Can too much web-surfing get you fired?

Imagine if your boss wanted to find out how much time you're wasting online — and so he gathered years worth of web-surfing data and then fired you.
Online monitoring of employees is happening more and more, says Regina lawyer Greg Fingas, who has worked on a number of workplace privacy cases. (Associated Press)

Imagine if your boss wanted to find out how much time you're wasting online — and so he gathered years worth of web-surfing data and then fired you.

Sound far-fetched? In fact, it's happened in Saskatchewan.

A recent labour arbitration concerned the case of a Yorkton psychologist who was fired after the Sunrise Health Region reviewed her email and internet activity from 2005 to 2010.

It sifted through about 400 personal email messages she had sent.

It turned out she had sent some off-colour and sometimes disparaging messages about colleagues and bosses and surfed the internet while at work, visiting sites for such companies as Home Depot, TravelZoo, McDonalds, TripAdvisor, and the Home Shopping Channel.

The health region wanted to compare her internet use with her colleagues', so it went back and did "online audits" of them, too. Some of them spent similar, or even greater amounts of time online. One was later suspended for two days, while another got into hot water for visiting "offensive" sites.

Doctor gets her job back

The employer said excessive web-surfing was only one of a number of things the employee had done to deserve firing. An incident involving confidential medical records that were left in her office was also cited.

However, the firing was vigorously opposed by the psychologist's union, which fought for the woman's job at the arbitration hearing. 

Ultimately, in an Aug. 30 decision, the arbitration board said the doctor's conduct, while inappropriate, wasn't a firing offence.

After all, the board said, the employee wasn't downloading porn, or gambling online, or visiting racist websites. It gave the pychologist her job back.

Greg Fingas, a Regina lawyer who deals with privacy issues, says more cases of internet use at work are finding their way through the courts or arbitration boards.

Disputes sometimes arise because employers' online policies can be quite strict, but are generally not enforced in a consistent way, Fingas said.   

"It's always a grey area as to whether or not within the bounds of what's really accepted as opposed to what the policy says you're allowed or not allowed to do," he said.

Many judges and boards are siding with workers in these cases because they feel the company policy may be too strict, he said. However, employees should remember that employers have every right to follow their workers' online activities, Fingas said.

Privacy laws don't apply in private offices

Saskatchewan Privacy Commissioner Gary Dickson says while it's up to employees to understand the rules, employers have obligations as well.

Dickson investigates privacy complaints for public sector employees in Saskatchewan, but he notes there are no laws protecting private sector workers. He's been asking the government to change that for nine years.

Dickson says not only has online surveillance become easier and cheaper, other forms of electronic monitoring — such as GPS trackers in company vehicles and closed circuit television — are also being used more widely.

"We just have the technology creating more opportunities for employers to be collecting personal information," he said.

Presume you're being monitored

So with all this going on, how are employees supposed to conduct themselves?

To stay out of trouble, Fingas suggests that employees act as if bosses are monitoring websites and emails at all times.

"I wouldn't be surprised if your employer knows more about you than you might think," he said. "The question is whether they see fit to do anything about it."