The workplace no longer has traditional borders. Employees correspond through instant messages, Facebook and email. Seldom do they do so exclusively for business purposes. Others who are bored, unmotivated or underworked surf the Internet for much of their workday, managing sports pools, blogging about coworkers, reading the news or dating online. Employers have good reason for concern. Lost productivity and potential liability for the actions of their employees have caused most organizations to revisit their computer use policies - or create new ones altogether. Here are some common issues.
- Employees spending an inordinate amount of time at work accessing the web for personal use can be tantamount to theft of an employer's time, which can be cause for dismissal, with appropriate warnings.
- Internet use that can be considered harassing or discriminatory will be often be grounds for dismissal. In one case, two employees were fired after distributing a vulgar email at work detailing the sexual gymnastics of an overweight female co-worker. In another case, a New Brunswick judge upheld the dismissal of an employee finding that his conduct amounted to sexual harassment because the female IT manager who performed an audit on his computer found the websites he visited "offensive."
- Criminal laws can also be invoked if employees harass or intimidate coworkers, or if they violate hate propaganda or obscenity laws. These employees can end up surfing the classifieds for a criminal defence lawyer, as well as for a new job.
- And it's not just Internet misuse at work that can land employees in my offices seeking legal advice. If the content of an employee's blog, Twitter account or Facebook page has a negative impact on the workplace, discipline may be justified.
How should Canadians adapt to these challenges?
- Review any policies on acceptable internet use, detailing what will be considered inappropriate and be aware that employers own the computers and equipment, so they may be monitored randomly and without notice.
- Ensure that personal Internet use away from the office does not intersect with your job. This applies equally to the use of PDAs, BlackBerrys, Twitter, blogs and Facebook.
Daniel A. Lublin is an employment lawyer with Whitten & Lublin LLP. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @danlublin.