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Computer policy should allow some personal use

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in Human Resources

It’s no secret that employees who have Internet access will sometimes surf on nonbusiness web sites. They also may send a personal e-mail here and there, or do a little lunchtime shopping online. While it’s theoretically possible to block web sites or exhaustively track Internet usage, that’s often not practical.

But employers sometimes wonder if they can punish employees who abuse computer use. Of course you can, as long as you do so consistently.

But recognize that some abuses are obviously worse than others. Someone who spends company time bidding on eBay may be due a reprimand. But someone who forwards risqué or racist jokes may subject the company to possible liability. That employee can and should receive more severe discipline, up to and including discharge.

Recent case: Biotel allowed its employees to use its computers for “limited personal use.” But Annette Trnka went beyond what most employees did: She spent what the company characterized as an inordinate amount of time on personal e-mail during work hours. Worse, she sent sexually explicit e-mails.

The company fired Trnka and she sued, alleging she had been fired because she was taking lots of time off after a workplace injury caused migraines and other physical problems. She said that she felt her supervisor’s hostility.

The court tossed out her case. The company’s computer policy clearly allowed personal use, but it said the company could judge how much use was too much. Plus, Trnka couldn’t show that anyone else who sent sexually explicit e-mail was treated more favorably. The discharge reason was legitimate, and not an excuse for discrimination. (Trnka v. Biotel and Braemar, No. 07-1206, DC MN, 2008)

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