can my boss monitor my computer and then fire me for being unproductive?

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.

{ 131 comments… read them below }

  1. Wilton Businessman*

    “Personal Computer” doesn’t mean it’s yours to do with what you please. fb is off limits at work. Personal email is off limits at work. Anything not related to work is off limits at work. I don’t want you sucking up all my bandwidth because you wanted to see the latest squirrel-on-bicycle video.

    Will you get fired for it? Probably not.

    You won’t have to worry about such things if you conduct yourself in a professional manner.

        1. Cindy Lou Who*

          Who thinks Wilton Businessman would be the FUNNEST GUY EVER TO WORK FOR??? I know I sure do! lol.

          1. Jamie*

            I actually do think he would be really fun to work for! The bonus being even in lousy weather I bet you could dial out from work…something tells me there are landlines :).

    1. Long Time Admin*

      “Will you get fired for it?”

      At my company, YES. All of this is written out in our Policies & Procedures Manual. People do get canned here on a regular basis because they decide the rules don’t apply to them.

      And if your company doesn’t have the policies written out, it’s still a stupid thing to do.

      If you do change your ways, your boss will notice. If you don’t you’ll likely get fired, or be included in the next round of layoffs.

    2. John F*

      Used corp computer and sent one personal e-mail…worried that it is being flagged and I could get in trouble…could you advise

  2. Katy O*

    I’m shocked that people still don’t understand how being an adult and having a job works! This is the problem with society today. People feel they are entitled to everything while giving nothing and that they can do whatever they want. Sad!

    1. Ask a Manager reader*

      I’m not necessarily disagreeing with you, but I didn’t think OP was acting entitled to anything. He (or she) acknowledged that his manager had reason to be monitoring him because lately he’d been pretty unproductive, while still meeting his deadlines.

      While no one should really be using their work computers or employer’s time to be futzing around, I’m pretty sure we all do it a bit. I mean, I’m on now. Posting.

      I justify it because, while I feel like previous generations “wasted time” around the water cooler trading bad jokes or talking about television from the previous night, I prefer to read the news or peruse ask a manager to unwind a bit.

      1. Wilton Businessman*

        If you have to justify it, you know it’s not right but you are trying to make yourself feel better about wasting your employers time.

      2. Liz in a library*

        I felt that the OP was pretty transparent, too. I also think that it is pretty obvious there should be no expectation of privacy on work computers.

        Related to your second though, my boss considers my reading Ask a Manager to be a useful professional development activity and encourages it! I love my boss. ;)

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I read it as the OP probably doing the bare minimum, but not much beyond that — would would be a reason for the manager to be less than pleased.

        1. Mike C.*

          Yeah, I agree there.

          I’m just not sure if being unproductive means “I’m not doing my best work” or “I have a lot of free time when my work is done”.

          In any case, there are plenty of ways to spend that time which don’t result in potential firing.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I was trying to think of the last time my answer to “can they do this?” was “no” and couldn’t come up with one! I know there have been a couple though — but they are few and far between.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Not necessarily. Just because some people are bad managers doesn’t mean that we should legislate things like what is and isn’t fireable. (And the last thing we need is to end up with all workplaces functioning like the federal government, where almost no one gets fired, many people do the bare minimum because they know it’s so hard to enforce any consequences, and any personnel action is a mess of red tape.)

        1. Mike C.*

          Here’s something I don’t get though: there are plenty of nations like Germany, Norway and Australia that have much more rigorous laws about hiring and firing and despite that additional red tape have robust economies and strong rates of entrepreneurship. Norway’s per capita rate of business creation is actually higher than the United States.

          So if that’s the case, how are they able to do it without the crazy “Anything/nothing goes” attitude here in the United States? Link for story on Norway specifically:

            1. Mike C.*

              That data set isn’t useful in the slightest to what I’m talking about. Why did you bring it up without even bothering to link suicide rates to employment laws? Maybe we should talk about average yearly rainfall instead.

              1. Matt*

                You know your right!!!! I bet it is all a caused by the rain. It makes the employee have to stay inside at work, rather than sneak out and play golf. and that depresses them and they kill themselves.

                Happy now, I linked them for you. :)

                Your welcome.

                1. Nicolai*

                  I assure you, if you think the Norwegian fish has problems. You don’t even want to know what the fish from Thailand contains :)

                  The only source I am allowed to give you is my experience, my job is to analyze (mostly) fish. I assure you the Norwegian fish holds around top 10 highest standard in the world.
                  No matter what the Russians say ;)

                  If just humerous – haha. ^^

          1. Jamie*

            Something to keep in mind is that Norway has a population of just under 5 million people.

            That’s .25 of the population of the NY metropolitan area…it’s less than the Chicago metro area.

            What may work (and I’m certainly no expert on European economies) for a small and relatively homogeneous population, can’t be applied to a nation as large and diverse as ours. There’s no way to micromanage on that scale.

            1. Mike C.*

              Why is this?

              There are tiny companies and large multi-nationals in Norway (as well as the other nations mentioned), and there are plenty of other countries that operate this way. Practically every member of the OECD has much stricter laws regarding employment (or they are looser and have a significant social safety net – I believe it’s Denmark or Belgium where this is the case).

              Why does a population have to be homogenous or a nation have to be small for these laws to work? I mean lets face it, the United States is a nation where we borrowed from everyone else, so why stop now? ;)

              1. FrauTech*

                I can’t back this up with evidence because I can’t remember where I read it (so obviously naysayers can disregard) but I read somewhere that more homogenous nations are more willing to pay higher taxes and support government programs.

