why do old people run everything?
March 17, 2009 8:18 AM   Subscribe

Am I employed to complete an agreed upon set of tasks or for my time? Building off of that answer can I be fired for being too efficient? Details inside.

First of all, IANAL, YANAL, YANML and all those caveats.

Second, I'm in Ohio if it matters.


The first question here is more a "larger issue" kind of thing; When someone agrees to be employed by a company in a salaried position is the understanding that you are being engaged by said company to complete a task, for your time or both? Is there any legal framework or guidance about this question on either a federal or state level?

With that in mind, this is my explicit question: I am an overachiever. I work fast. When I took over my current role from the previous person who had it I took what was broken/non-functional and made it great in a short period of time. Not only do I do more than the previous person (lots more) but I do it in far less time. My superiors acknowledge that I'm doing a great job with above average raises, great reviews,etc.
My problem is a surfeit of time. I get all my stuff done and then there's nothing left to do.. so I browse the net. This is more or less frowned on, but not explicitly forbidden. The handbook says that some personal use is acceptable. My bosses unofficial stance on my "excessive" level of use is "don't get caught." This is problematic due to a number of factors, but the main one is traffic outside my cube and no way to really disguise what I'm doing.
So my question is this- can someone who everyone acknowledges is a great employee in official documents (reviews) be fired because they have time on their hands and browse the web when they've been asked not to for lack of anything else to do? If it does happen, is there any legal recourse? This doesn't seem to quite be wrongful termination to me, and this is an at-will state.
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (32 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
This kind of question comes up a lot! I think people don't understand that in most cases, in the US, an employer *doesn't need a reason* to fire you. Assuming you are not a member of a union or have some weird kind of contract, you can be fired for pretty much anything (except your race or religion or other very specific factors). The only potential question is, if you get fired, whether you were fired "for cause" and whether you're eligible for unemployment--that can slightly trickier.

You can be fired for browsing the web or going home early or doing such a good job all your co-workers are jealous.
posted by phoenixy at 8:26 AM on March 17, 2009

this is an at-will state

Then the answer to " Can I be fired for..." is YES. You need to find a way to get busy or look busy. Take on some new responsibilities or check out that "professional white background" I've heard so much about.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:27 AM on March 17, 2009

You can get fired for anything that's not discriminatory! Don't browse the net, bring e-books in on a flash drive and read those from an offline browser or word doc.

Seriously in this economy you should do everything you can to keep your job.
posted by By The Grace of God at 8:27 AM on March 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

If your boss considers your internet browsing as "excessive" then you have an issue. Why would you not just bother them for more work and if they don't have any to give you, then ask permission for 'x' hours of internet time until they can come up with something for you to do?

You are paid to work in the companies best interests for the stated hours within your contract. They dictate what you do, and your time is not your own. As a salaried employee, once you have completed your workload for the day, you should be asking for more (or permission to wait until more is available). There is no obligation on their part to tolerate you using company time and resources for your own needs/amusement, so they very much can sack you for time wasting/mis-use of resources especially when you "browse the web when they've been asked not to "

Speak to your boss. Either ask for more work or for some sort of agreement that 'if all my work is done, can I do a max of x hours a week on the internet with your permission'.

Why would you want to risk your job? If you have spare time, then fill it with company business. It's your bosses problem if they are unable to provide you with more work, and at that stage you may (maybe) have a defense, but if you've been asked not to, then don't do it.
posted by Brockles at 8:33 AM on March 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

When I worked in a production capacity and finished all my tasks, I usually asked for more work.

If I wanted to make sure that my boss would give me more work that was actually interesting and meaningful, I would look around to see what needs to be done, choose what I wanted to do, and then suggest to my boss that I do it.

If I really wanted to prove my worth, I would identify three priority tasks, and then rank the tasks in terms of their priority. I would then explain to my boss my rationale for prioritizing these tasks (usually in terms of cost savings).

