Net use at work — an ongoing issue

The case of a US employee initially fired for surfing non-work websites during office hours has raised the question of whether it should be permitted

Blackberries, cellphones, pagers, wireless internet access, broadband at home — the growing list of communications technologies that remotely link workers to the workplace is increasingly blurring the line between work and home.

Employees surf the web at work to check the weather, make travel plans, and shop. At home, many send email, continue their work chores, and otherwise stay connected with their professional lives.

While employers rarely discourage the extra work done at home, many want employees’ attention focused on work while at the office.

In a recent decision, a New York City administrative law judge added another angle to the debate between employers and employees over personal use of the internet in the workplace. Ruling in the case of an employee who allegedly used the internet for personal reasons during work hours, the judge, John B Spooner, compared internet use at work to reading a newspaper or making a telephone call.

“It should be observed,” Spooner wrote, “that the internet has become the modern equivalent of a telephone or a daily newspaper, providing a combination of communication and information that most employees use as frequently in their personal lives as for their work.”

Spooner recommended that Toquir Choudhri, a 14-year veteran of the city’s Department of Education, receive the slightest reprimand for insubordination, even though supervisors wanted him fired for using the internet for personal matters after he was told not to.

Despite the mixing of work and personal time, employers fear the loss of salaried time from workers who are not devoting all their workplace time to workplace tasks.

A recent survey by Salary.com claims employers waste US$759 billion (NZ$1.2 trillion) per year paying for employees who are online for personal reasons. However, the figure has been called into question by one commentator, because the survey didn’t account for work at home.

A December 2002 survey conducted by the University of Maryland supports that viewpoint.

The survey finds that workers with internet access at home and at work used an average of 3.7 hours per week of work time for personal internet use, but spend 5.9 hours per week surfing for work outside office hours.

For Choudhri, the veteran of New York City’s Department of Education who could still possibly lose his job despite this initial ruling in his favour, the answer to these questions is pretty clear. Much like fellow employees, Choudhri used the internet during down time.

In one instance, he was reprimanded for checking the weather on the internet while eating his lunch, Spooner writes in the decision.

Martin Druyan, Choudhri’s lawyer, says, “If everyone in the office has no work and everyone is on the internet, unless management gives them work or forbids them from doing it, then people are going to use the internet.”

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