                The unproven theory behind this correlation is that the more you see the general population as “like you” the more you are willing to have food stamps for when they go hungry, unemployment insurance for when they lose their jobs, and national health insurance for when people “like you” need healthcare. Obviously in the US we are all unique snowflakes. Even federal employees and teachers and union members are not “like us”. That’s why a lot of nice things in European nations won’t necessarily translate here.

          2. fposte*

            I think these systems aren’t independent of national culture, though; a Norwegian system in the U.S. isn’t going to work the same. way. And honestly, the reliance on the workplace for health care coverage–something that doesn’t happen in those countries–is such a major player in the whole dynamic that it pretty much makes real large-scale replication of that kind of system impossible.

            1. Mike C.*

              That’s a great point. It forces people to stick around in jobs they hate and discourages folks from starting new businesses.

  3. thecelt*

    “I have been unproductive and wasting a lot of time lately, but I am meeting deadlines and he hasn’t said anything about it.”

    I don’t understand this mindset. I’m the type that abhors being unproductive, and I would always look for more work, including asking my supervisor for more projects and/or taking time for a good look at my job duties and finding a way to make them easier/faster/better. I left to go back to school, and I am hearing complaints from former coworkers that the new person in my old position is “bored” all the time and “has nothing to do.” I cannot imagine how this is, considering how much work there is to do in that place and considering how overworked some of the other staff are. I was always willing to pitch in a helping hand when I had a spare moment, but it seems that others find “downtime” at work to mean “time for me to do personal business at work.” Meeting deadlines and getting your work done gets you nowhere if you aren’t willing to take the initiative. (I was rewarded with an unexpected pay increase in the middle of the fiscal year after working there for several months, solely due to job performance and the fact that the administration had taken notice of how much I had transformed my position into something they hadn’t believed it could be. The person before me quit the job when they added to one of her job duties that she felt was “undoable” and “unfair.” I did the basic job with ease AND added other duties to the position within the first three months. Apparently the difference was that I didn’t feel the need to call all my friends on the phone and chat all day long instead of doing my work.)

    I wonder if this is the same person who, on another blog, felt that doing the bare minimum meant she was doing excellent work instead of just average work. Average doesn’t mean bonuses and advancement and pay increases. Excellent does. (Same as it should be in schools: Excellent means going above and beyond and should earn an A. Doing the bare minimum simply means you’re average and are doing what everyone else is doing/is expected to do.)


    1. Mike C.*

      For those that complain about being bored at work, you might want to read up on this. I’m not sure it applies to the OP, but it applies to many.

      As for the OP, we really don’t know the nature of the job. There are plenty of jobs where the work is non-constant (Firefighters come to mind – after equipment is maintained they often do recreational activities until their next call) or this person could simply be working faster than the boss expected and is using the free time for personal business.

      There are plenty of places where “taking the initiative” or “asking for more work” are never rewarded. I don’t know if it applies here, but we all know those situations where it’s better to shut up rather than stick out. On the other hand, where it works it works well.

      1. Wilton Businessman*

        I just can’t understand the “bare minimum” mentality. If you’re getting your work done faster than your employer expects, you need to let them know so they can either give you a raise or a promotion.

        1. Natalie*

          Well, getting a raise doesn’t exactly help with the “not enough to do” problem. A promotion could, but what if there’s no upward place to go?

        2. Dawn*

          A raise or promotion just because you get your work done faster than others? I doubt it. If I’m giving someone a raise or promotion it’s because they bring something to the table their coworkers don’t, like new ideas that can streamline the business, strategic thinking, etc. Just because they get the work done faster than everyone else doesn’t mean it’s accurate or complete. It could be riddled with mistakes or something important was overlooked.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            If someone is getting their work accomplished faster than everyone else, and it’s done well, and they’re therefore able to take on new work and do it well too, then I’d definitely consider a raise or promotion. That’s someone who I want to retain.

            1. Dawn*

              In that case, yes I’d want to retain them, but not if they are cutting corners to get the work done. To me it sounded like Wilton Businessman was saying if someone gets the work done faster, period, they deserve a raise or promotion.

              1. Bohdan Rohbock*

                I would think the default for getting a raise or promotion would be that the work is of a good quality. Getting the work done ‘faster’ but of terrible quality isn’t really getting the work done.

                Also, getting raises or promotions simply because of productivity improvements is rare, at least on a long-term basis. After an initial honeymoon period ever increasing productivity becomes the expectation and most managers will not value it as highly. One reason why people move around, doing so increases the honeymoon.

              2. Wilton Businessman*

                If someone is getting their work done to the same quality I expect faster then I expect, you bet I want to reward them.

        3. Mike C.*

          If my workplace were more of a meritocracy I would agree with you. Regardless of how the business is doing, all I hear is “the economy is terrible, you’re terrible for wanting more, you should be happy doing the work of two or three people”. Later when I meet those expectations I’m told I can’t be promoted because “I’m too efficient, and who would they get to replace me?”

          Would you go the extra mile in an environment like that?

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            No question that’s demoralizing … but I still might anyway, because having an awesome reputation among people who see your work (coworkers, clients, vendors, whoever) can be key in helping you leave that role for something much better at some point in the future!

