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Employee Internet Addiction - a widespread plague

August 20, 2015

Can you dismiss an employee for excessive internet use? The answer is yes, but not a simple yes.

I read a summary of a recent case where an employee was dismissed for blatantly excessive Internet use but the dismissal was held to be unjustified. From what I can gather, the main problem was that the employer did not follow correct procedure, and had no computer policy. Apparently, the employee was running two businesses at the same time that they were employed by the employer and they were using the employer's computers for that purpose. The allegation was that the employee was spending a considerable time during working hours on the other businesses, so much so that customers could not get through to the employee when they telephoned. When the employer sought to investigate things, the employee deleted emails etc, presumably to hide their tracks. It would seem that the employer didn’t follow an appropriate disciplinary procedure. It is unclear to me whether, if they had, dismissal would have been justifiable if the allegations had been proved. The conduct seems to me to be a serious breach of several general employee obligations .e.g. trust and loyalty, devotion of time to their work, etc.

The best course for any employer is to have a comprehensive computer policy. It should cover all aspects of computer use. It would also be useful if it were to cover use of telephones, including mobile telephones. The issues include serious time wasting (and increasingly prevalent plague), risk (in terms of accessing or downloading malicious code etc), breach of confidentiality, theft of intellectual property, and adverse comments being posted about the employer through social media. There are so many issues that a policy needs to be detailed and wide ranging. A less satisfactory alternative is to have a clause in the employment agreement. However, such clauses tend to be relatively cursory (simply because to cover all of the issues, link the clauses would be required) and a major disadvantage of having a clause in an employment agreement is that it cannot be changed without the employee's consent.

Without having a computer policy, it is possible that excessive private use of the employer's computer facilities could constitute misconduct and eventually justify dismissal. However, except in the case of some obviously serious breach of obligation e.g. significant breach of confidentiality, there may be various hurdles in dealing with such conduct. First, there is the matter of proof. Secondly, in the absence of a computer policy or a specific clause in an employment agreement, the employee would have to prove the breach of some obligation e.g. an employee not devoting their full-time to the employer's work. Thirdly, the initial breach of such an obligation might only justify a warning. Repeated conduct might justify dismissal. In relation to any disciplinary steps, proper procedure would need to be followed.

A comprehensive computer policy does not come cheaply but any business that relies significantly on employees using computer technology to do their work should consider investing in an appropriate policy.

Even “good” employees seem to have no compunction about spending considerable time during their work on private emails and private internet use. This is actually dishonest but as with the ease of copying material in the digital age, it is because it is so easy to do that even decent employees turn a blind eye to the fact that it is dishonest. It is a plague, and employers should consider whether they want to draw some lines in the sand (which might allow some private use, but not at the expense of getting work done). Many lawyers and other supposedly knowledgeable people advocate employees being encouraged to spend considerable time on the net, suggesting that this may allow useful contacts to be built up. In my view, for most businesses, that is misguided. From what I can see, most employees use work computers for purely private purposes that have no benefit or spin off for the employer. Feel free to disagree.

This image is from the portfolio of "Stuart Miles".

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