Judge Rules Internet Surfing at Work Is OK

The New York Department of Education took Toquir Choudhri to the City’s Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings, which presides over disciplinary cases from almost every city agency.

Choudhri, an employee for 14 years, had disobeyed a supervisor’s order to stop surfing on the Internet, and Administrative Law Judge John Spooner ruled that the supervisor didn’t have the right to fire the city employee for surfing on the job.

A random review of Choudhri’s computer revealed he had visited news and travel sites including cbsnews.com, cnn.com, lonelyplanet.com and renewnyc.com. Choudhri said he refrained from surfing on the Internet until he finished the day’s work and admitted disobeying orders. His union claimed that his co-workers were also on the Internet visiting travel and shopping sites and that they weren’t reprimanded.

The union believes the supervisors singled out Choudhri because he had previously filed discrimination charges with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Office (EEOC) against the department. He alleged the department discriminated against him because of his age, and because of his Muslim faith and Pakistani nationality.

Guilty of Insubordination

The judge recommended dismissing most of the charges based on the employee’s good record and the fact that supervisors couldn’t prove that Internet surfing affected his performance. However, he was charged with insubordination for resuming his Internet surfing after his supervisor told him to stop. He was also disrespectful to his supervisor, said Georgia Pestana, New York City Law Department chief of labor and employment law.

Spooner recommended a reprimand, the most minor penalty available under the Civil Service Law. Schools Chancellor Joel Klein has the thorny job of rejecting, modifying or accepting the ruling. “After the Chancellor issues his final decision — which he may do this week — Mr. Choudry can seek court review of the Chancellor’s final decision,” Pestana told TechNewsWorld.

The outcome of this disciplinary case contrasts with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s firing of an employee for playing solitaire on his computer. It’s not inconceivable that this decision could help Bloomberg-fired employee Edward Greenwood get his job back, although the Choudhri matter is not a court case, but rather an administrative report and recommendation to the Schools Chancellor.

Reality Check

Employees make personal phone calls from work every day, a fact of life that the judge addressed in his decision. “It should be observed that the Internet has become the modern equivalent of a telephone or a daily newspaper, providing a combination of communication and information that most employees use as frequently in their personal lives as for their work,” he wrote.

Organizations vary on Internet surfing rules and policies based on their corporate culture. “When job sharing, flexible work schedules and telecommuting first came on the scene, companies reacted differently depending on their perception of internal morale versus productivity. Web surfing falls into a very similar category,” said Dave Opton, CEO of ExecuNet.

“Most City agencies have adopted a ‘de minimus use’ policy with respect to the Internet, office phones, and so on, which means as long as use for personal reasons is kept minimal, it is OK,” Pestana stated. However, employees are expected to obey when a supervisor gives an order to stop making calls or using the Internet for personal reasons and to get work done, she clarified.

Plano Independent School District in Texas has an “acceptable use” policy for district computers. Using district computers for “commercial use” and illegal or unprofessional uses is prohibited.

“Yes, employees may surf the net for legitimate purposes. That’s not in violation of any policy. However, there’s a fine line between surfing due to not being busy and surfing in order to kill time,” said Doug Otto, Ph.D., superintendent of schools for Plano Independent School District.

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