            1. thecelt*

              Exactly. I’ve been in work situations where I’ve been told by coworkers and direct supervisors that my work was excellent, but the managers were condescending and rude and just plain mean for no reason at times. There was no chance for promotion and no chance for a raise (“We can’t hire anyone else if we move you, and you are already doing the work of three people”), and I really was doing the work of three people, since there were three of us when I started but within a month there was only me. (Long story, but the office was given the okay from the head office to hire someone due to the great increase in workload that they’d been under for about a year already. The previous two were gone within a month for different reasons but both without notice to the office, and the head office refused to allow any more new hires. “You just hired someone” was their repeated response.) I worked my tail off anyway, and it led to better things from an outside source who was associated with our office. He saw how hard I was willing to work and offered me a job. He admitted that he knew how bad the working conditions were in that office. He explained that he hired me because he wanted someone that had a good work ethic, and if I could maintain a good work ethic in THAT particular situation, then I would more than likely have an even better work ethic for a good and supportive boss.

              Unfortunately, I know doesn’t always work out that way, but it does sometimes. My general work ethic is to do my best, no matter what. My work ethic doesn’t take into consideration the work ethics (or lack thereof) of others, since I only have to answer to myself before I go to sleep at night. It’s just part of who I am. (And believe me, I’ve been in a couple of pretty demoralizing job situations that I’d rather not rehash much of. Let’s just say that eight other people tried one of those jobs out after I quit within a two-year period, and none of them lasted under that boss. My coworker left a month after I did, and her job turned over seven times in the same timeframe. For a professional, salaried, fairly well-paying job, I’d guess that’s pretty high turnover — two positions turning over 15 times in two years. After learning the average for my old position was going at three months, I felt pretty good being able to stick it out for six months before leaving.)

          2. Wilton Businessman*

            Only you can do the best job you can. If you settle for mediocrity, you will be stuck where you are forever.

    2. Jamie*

      I would love to have you as a co-worker…I agree with you wholeheartedly.

      It seems like there are are two clearly divided camps:
      1. If I get my work done faster than expected I’ve done my job and the time is my own (either to slack at work or leave early). I believe this is based on the mindset that people are paid to accomplish a specific set of goals – regardless of the time it takes.
      2. If I get my work done faster than expected, I should find some more work to do because I’m being paid for a full day. This is how I see it – and the upside is when you are offering to help you can offer in areas that interest you and projects that can advance your career.

      Results Only Work Environment works when there are measurable results, like sales, where you either did it or not. Most office and managerial jobs don’t function like that – there is always more to be done than hours in the day, so doing the bare minimum won’t endear you to your co-workers.

      Besides – doesn’t the time go much faster when you’re busy?

      1. Mike C.*

        That’s a rather fair assessment of the different philosophies, and I can see that both have their place. I think I’m just remembering times in school where I finished work early and was just given ungraded “busy work” to do instead. I made sure I had a bunch of books to read after that, but it felt insulting that my reward for finishing work early was more work.

        1. Jamie*

          I think a lot of us remember some busy work – but if that happens enough the teachers notice and advance the level of work you’re doing…to maintain the challenge.

          Applying that analogy to the workplace works – I’d rather do busy work a couple of times until the powers that be notice I am capable of more and give me more challenging work than stagnate.

          1. thecelt*

            Exactly, Jamie. I also think that in grade school, the mindset is to keep the kids busy in order to keep them out of trouble more than to just keep them from looking bored. If a teacher in high school, say, is assigning no-grade busy work, then the teacher has a classroom management problem. (I have been a teacher in both the junior high/middle school and high school levels.)

            I’ll say that I kept myself busy in high school as well. I petitioned the school to create my own independent study in a class that was moving EXTREMELY slowly for me. I was thus able to work alongside the teacher to create a specialized advanced-level class just for me to be up to what I wanted to learn the subject matter more efficiently. Doing that also allowed me to skip an entire year’s worth of classes in that area when I got my first degree, because I was more advanced and able to test out of the two freshman-level classes.

            Jamie, I think I’d like to have you as a coworker as well! I rarely meet others who have a “I’m being paid to work x hours, so I should actually work the entire time I’m being paid for.” I had one coworker come out and tell me that she had already finished all the work she absolutely had to do for the day, so she was fine standing around my desk chatting with all the people who came around (and bothering me). I finally told her that if she felt that way, she should just go home. Her response? “I can’t do that! If I leave early, I won’t be paid for the rest of the day. I’m expected to work until 5:00 today!” Yeah, so please go do that…

      2. Erica B*

        My job seems similar to this. some days I have down time, some days I am straight out busy. It fluctuates, but is a consistent pattern month to month, which allows me to plan how I need to get all my duties completed in a timely fashion in my time available. i have a bunch of different duties (as a lab tech in an Environmental Engineering lab at a university) and depending on the day depends on the work load. Sometimes I am so caught up and ahead that there is literally no work to be done, however the next day if the stars in are proper alignment and the wind blows from the the north (j/k) I may be extremely busy for the next 2 weeks. so yes sometimes I find myself on the internet. and as for asking for extra work? I have done that with the response “I wish there was something to give you”. it’s not all so cut and dry. I think we need more details from the OP.

    3. Anonymous*

      Some people just accomplish tasks faster and this can lead to boredom. In a previous position, I heard quite a lot about my predecessor and how overwhelmed she was. I did the same amount of work and then some and I was simply bored out of my skull. I left for a more interesting/better paying position. After I left I heard about how my replacement was also overwhelmed. I suspect these two would be overwhelmed anywhere.

