No ‘LOL’ over misuse of email and Internet at work

By Jeffrey R. Smith (jeffrey.r.smith@thomsonreuters.com)

You come into work in the morning, sit down at your desk and turn on the computer. The work day has started, but you’re not ready to get to work just yet. First, you want to check your personal email account, change your Facebook status and send a quick message on Twitter about that show you saw last night. Then it’s time to work, at least until you remember you forgot to check the sports scores or do some online shopping.

This kind of activity is pretty common in the wired workplace where most employees have Internet access. However, access to the Internet and its accompanying forms of communication such as email and instant messaging have opened up whole new areas where employees can get themselves in trouble and employers can lose productivity. But how serious should employers take this kind of activity?

Bruce Power, a power company that runs a nuclear plant near Kincardine, Ont., recently fired a large group of contract employees over what it said was inappropriate use of the Internet and email at work that was discovered after a company investigation. All of those fired were contractors and temporary employees in a variety of positions.

The company didn’t specify what the actual violations were, but misuse of the Internet at a nuclear power plant could raise security concerns, though Bruce Power denied there was any information leak that could lead to security risks. However, if there was no serious security breach, it raises the question how serious the misconduct was to have that many people fired over it. Was the company able to fire them because they were contract workers? If they were permanent full-time workers, would they company have been able to fire them without risking wrongful dismissal suits? It’s a big question for many, as it’s likely all employees with Internet access use it for non-work-related purposes at some point and employers would like to know the best way to address it. Where does one draw the line between simple personal email use to more serious things like surfing inappropriate websites?

While spending too much time on personal email could be considered a relatively minor infraction, what if an employee causes problems on work email under the auspices of the job? An accountant in New Zealand discovered the worst-case scenario for this when her employer fired her for inappropriate use of email. No, she wasn’t sending rude or inappropriate messages to people on her work account. She annoyed her co-workers by sending what the employer termed “confrontational” emails — they were related to the job but were written in red, bold and capital letters. Co-workers were annoyed at this practice and the employer said she fostered disharmony in the workplace. Not surprisingly, the accountant won an unfair dismissal award because the employer didn’t have a clear policy outlining what was acceptable email communication.

Is sending inappropriate emails at work misconduct that justifies formal discipline, or even dismissal? If dismissal, how should an employer determine what level of seriousness can justify it, especially since its likely all employees do it on some level? Coupled with the popularity of social networking sites, Internet and email misuse is something most employers will inevitably have to address in their workplaces.

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