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Sunday, December 03, 2006

Internet Addiction and Wrongful Termination

In a story dated 11/20/06, InformationWeek published the article, “IBM Worker Says He Was Fired For Chat Room Addiction”. A former worker for IBM was suing the firm for wrongful termination because he claimed he was addicted to online chat rooms.

James Pacenza admits that he spent time in chat rooms during work hours, but claims his behavior is the result of an addiction and that IBM should have offered him counseling instead of firing him. Mr. Pacenza is seeking more that $5 million in punitive and compensatory damages.

IBM is expected to file a motion to dismiss the case, but this raises a significant concern for other firms who may be at legal risk and liability because of the Internet. As Internet addiction gains legitimacy as a clinical syndrome or addictive disorder, companies who provide access to the Internet may be at risk for similar wrongful termination claims.

Whether you agree that Internet addiction is protected mental disability or not, the case opens the door for potential liability. It is foreseeable that other similar cases could be launched creating new problems and costs for employers.

While the research in the employment field has focused on misuse or abuse of the Internet in the workplace, little has specifically looked at the potential for addiction and how this impacts employers. Questions such as, “How do firms protect themselves from similar wrongful termination claims?” “How do firms define employee Internet abuse?” and “What are the best practices to implement policies and procedures regarding employee Internet addiction?” arise.

It would be prudent for firms to examine the option of rehabilitation, if warranted, rather than termination for workers, not only because of the legal ramifications, but for the practical benefits. Workers who are terminated create poor employee morale and increase other costs for firms such as job turnover, recruitment of new workers, production delays, and training costs.

Beyond offering counseling for Internet-addicted employees, best practices for businesses should also be applied such as job redesign, sensitivity training for employees on responsible Internet use, and collaborative sessions with managers, predominantly from IT and HR to work together on appropriate policies, monitoring strategies, violation procedures, and training.
Linking these issues together, companies will be in a better place to protect themselves and address the practical employment issues that surface from such wrongful termination claims. Employers can also work with EAPs to help develop appropriate referral systems for employees suspected of being addicted to the Internet and examine how to monitor employees who may be at risk for developing such problems.