      1. thecelt*

        Sometimes it’s laziness, too, though. For example, I keep hearing complaints of how my replacement tends to cut corners to get things done more quickly. (Note, this isn’t just finding a better way to do something to get it done faster. This is doing a poor job to get it done and out of the way — apparently so they can then complain that they are bored.) There is no reason to be bored at my previous position, even if you are doing just the basic job without adding on what I would do to help others. There is enough work to do, even if you aren’t a super-fast worker. The reason that the new person is “bored” is that the new worker cuts a lot of corners when it comes to the job, which causes problems (and more work) for coworkers who have to fix the problems the cut corners create. For example, for a mailing going out to all clients, the worker was told to create one envelope label for each address instead of one per client. To do this, the person printed all the labels and then put three or four on one envelope if three or four people lived at that address. Instead of doing a quick sort by street address and deleting the extra labels while adding those names to one label, this person just stuck all the labels on the one envelope to mail out.

        Seriously. How would you feel about a business, if you received an envelope with several labels on it (all with the same address but different names)? A business whose focus is supposed to be attention to detail?

        While some would be overwhelmed anywhere, some are bored because, while they are completing their tasks on time, they are doing a shoddy job of it in the process. I’m not saying the OP isn’t doing as good of a job as she could, but I know that sometimes with some people that can be a problem.

      2. Bohdan Rohbock*

        It is not uncommon for people to claim to be busy or overwhelmed as a defense from getting more work assigned.

        Paying people for their time has a whole host of drawbacks, but it’s simple. Paying people to accomplish specific objectives takes substantially more management effort and can result in employees feeling like they are in a more equitable arrangement. That often yields better work.

    4. Cassie*

      I don’t like being unproductive either and I use downtime to follow up on pending issues or catching up on filing. And though I don’t volunteer for projects, I’m the go-to person in our office so I usually get roped into other people’s projects. I sit in a wide-open cubicle so I can’t exactly sit there and veg out.

      My coworkers, on the other hand, constantly complain about being super busy, yet they find plenty of time to socialize – today’s topic was The Bachelorette season finale. In general, they do get work done, but it takes them more time than it should. And they make mistakes. Yet they push for pay increases and the manager always supports them. One coworker wants an increase because she’s been here 3 years and hasn’t had one. Another person wants to make X dollars per year and insists on an increase – despite getting some pretty bad feedback. (She disagrees with the negative feedback, btw – surprise surprise). The general mentality is that if you do okay work, you should get a raise because you’ve been here x number of years. In my opinion, if you do mediocre work, your reward is not a raise – the reward is that they don’t show you the door and you stay gainfully employed!

      Re: personal use of computers – I work at a university and our computers are connected to the internet. I use the internet probably several times a day: some of our databases are web-based, but I also have to look up information for my bosses (or, in some cases, troubleshooting my bosses’ computers or iPhones). I may check the news throughout the day, but my personal use of the internet is limited. I know others will use Facebook or do online shopping, but I have a computer at home – I can do that after work at home. I actually think (for me) being allowed to go online whenever, un-monitored (granted – there is a campus “acceptable use policy”) actually makes the internet less “enticing”, so to speak. I remember when I was a student worker (and I shared a cubicle with my boss), I would take any opportunity possible to go on the internet and check email.

    5. Adam V*

      The company can affect that as well – my coworker and I, after working late nights all weekend, came in Monday to find an email saying “if every single bug isn’t fixed for this afternoon’s demo, someone’s getting fired”.

      It’s incredibly hard to justify going “above and beyond” to yourself (or your wife) when the company makes it clear that it’s not going to be appreciated.

    6. Liz in a library*

      I think in most workplaces there will always be things to do. There just tend to be those people who will find them and those who won’t.

      Because a lot of our work is focused around people walking through the door, we periods of real downtime. When we ask people in interviews to describe what they do at work when all their work is done, it quickly becomes clear who falls into each category. Hopefully, this will help us bring on more people with your mindset.

  4. Jane Atkinson*

    I’m not in the US, so please read my comment with this in mind, but in many places, an employer is responsible if material on work computers causes offence to coworkers or clients (and no doubt others as well).

    If I was an employer, I’d want to be very sure that I wasn’t unknowingly liable for sexual harrassment or something equally reputation-damaging and expensive. I think that’s a very compelling reason for monitoring what employees are doing with work computers.

    1. Grace*

      @Jane Atkinson,
      I’m in the US and employers here can be held legally liable for unlawful things on employees’ computers that creates a hostile work environment, sexual discrmination/harassment, etc.
      Case in point: A group of librarians (here in the US) sued because library patrons were permitted to see p-o-r-n (I had
      to spell that out so it would post properly because of an internet blocker) on library computers.

  5. Jamie*

    Absolutely your employer can monitor your usage of company equipment and the network. It’s their stuff, and it’s their dollars paying the IT to clean up the mess when people let ugly little malware into the company equipment.

    Best practices for an IT department is to have a written policy so you know what you can and cannot do online – no user is allowed access to my network without signing mine. I do it because I think it makes sense to give fair warning that there are parameters, and that I monitor.

    What determines excessive personal use is between the employee and their manager – I don’t manage other departments, just pull the logs when requested and I monitor for security threats. People with bad surfing habits will be routed to 127.0.0 pronto…because I don’t like being here until midnight searching for rootkits.

    Point is, I have a written policy to be fair and give notice – not because we have to. As far as I’m concerned people should assume there is no right to privacy at work, with the exception of personal information and the bathroom.

