communicated workplace policies are your best defense against improper use of workplace computers.
You’ll be hard-pressed to demonstrate that an employee went ‘too far’ in their personal internet use during work time if you don’t clearly define what appropriate and inappropriate amounts of personal internet us are.
Policies should therefore outline what is a reasonable and unreasonable amount of time to browse the internet for personal purposes and make clear what kind of content is and is not appropriate.