Monday, April 24, 2006

It's OK: Ignore Your Boss, Surf the 'Net

Things sure have changed since the years when I was a full-time W-2 employee.

Saying surfing the web is equivalent to reading a newspaper or talking on the phone, an administrative law judge has suggested that only a reprimand is appropriate as punishment for a city worker accused of failing to heed warnings to stay off the Internet.

I'm not saying the guy should have been fired (how do I know what his overall work record is or whether his activities interfered with either his productivity or quality of output?). But, wow! When did it become OK to read a newspaper or just chat away on the telephone on company time? And not OK for a boss to tell you to knock it off with the expectation that you'd have to comply?

Call me old-fashioned, but something sounds cock-eyed about that.

I grant you, the last full-time employee job I had (as opposed to the many times since when I've worked full-time on a consultant basis at a client site), reading newspapers for a purpose and spending lots of time on the phone was part of the job, so maybe that's easy for me to say. You could call that an upside of being a journalist, but then again, you could also call it a downside.

That's sure not how it worked in any of the other jobs I've held, though. (Even in consulting and free-lance work, you still have to watch it, believe me: yeah, there's more freedom, but then there's a lot more insecurity and risk on a constant basis in working on an "at-their-pleasure" basis. A lack of guarantees and no sense of entitlement tends to clarify one's thinking powerfully.)

In his decision, Spooner wrote: "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 added: "For this reason, city agencies permit workers to use a telephone for personal calls, so long as this does not interfere with their overall work performance. Many agencies apply the same standard to the use of the Internet for personal purposes."

I'm missing something in this reasoning. What does the fact that someone does or uses something in his or her personal life, frequently or not, have to do with whether he or she can do it at work regardless of a supervisor's wishes?

I do get the bit about whether the activity interferes with general work performance. But isn't that subjective? Do employees get to decide that now? Or is the key here that we're talking about a government employee? (A union employee? The article doesn't say.)

Now that I think about it, maybe things really have changed that much. It's not unusual at all, these days, to stand at a retail counter while a clerk yaks it up on a personal call or to a friend who's stopped by in person. Or to wait for the attention of a gas-attendant or office worker while he or she finishes reading the newspaper, typing something into a Blackberry or surfing the web on a cell-phone.

Maybe that judge is just reflecting a general attitude. Maybe he's exactly right.

In which case, something's definitely gone wrong.