    1. Anonymous*

      People with bad surfing habits will be routed to 127.0.0 pronto…because I don’t like being here until midnight searching for rootkits.

      I thought that fdisk could find and eliminate rootkits unattended?

  6. Joey*

    Talk to your co workers to see if they’ve done the same. If they have you’ll probably get a slap on the wrist. If you’re the sole offender tuck your tail between your legs and get back to work.

  7. Anonymous*

    I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, I believe that a break now and again to send a personal email or catch up on the news is good and healthy. On the other hand, I once worked for a university where several of my colleagues seemed to believe that their jobs were to play on facebook, chat online about their pets, and watch You Tube videos. I often ended up picking up the slack for these loafers and to say I resented it would be an understatement. So, I think some monitoring for excessive and inappropiate use is a good thing but it is important to have some flexibility on personal use.

    As for the legality of this….of course they can fire you! They can fire you for just about anything! If you think your computer use might pose a problem then work to change it.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I agree. A personal email here and there, a quick glance at the news — all fine. What I think crosses the line is staying logged into Facebook and Gmail all day (even if you’re not using it all day, being constantly accessible there/distracted by any new message notifications that pop up is contrary to the spirit of your employment agreement), IM’ing with friends, or other stuff that takes you “out” of work for more than a few minutes total during the course of the day.

      1. Wilton Businessman*

        Goes back to common sense workplace guidelines about telephone usage. If you are working late and have to call your SO and let them know, by all means do it. If little Johnny is sick and has to come home from school, take the call. But don’t expect to be BSing with your buddy from California on the phone for two hours at a stretch and expect me to pick up the LD charge.

  8. Emily Litella*

    At my workplace, the personnel computer doesn’t even have access to the internet. It is used only for prospective employees to fill out questionnaires or for newly hired folks to do some basic video training. Don’t the people in the human resources office wonder why the same person would be at the personnel computer for so many hours a day, day-in and day-out? I say the problem is with the HR employees who oversee the personnel computer. They’re the lazy ones with a capital LZ!

  9. OP*

    Thanks for posting and responding so quickly, and thanks everyone for the additional comments. Just wanted to clear up a few things:

    1 – I am doing the bare minimum at work and using my free time to play around on the internet. This stems from me being so unhappy with my job. I have been actively searching for a new job and I have met with my boss regarding my frustrations, but nothing has changed. I need the job I have because I need to pay my bills, so I dont want to lose it before I have another one lined up.

    2 – I do understand that I have not been doing my job, I have been caught, and can be rightfully fired for it. I was hoping that because we don’t have any written employment agreement or any office policies that that could be used as a sort of defence to get a warning rather than be fired after one incident.

    3 – I understand that it is my bosses computer and he ahs the right to monitor it, and I would assume that it would just be for the purposes of knowing if your employees are wasting time or selling company secrets. The issue that I have is, the tracking software that was installed takes screen shots every few seconds, records keystrokes and saves emails, attachments and chats. So even if I was a model employee and needed to do some banking over my lunch break my boss would have a screen shot of all my bank accounts and the keystrokes would record my password as I enter it, does he have the right to all that personal info, just because I used the office services to access the net. I’m pretty sure the answer is technically yes, but it just doesn’t seem right.

    I guess all I can do now is straighten up and fly right, and hope that is enough to make up for my poor performance and attitude.

    Thanks again.

    1. Matt*

      Unfortunately for you, courts in the us have been pretty consistent that anything you do on your companies PC is fair game. That is why you never do anything that you would not want your boss to see, such as checking your bank account. Get a smart phone or a laptop if you want to do that, do not use your company PC.

        1. Matt*

          Almost without exception, courts have ruled that you have no expectation of privacy at work. To the point that a company in NJ went into a locked office, pulled the hard drive with evidence of wrong doing without telling the employee and turned it over to the FBI WITHOUT A SEARCH WARRANT and the judges would not suppress evidence stating there is NO expectation of privacy when you are using the equipment of the company to conduct your personal business.

          You can attempt to bluff, but most likely if you fight on the grounds of expectation of privacy you will lose.

        1. Matt*

          Yes, Ontario actually had a case this year that tackled the right to privacy at work and granted significantly more right than what US courts have been willing to concede.

          1. Matt*

            See R. v. Cole, 2011 ONCA 218


            This is the Ontario case. Teacher was allowed to take laptop home and use for personal use. School seized information. Was ruled since it was said he could use for personal use and had control of the hardware, he had a reasonable expectation of privacy. Had the school had control of the equipment, say a computer in a classroom, the expectation would have been less.

        2. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Yeah, I have no idea what the laws on this are outside of the U.S. That said, I imagine my advice about what to do now would still be the way to proceed.

    2. fposte*

      I don’t know the actual law, but I think it’s actually pretty reasonable to say that if it’s on company time and involving company resources, it’s the company’s business, no matter how personal you may want it to be. Think of it as borrowing somebody else’s car or cell phone–you’re then not in a position to complain if they looked at your call record or know where you went. You’re not talking about using your computer at work; you’re talking about using *their* computer at work.

      That’s a separate matter from whether or not it’s appropriate to be doing personal things on work time, which I think is more complicated. But I honestly don’t see any moral reason why it’d be wrong for them to know what you do on their computers during the hours they pay you for. The way they went about it is a little unnerving (BTW, do you know if they did this to everybody’s computer, or was this a specific focus on you?), but, again, it’s their computer and they get to do what they want on it.

