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Employees on the Internet

2 cases shed light on penalties for employees who surf too much – or look at things they shouldn’t – on work computers

By Jeffrey R. Smith

Many employers frown on employees surfing the Internet at work because of wasted time or the viewing of inappropriate materials.

But most organizations with Internet access probably accept there is going to be some surfing by employees, as long as it’s not excessive and doesn’t affect productivity. But if an employee is wasting too much time, what is the appropriate discipline? And should what the employee is viewing affect that discipline?

In 2007, a respiratory therapist at an Alberta hospital was fired for looking at Internet pornography on a computer in the hospital. It turned out he was addicted to porn and had installed filters on his home computer, but when he discovered access on a hospital computer, he fell off the wagon. Though he was remorseful and there was no indication his duties were neglected, the hospital fired him for violating its computer-use policy. No other workers were aware of his activities, but the hours he spent looking at the porn was too much for the hospital’s trust, despite his six years of discipline-free service.

An arbitrator upheld the termination because of the trust issue: The therapist worked with female patients and if word ever got out about the therapist’s excessive online porn surfing, there would be discomfort, said the arbitrator.

A couple of years later, a government worker for Citizenship and Immigration Canada was found to have been spending more than one-half of his time surfing the Internet, including looking at porn. The employee said he didn’t realize how much time he had been spending on the Internet as he completed the work assigned to him. He acknowledged he needed to change his habits. However, the employer characterized the excessive amount of time he spent surfing as time theft and the content he viewed didn’t live up to the government body’s ethical standards.

In this case, the employee was reinstated because he had 27 years of service, no previous discipline and accepted responsibility. An unpaid suspension of 20 months — the date of his termination to the arbitrator’s decision — was deemed enough to convey the seriousness of the misconduct and the need for deterrence.

In both of the above cases, an employee with a degree of independence and trust was caught spending time looking at Internet porn at work. The main difference was the years of service — six years for the fired employee, 27 for the reinstated employee. Even though the fired employee spent much less time surfing the Internet — about an hour or two a day for a brief period of time, compared to more than half the day for several months by the reinstated employee — the capital punishment of discipline was found to be appropriate. So how should employers handle employees caught looking at Internet porn, or generally spending too much time on the web?

As with many discipline cases, the employee’s service time is likely a factor in the type of discipline. If the service times for the two employees above were switched, would their results have been different? In other circumstances, could an employee who has an addiction such as the Alberta one above receive softer treatment because of it? What should be a bigger factor in determining the serious of excessive Internet surfing — the time spent surfing or what is being viewed?

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that looks at workplace law from a business perspective. He can be reached at jeffrey.r.smith@thomsonreuters.com. For more information, visit www.employmentlawtoday.com.

© Copyright Canadian HR Reporter, Thomson Reuters Canada Limited. All rights reserved.

Jeffrey R. Smith

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that looks at workplace law from a business perspective.
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