Is Your Company OK With Employees Shopping Online at Work?

By Mark Wilson, Esq. on December 03, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

"Employees abuse office computer privileges by shopping online during work hours," blares a headline from Inside Counsel. "Abuse"? That seems a little bit harsh. Employees also abuse their computer privileges by checking personal email during the work day and doing any number of other things that are technically violations, but are so minor that no one should care.

But they're going to do it anyway. A recent FindLaw survey shows that 35 percent of Americans shop online while at work. While disciplining employees for online shopping at work is one angle you could take, there are other, less Scrooge-esque ways of ensuring productivity.

Let It Be, Let It Be

Computers aren't like the mimeograph machines and typewriters of days gone by. They're multifunction machines that allow people to effortlessly switch between different tasks -- and that doesn't mean businesses need to implement Draconian policies around them.

It's equally worth keeping in mind that employees thrive in an environment where they feel like they're valued as adults and not treated like children.

Let's go back to first principles. Employees shouldn't be fired for using company computers for personal reasons; they should be fired for not doing their jobs, whatever the reason for that is. If an employee spends a few minutes checking his or her personal email, but still meets all his performance goals, then who cares? It's arguable that the employee could be even more productive if he weren't checking his email, but the counterargument is that employees are more productive when they don't feel like they're being micromanaged.

If an employee is dropping the ball, then it's time to discuss with that employee why that's happening. This, of course, depends on the individual employee and doesn't mean that the entire company is spending all its time on Amazon looking for a KitchenAid mixer for less than $200 (and I dare you to find one!).

But Do Put It in the Handbook

Nevertheless, Inside Counsel is right about one thing: If you anticipate needing to fire someone for a particular reason, it's useful to have that reason spelled out in the employee handbook. This can affect whether the employee was terminated with or without cause and is helpful in the event of a lawsuit. Even if you're firing an employee for just not doing his or her job, tossing in misuse of company technology as a reason for not doing the job bolsters the employer's argument that the employee was fired for a good reason.

That's about it, though. Don't supervisors have better things to do than make sure employees aren't shopping online while at work?

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