    3. Anonymous*

      Get an iPad and do your banking on that! or something similar.

      I completely understand where you are coming from. When I worked at a large Corporation they would do the same thing, it would just capture your screen every 5 min or so. They also had the ability to record all of your phone calls.
      The phone calls would be played back to you for training and your screen would be visible too! They said it was so they could see how you work your screen while on the phone. So it would capture your screen on the phone and record the phone call, and your computer activity for that duration.
      I was always so paranoid!

      Just lay low and look for something else. Worst case if they call you in, let them know you have changed and show them how your productivity has gone up.

  10. Anonymous*

    This is why I love this blog!

    Alison, you give straight up good advice, useful information and your writing style kicks butt. I really enjoyed reading this post, including the comments, for the same reasons I love Judge Judy. I learned something concrete, I heard other peoples input and you stuck it to the OP on how to be a good person.

    Oh, and with your help I got a job I really like recently after being unemployed for an ungodly amount of time and after a few stints in professions I HATED (sales). AND.. you also quickly responded to two of my emails in the past month when I was pestering you (sorry!). Thank you, thank you, thank you!! Seriously, you rock.


  11. Maddy*

    Other than signing the computer policy agreement, how would you know your computer is being monitored?

    1. OP*

      When I returned from holidays and started up my computer and started google chrome they left tabs open describing how to disable symantec virus and windows defender so that they would not detect the installation of the monitoring software.


        1. Jamie*

          Not necessarily. You need to add exceptions to the anti-virus not to much that it won’t detect it, as it will allow it.

          They may not have been trying to hide it.

          1. fposte*

            Ah, okay. I’d actually prefer that this be something they weren’t trying to hide, because if they’re doing it openly, they’re wanting to change the behavior, not trying to catch an employee.

            1. Matt*

              It is possible too, though devious, that they knew what the OP was doing and brought those pages up to make it LOOK like they were watching OP. And there may actually be no key logger on the PC.

              Devious, but a good way to change someone without having to put out too much money.

              1. fposte*

                Of course, it’s cheaper still just to say “Hey, you’re spending too much time on the internet. If you need more to do, we’ve got plenty–let your supervisor know.” But some people will go to considerable lengths to avoid being direct, I guess.

              2. Maddy*

                Yea, a lot of managers do not like confrontation. My boss’s boss would go around talking about his employees, but would never directly go to them and say “Hey, you need to fix such and such…” Yup, instead he’d go around and tell everyone how bad and horrible this worker is- down to the very detail of their personal life. How can they improve themselves if they do not know what’s wrong with them.

              3. Natalie*

                Meh, if that happened to me I’d be pretty pissed about the passive aggressiveness of the entire set up. But I strongly hate that behavior, perhaps more than the average person.

    1. OP*

      Maybe I should have used the term low productivity, I was still getting work done, just not at the high level I was previously.


      1. thecelt*

        This might be why they considered monitoring you. If there is a sudden drop in productivity, the employer often wants to know why. And if you are always at your computer but not being as productive, they probably have a good idea that you’re not just spending too much time gabbing in someone else’s office and are playing around on the internet during company time.

        1. Nathan A.*

          Every work environment has a different level of what is considered “productive”, so I would not take any chances with anything that would decrease productivity especially if you are on the boss’ radar.

          I forget the saying, but it goes something like… if you are dealing with something unfamiliar with a lot of things unknown, the first step should be a cautious one.

  12. Sergey Gorbatov*

    I would analyze the situation from a purely economics perspective. An employee is rendering her time and services in exchange for money and other benefits provided by the employer. Will the employee willing to receive less compensation should she choose to arrange her personal affairs, be it personal phone calls, FB or e-mail unrelated to work duties? If the answer is “no”, all her spare time should be reallocated to doing something useful. If the answer is “yes”, strike an agreement with the employer and proceed within the clearly defined rules. The serfdom mentality of “I am meeting the deadlines” should be eradicated in the workplace in any case, so from the employer’s perspective letting go of such an employee might be the best thing to do. Regards.

  13. Erica B*

    all of this makes me realize that I am thankful for the flexibility of my work environment, even though I have the opposite of a micromanager. My boss barely manages me at all or gives me direction. A performance review? I’ve had this job over 7 years, and have NEVER had one. The only time my boss comments on my work is when something is wrong or needs fixing, which thankfully, isn’t very often. But when it does, no matter how minor, he often hangs onto it and is on you like a hawk for several days, then goes away again. We have lost many graduate students in my lab because they couldn’t handle his work style. He probably doesn’t actually realize all that I do, and doesn’t pay enough attention to my work to know if I’m busting or ass or barely working. But the hours are flexible, and it pays the bills.

    1. Erica B*

      oops.. I meant ‘busting my ass’. clearly the other sentence doesn’t make sense if I don’t type properly

  14. Anonymous*

    I will give you one more freaky story.

    A friend of mine had a fling with a coworker working at another location, they exchanged some rather racy e-mails through work, then my friend quit suddenly. Well guess what they did? They went into the server and pulled up all those e-mails!!! Everyone at that company knew what happened between them, she got a nice call from her old manager! I guess they were looking to see why she quit so suddenly…

    As for sales… I am in an environment where if you meet your quota you work hard to exceed it, so we don’t get to leave early!

