A reader writes:
Does my boss have the right to use monitoring software on my computer? I know he mostly does because the computer is his property, but what about when I use it to check my personal emails — does he have the right to record all my personal stuff just because I am using my work computer?
I have been unproductive and wasting a lot of time lately, but I am meeting deadlines and he hasn’t said anything about it. Can I get fired for being unproductive if he has the proof of the monitoring software? Or does he first have to give me a performance evaluation and warn me to improve?
I read through the licensing agreement for the monitoring software and it did state that the employer must inform the employee prior to installing the software. This did not happen, so can he still use this as proof, or is he now in the wrong for not informing me?
We don’t have any policies in place regarding personal time on office computers, And we don’t have any formal employment agreements signed. I would be willing to sign one but I have been working there over 5 years, so does that mean he can use past behavior against me or would we basically be starting fresh from the date of the employment agreement? Finding this out has scared me straight, so I’m wondering if I can still be let go even if I change my habits and become more productive.
Ready to be thoroughly freaked out?
In the vast majority of cases, your employer has the right to monitor anything you do on your work computer, including checking your personal email. Which is why you should never use your work computer for anything you don’t want your boss to know about — whether it’s job-searching, online shopping, complaining about your job, hanging out on Facebook, or anything else.
And your boss also has the right to fire you for wasting time at work or anything else he wants, as long as it’s not based on your membership in a legally protected class (race, religion, nationality, sex, disability, and so forth). He can say it’s because he doesn’t like the sound of your voice if he wants to. Or he can give you no reason at all.
Nor does he have to warn you first. In fact, he can tell you that you’re doing a great job every day for 300 days straight and then fire you on the 301st day without any warning at all. Still legal.
This is what at-will employment means, and most employees in the U.S. are indeed at-will. There are two exceptions to this: (1) if you have a contract, which most people don’t, or (2) if your company has an employee manual that commits to always using specific disciplinary procedures before firing someone — if it does, it’s generally obligated to follow those procedures first.
But aside from that, it’s generally legal to fire someone for any reason. What’s smart, what’s kind, and what’s good management are different from what’s legal.
Now, the reality is that most employers don’t fire people for silly reasons like not liking the sound of their voice. And most of them (but certainly not all) do warn people before they’re fired. But it’s important to understand what the law is, so that you’re not operating under a false set of assumptions.
In your case, we’re not even talking about a silly reason; productivity is a big deal. Of course, in most jobs, there are far better ways to assess productivity than to monitor employees’ computers, but you’re right to be concerned.
As for what to do from here, it sounds like you need to make some pretty significant changes in your work habits. And what’s more, you want those to be visible to your boss. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to find some very visible ways to highlight your work and productivity: turning assignments in well ahead of deadline, volunteering to take on a new project, doing a ridiculously good job on the work that’s already on your plate, and so forth. And then keep it up — you’ll need to sustain your new level of performance going forward as well; this isn’t something where you can backslide after a few weeks. Good luck!
You can read an update to this post here.