Are You Cybershopping Yourself to Unemployment?

If your employer bars any personal use of work computers, you could be fired.

Nov. 30, 2010— -- Office workers went online Monday en masse, using their employers' time to shop for everything from fruitcakes to holiday vacations, but what many such buyers fail to realize is that they may also be buying themselves a one-way ticket to the unemployment line..

Cyber Monday spending was projected to top $950 million, with 60 percent of customers shopping from work. A survey released last week estimated 70 million Americans will shop from work at some point during this holiday season.

As much as Cyber Monday is a boon to retailers, it's a headache to employers who expect workers to work.

Most employers prohibit using office time and office computers for any sort of personal use, including shopping. Employees expressly agree to those terms when they sign employment contracts.

Yet according to a recent survey by, 29 percent of workers say they have shopped online during past holidays, and 27 percent said that this year they intended to spend an hour or more; 13 percent said two hours or more.

All that shopping doesn't go unnoticed. Forty-seven percent of employers monitor employees' online activity, while 21 percent have fired employees for general Internet misuse, and 5 percent specifically for holiday shopping.

"Even if employers allow online shopping, employees should use good judgment and not abuse the privilege," said John Reed, executive director of Robert Half Technology. "Excessive shopping is a red flag that could put someone's job at risk."

Arlene Klinedinst, an attorney with Vandeventer Black LLP in Norfolk, Va., successfully defended an employer who fired a female employee for spending too much time on QVC.

"You can and should discipline people," she said. "But make sure you do it consistently."

Some employers don't enforce their own prohibitions, believing that too heavy a hand will only earn them their employees' ill will.

The dividing line between personal time and office time also has increasingly become blurred, with employees using mobile devices to do company work from home or after traditional business hours. To penalize them for the occasional online purchase would be counter-productive.

Yet just because your employer wants to curry your good will today, doesn't mean he won't want to fire you tomorrow. Any employee who shops online gives his employer an excuse to do exactly that.

Lisa Bertini, a labor law attorney in Norfolk, Va, represented a female client who became pregnant and was fired. The mom-to-be sued for wrongful termination.

Her employer, in the discovery phase of the dispute, discovered the woman had made personal use of her computer. That gave him all the justification he needed to give her the boot.

"A lot of the time, the plaintiff's argument is that they did it only during breaks or the old 'everybody else was doing it,'" Bertini said. "But in fact, she'd signed a mini-contract saying she would use the Internet only for business. An employer can fire you for breaking it."

The case was settled out of court.

Kathy Carrier, founder of Briljent LLC, a consulting firm in Fort Wayne, Ind., that designs training programs, is adamant about her own company's policy: At no time is it permissible for any one of her 200-plus employees to make any personal use whatever of work-provided communication devices, including computers and cell phones. That includes shopping.

"It's a problem that's getting worse," she said. "More and more, the Internet is becoming woven into people's lives. People are spending more time shopping, instant-messaging. We bill our clients for our employees' time. We have to be able to justify every hour."

Briljent's prohibition even extends to shopping during lunch hour or at home, if the shopping is done with company equipment.

Carrier defends that policy. The company's primary client is Medicare, and Briljent's code, she said, must be no less stringent than the feds'.

Medicare also supplied many of the computers Briljent uses.

"In all other respects, we're very generous and caring to our employees," she said. "Even though we're a small company, we provide generous health coverage, a dental plan and a 401K. If an employee is in trouble, we go out of our way to try to help."

On Internet policy, however, she is inflexible. So far, three employees have had to be fired for violations, none involving shopping. Shopping, however, would certainly be cause for termination.

Online marketing expert Robin Simkins, executive vice president of client services for Adgooroo, a Chicago company that increases search engine traffic, recommends that employers whose circumstances allow them to use a gentler touch do so.

Many dedicated employees, she said, work overtime or harder than the company manual requires. If they can maintain their productivity and still shop, why not let them? Furthermore, she said, an employer who shops online costs the company less time than one who leaves the office to shop.

"Be reasonable," she said. "Be creative. Have some fun with it."

You could, for example, she said, tell your staff: "Look, we can't condone window-shopping during business hours, but if you've shopped the Internet over the weekend, know what you want, and all you need to do is go online and pull the trigger -- fine; just be quick about it."

She floated an even warmer-hearted suggestion four years ago: Ask employees to bring you their receipts for Cyber Monday, then make matching gifts to charities. Employees thus would have an incentive to fess up and to behave responsibly.

Has anybody taken her up her up on the idea? No buyers yet, online or otherwise.