  15. Karl L Hughes*

    I know a lot of people get really caught up with using or not using social media at work, but I read an interesting study pointing to the possibility that social networks actually make you MORE productive at work –

    Personally, I think companies should foster a more open and employee friendly environment. Nobody wants to live with constant stress at work.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I just don’t buy this! I’d want to see more data than just one study. In my experience, people who are actively using social media at work (when their job doesn’t involve it) are less productive. I’ve seen real differences in level of output where that seems to be a factor (and those people are often the ones who say they don’t have time to get to everything).

      1. Joey*

        Then why not just keep the focus on productivity instead of creating more unnecessary rules? Who cares how long a star employee is on facebook. If you prohibit people from getting on facebook, guess what the low performers will start using their phones to get on facebook. The point is you can’t make a low performer productive by creating this type of rule. Ultimately it’s not about how much youre on facebook it’s how much quality work you do. So the problem isn’t really facebook it’s a low amount of quality work.

        1. fposte*

          It’s not just low performers, though, or at least I don’t think so, because I’m talking about me. I have extensive LeechBlock settings to dissuade me from just falling into the black hole of the Internet (and I don’t really even do social media much–blog archives are my main kryptonite). I could go around the settings, but I don’t; the existence of even that modest barrier is extremely helpful in minimizing the “Ooh, shiny” distraction, and I don’t just go and find another way to waste time. (I do need the Internet up for work stuff, so there’s not really a turn-it-off-entirely option, either.)

        2. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Joey, I don’t think you need to have “rule” on it because that’s an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy that will deny you some flexibility when flexibility makes sense, but I do think there should be general expectations in your culture about it. Ideally you’d have a culture where abusing this would be so contrary to the culture that anyone doing it would be standing out (badly) for other reasons too.

          1. Joey*

            You know, I would have zero problem with a top performer who’s on the Internet every time I walk by as long as it’s not offensive, creating network problems, etc. In fact I would probably defend the persons usage if someone complained or wanted to take it away. My point being whether they’re expectations or rules is irrelevant. It’s about keeping my highest performers as happy as I can and showing everyone else at the end of the day it’s performance that matters.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              I think it might be a false problem, in that I don’t think you’d have a top performer who was constantly playing on the Internet. They don’t tend to go hand in hand.

      2. Jamie*

        A thousand times YES to this!

        Attention spans are finite and if you’re constantly monitoring and available to your social network you are less available for your actual work.

        There are three main issues with the personal use of computer equipment:
        1. Productivity
        2. Use of resources (bandwidth as one example)
        3. Network security

        My policy is that a certain amount of personal surfing is fine, if it’s reasonable. Use common sense. If you check the news, a blog (AAM will never be blocked as long as I’m IT here), or what have you and it’s not a time suck that’s fine. If you’re hitting questionable sites, or being sucked into Facebook, you are costing the company money.

        For me, I’m on the internet much of the day for work related reasons – and yes I take mini-breaks to check RSS for AAM and I check out BNet daily to see what’s interesting. Nothing I wouldn’t do if my boss was standing here.

        That’s a good rule of thumb, actually. If you would feel you need to minimize your screen or justify your internet use then it’s an issue. I tell new users don’t hit any site they don’t want pulled up in front of the boss and me.

        Personally, while I spend some time on non-work related stuff at work during the day (here being the lion’s share) I’m also on call 24/7 and do answer work related emails while off the clock – so I give back more uncredited time than I waste. If your usage is balanced it’s defensible – if it’s not…maybe a change is in order.

      3. Lynda*

        Keep in mind, too, that the use of work time for personal business shows a lack of motivation toward the job. If you stop unmotivated employees from being on the internet at work, you’re just going to have an unmotivated employee who’s not on the internet. Chances are, that person still won’t be productive. It’s too bad more people don’t get their motivation from enjoying the successful completion of a challenge. If everybody enjoyed work, Ta-Dah! No more personal stuff at work!

  16. Dawn*

    I am the one who monitors internet usuage at my place of employment. It’s a small place, less than 20 employees. At the end of the month I look to see who’s going where and how many times during the month they went there. If someone’s top five categories include online shopping and games, I definitely say something to his manager. If I see online shopping and games, but it’s way down on the list of categories visited, I don’t say anything. I’m a manager myself so if I see someone went on the internet to do some personal stuff, I don’t get in a huff about it unless that person is unproductive, missing deadlines, making mistakes, etc. That being said, if I see 300 Facebook hits, or they’re using 25% of the total bandwidth for the month, and the person is getting their work done fast and it’s done well, then that’s a clue the person needs more work or something more challenging.

  17. Scott Woode*

    “I have been unproductive and wasting a lot of time lately, but I am meeting deadlines and he hasn’t said anything about it.”

    This infuriates me on several levels. From the side of the employee, I can not fathom how he thinks this is permissable behavior. As someone who has been out of work since February and has yet to land a job, this lackadaisical attitude frustrates me at my core. It seems as though this person is not engaged in the work, is not happy with his place of employment, and really didn’t feel a need to change his behavior until he was “scared straight.” As someone in my position, I find this kind of attitude disrespectful (to himself, to his boss, to the hundreds of thousands of unemployed job-seekers out there). There are so many folks out there looking for work who would do almost anything to be employed again in this economy (myself included), yet so many employees of various agencies (private and public sector) have this same attitude of “do just enough to get by.” If you’re not happy with your present situation, something his behavior seems to scream to the interwebs and his manager, why not start looking elsewhere for employment and open up the position to someone who wants the job and would put their heart & soul into the work?

