I was fired for excessive personal computer use at work. What is considered excessive and can I fight this accusation?



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Question:

Do I have a case for wrongful termination? I was fired for “excessive personal use of the computer on company time.” Basically, the tech administrator accessed a report of my internet usage at work and determined that I was spending what my boss considered excessive time surfing the Web and online shopping. I wasn’t doing any of the things that I know are inappropriate, though—no pornography, no off-color or offensive jokes, wasn’t sending harassing emails to anyone. I was just surfing the web, which everyone does. Because I wasn’t doing anything inappropriate, I feel this was an invasion of privacy and wrongful termination. I’m in Oregon, if that matters.

Answer:

Philosophically, you may be right. Nowadays, everyone surfs the web during work time, so a good case could be made that policies that expect employees to not do this are wrongheaded; that the sole issue (as long as out-and-out inappropriate usage of the computer is not made) is whether on the whole the employee is productive.

However, that’s philosophically. Legally, the company has a right to monitor usage of its computers and network—which means therefore they have a right to monitor what you are doing on the computer at work—and they likewise, in the absence of a contract, have a right to fire an employee for any reason, including spending what they consider (rightfully or wrongfully) excessive time on non-work activities.

Let’s take the two parts of the above separately. First, monitoring computer usage: courts have consistently held that companies may monitor employee computer usage and furthermore, that employees generally do not have privacy expectations in what they do on work computers. Your company may access your files, your work-provided or –hosted email, and also the record of websites you visit. I’ve included a link to an Oregon case below, if you want to read more; it is a pornography case, but the general principals of employer control over the computer system and a lack of reasonable expectation of privacy hold.

(In that case, the company specifically reserved the right to monitor employee computer usage; however, by 2009, it would be safe to assume that no expectation of privacy in work computers would be found reasonable.)

Second, in the absence of a contract to the contrary, employment is employment-at-will; it may be terminated any time, for any reason. Certainly, a belief that an employee is spending his or her time on unproductive or non-company matters while at work would be grounds for termination. (It probably would be grounds for firing for cause even if there were a contract.)

Putting it together: the company may track employee internet usage; it may promulgate, or put out, an internet usage policy that computers may only be used for work purposes, but even without such a formal policy, is free to conclude that it’s inappropriate to spend work time surfing the Web for non-work reasons; the company similarly may put out a policy putting employees on formal notice that their computer usage may be inspected, but even without such a formal notice, will almost always be held to have the right to do so; and under the doctrine of employment-at-will, may certainly terminate employees for behavior they disapprove of.

Fair or not, it does appear that your termination was wrongful.

This article is provided for informational purposes only. If you need legal advice or representation,
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