Management: How Much Web Surfing at Work is Too Much?

A recent decision to fire a New York City Department of Education staffer for surfing the Web raises issues of employee rights and worker productivity.

Is surfing the Web at work the same as reading the paper or chatting on the phone? A New York City judge says it is—to a degree. But despite Administrative Law Judge John Spooners recommendation that Toquir Choudhri, a NYC Department of Education employee, should have been given no more than a reprimand for cruising the Internet, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein fired him anyway.

Its important to understand the particulars of the case. First of all, contrary to many media reports, Judge Spooner did not rule that employee Web surfing should be tolerated outright. However, given Choudhris assertion that he only surfed the Web after his work was completed or during downtime—as well as his claim that many other employees who follow similar practices were not sacked—Spooner ruled that the use was not excessive.

Klein disagreed, claiming that repeated warnings as well as other incidents of insubordination warranted Choudrhis termination. Choudrhi, meanwhile, avers that Klein unfairly singled him out for political reasons.

Regardless, the decision reignites the debate over employee rights and worker productivity. "Employers are caught in a Catch-22," says Zachary Hummel, a partner at New York City-based law firm Bryan Cave LLP. "The courts say they have to monitor their employees, but if workers have downtime, under national labor laws you cant discipline them for browsing the Internet. Its the same thing as chatting with coworkers at the water cooler."

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