    I also don’t understand how a manager could let this slide. If an employee has been putting in average effort, why not address the issue? Unless the manager is also of the same mindset, something I have trouble imagining to be the case (small business/office requiring more work to stay afloat), I can’t imagine any benefit of allowing the behavior to continue.

    Overall, this post saddens me, though I do appreciate (nay, adore) AAM’s response to this particular author’s folly. Whatever happened to taking pride in your work? My only hope is that he takes AAM’s advice and either shapes up or ships out.

    1. Anonymous*

      As a manager, I don’t permit these folks to stay in their position. I gather AAM agrees that employers deserve the best employees, and the best employees deserve the best coworkers. Keep your head in the game Scott, and when you get that job you will kill it.

  18. Jo*

    I think it depends on where you work – as almost always the case. Where I work, a Fortune 100 companies which is included in the 100 best places to work, we are treated as adults. I do check personal emails and facebook at work. In fact we encourage using social media as the reality of life these days and we use FB to communicate in our department in addition to emails, IM etc.

    I did experience working in a start up company where the HR watched the clock for the people they don’t like. They check if you break for lunch (we were all exempt employees) and if we leave earlier than them. I found that to be extremely annoying and made me feel like a kid in a daycare.

  19. been there before*

    I was in the exact same position as you-except my work productivity never fell off, I just did not have enough work to fill my day. I was in a job that was well below my skill level, and once I hit my learning ceiling, I was bored out of mind. I would finish my work, with no errors, in a few hours, then nothing. I even proposed to my boss five different projects (with over 20 pages of data each)of all these projects I thought I could bring on board with my free time- and he didn’t accept one.

    When I would ask for extra work, instead of reviewing the proposals I offered and giving me the go ahead, he would tell me to dust or straight things (I was in marketing at a furniture company), then go around and critique my work. Needless to say, I was VERY unhappy in that job and spent many hours bored out of my mind on the internet. My boss then started complaining that I was somehow “cheating” and getting my work done early to “loaf around the internet”. Sigh. Find a job that can challenge you, before you get fired for shopping on Amazon.

  20. Perpetual Interviewer*

    Again – this is hilarious – you are all commenting on someone else’s productivity at work while blogging on a website you should probably not be accessing while AT work… does anyone else see the irony?

    1. thecelt*

      I MAYBE would see the irony if I were accessing this website while I was at work. (I think my comment mentions that I’m currently a full-time student for a second degree, and while I do have a part-time job, I’m perfectly capable of NOT being on the internet while I’m at it — especially as I do not have access to the internet while I’m at that position.)

      Or was this comment Socratic irony?

      1. Richard*

        Awsome I’m going for my asssocaites in culinary arts in sfcc I would like to thank you for showing our youngsters to keep going to school.

  21. Michael Armocida*

    If you are directly connected to your company’s network, or connected by a VPN, then your company can monitor all your activity. If you are a remote employee with a laptop, and you connect to the Internet through a private Internet service provider, then it’s unlikely that your company can see what you’re doing when you’re not on the VPN. Unlikely, but not impossible, the IT department can install monitoring software that will inform them of your activity when you connect to the network, or when you surrender the laptop for an upgrade or maintenance. One way around this is to create a virtual computer (make believe computer on your laptop) and use it for non-work related activities. In this manner, the company’s monitoring software can’t see what you’re doing unless they use what’s known as a key-logger. In which case, you can use a flash drive to boot your laptop into a web-OS to assure 100% privacy. Step-by-step instructions are in my book, “The PC Power Pack,” available at

  22. Andrew daves*

    Yes. Employee monitoring software’s can be implemented by companies in order to track their employee’s computer activities. One can use many software’s such as keylogger, nestersoft etc. to keep an eye on employees computers. Another option is deployment of remote support appliances from RHUB in order to monitor employee’s computer activity.

    1. John F*


      Please tell me more about corp software checking on our computers at work.

      I just sent personal e-mail from work….first time ever…will this be my demise…stressed out…will they track it? Will it show up as red flag…or do you think Iam ok

      1. Richard*

        First of all don’t take your computer to do personal business at home think outside of the box Richard sfcc in New Mexico

  23. NONAME*

    What about if you bring your computer home with you? I noticed that my work computer is far superior to the computer that I own, and wondered if I should install games on it for use at home. Any suggestions?

    1. Richard*

      Your computer from work is paid for by our Goverment and is useless to our regular lifes but they waste your hard earned dollars on crap how do you feel now?

    1. Jeremy*

      My thoughts exactly. Stop being a slacker and do your job! How can one even ask such a question? You were HIRED to do a JOB.
      What ever happened to a day’s pay for an honest day’s WORK?

  24. Richard*

    O they rip us off all dayone more message before I leave please thank your God for helping you to understand you inside of your self. I love people but do not like our Government I can’t get no one to be accountable for our children in this state Susana Martinez can’t even return a call unless you have millions of dollars for upcoming campaine. Sorry for my spelling but this makes me sick because when a child goes missing everyone cries like a bitch.

  25. me*

    My experience in working, you hurry through a job and need more work, you end up with a workforce where productive employees, (those who work at a regular pace) lose their jobs because they should work faster too.
    Remember, lots of times, particularly with newer managers or those climbing in their positions, will expect more out of employees.
    Its then all about how to save money for the company.
    Fewer hours for employees. (which helps knock off benefits too) and overworked, which by the way, they do not do in europe.

  26. me*

    That was way before my time and way before your time too.
    Is there anything you could learn from a guy like him?

Comments are closed.