Knowing your right to surf at work

You might want to check your employment contract before sending out that tweet about your lunch.

Knowing your right to surf at work
Photo: DPA

Banning personal Internet usage at firms is becoming taboo, but one law firm is warning that this leaves the company open to potential pitfalls.

Philipp Byers, a labour lawyer for the law firm Lutz Abel told Die Welt paper on Monday that a complete ban is the best way to protect companies from employees abusing employee time in favour of personal computer usage. 

Employers must follow very strict rules about how they monitor an employee's communications at work. The German Supreme Court has said that a systematic monitoring is not allowed as it infringes on the employee's right to privacy. Unless there is a ban explicitly stated by the company, the Telecommunications Act and the Information and Communication Services Act apply to protect the employee's online activities from being watched.

Most firms are reluctant to ban personal Internet usage on company equipment for fear of damaging the company's reputation as an employer. 

But even if you can surf Facebook as much as you want at the workplace, there are still ways a company can terminate an employment contract because of Internet use. However, as there are no laws in this area, most cases of Internet misuses decided on by the courts are done so case by case.

Byers says that if the company's security is jeopardized by an employee's personal Internet use or if an employee is found downloading pirated content, it can be immediate grounds for dismissal, no matter what an employment contract allows for.

In Schleswig-Holstein, courts recently decided in favour of a firm who fired an employee who had worked for the company for 21 years because of his personal Internet use. The courts decided that 17,000 private files on the employee's work-issued computer indicated that the employee's personal Internet use would not be acceptable to an employer. The employment termination was seen as justifiable despite the fact that the employee had not been warned to amend his conduct and there were no limits to personal Internet usage outlined in the employment contract.

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