This is how bright people like you achieve job security, or, if you want it, promotion.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:35 AM on March 17, 2009 [10 favorites]

I'm not getting the title of this post at all.

Anyway, yes, you can be fired for any non-discriminatory reason the company chooses.

Consider working more slowly. Consider taking some initiative and developing a work-related project. Find out if other departments need stuff done that you can help out with. Consider restricting your surfing to your phone (and keeping that on the DL as well).

They might look at how speedy and efficient you are and decide that the position can go to part-time, no benefits. Is that what you want?
posted by rtha at 8:35 AM on March 17, 2009

As a salaried employee, you're employed to handle specific duties for the company, no matter how long it takes (notice, not "no matter how little time it takes"). The easiest way to think about it is, if the employer thought that you could complete the job in less than a standard 40-hour work week, you'd be paid hourly. Salary is only good for the employer if the hourly rate derived from your salary for the amount of time it takes you to complete your tasks is lower than what they would have to employ an hourly worker for on the open market.

So, there's a certain expectation involved that, first and foremost, you're going to complete your tasks in a competent manner prior to the deadlines set by business needs, etc. After that, it's up to the corporate culture (both within your team and in the company as a whole). If you surf a lot, prudence would dictate that you should have exhausted all other avenues for finding work (asking other folks on your team if you can help out with any of their tasks, talking to your supervisor, etc.). Otherwise, all you're really going to do is get a reputation as being "not a team player" and foster resentment in those folks around you.

Can you be fired for excessive time on the web? Sure. Will you be? It depends on the company. If you truly are a stellar performer, and you don't piss off folks too much with your surfing, then probably not. If you're too valuable for the company to lose, then they'll probably turn a blind eye. However, just remember that in this economy, there are plenty of people (and plenty of more experienced, previously-more-responsible people) that may be willing to "slum it" and take on your job. So, proceed with caution.
posted by jasondbarr at 8:35 AM on March 17, 2009

Unless you are a factory worker whose productivity is measured by how long you sit in a chair producing doodads, then I can't see why it would matter.

Sure, legally, they have the right to fire you, for pretty much any reason they want. But would they? If you are productive, you are productive, regardless of how you spend your time being productive.

In my case, I tend to get most of my work done in a minimal of time, and am then left with a lot of free time. I could not do more work even if I wanted to, because the way I work is with furious bits of intense concentration and productivity. After that, I am spent. My recharge is browsing the net or whatever.

If you work in a creative position, then your managers should understand that.
posted by eas98 at 8:37 AM on March 17, 2009

You're employed with the expectation that you'll be at work for certain agreed upon hours and that you'll be doing work for your employer during those hours. It's understood that some employees are a better deal than others, and ideally this is recognized through pay increases, promotions, and other nice things.

If you're running out of stuff to do:

1) Look for other things that are clearly within your power to decide to do, and start doing them. (Depending on how much your boss wants to manage what people are doing, there might not be anything you can just decide to do on your own.)

2) Try to find other things you could be doing that may not be clearly within your power to decide to do, and present these to your boss as a request to take them on.

3) Advise your boss you've run out of stuff do to and ask them what else you can take on. (I love it when employees do this because I've *always* got a list of other stuff needing to be done.)
posted by FishBike at 8:50 AM on March 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Ask for more work. If there's none to be done, try and look busy. If you seem like you're slacking off, people will assume you ARE slacking off - and that's never good. Will they fire you? Depends on the company, but probably not if you're really as great as you say you are. If we're talking about an excessive amount of time spent doing nothing, however, the company might move you to part time.
posted by wsp at 8:54 AM on March 17, 2009

You may work fast, but an overachiever in this situation would find a way to do more things, rather than worry about getting caught putzing around on the internet. You know, they would "achieve" more.

Think about this from your boss's perspective: would you think it was reasonable to fire someone who just did what they were directly asked to do and then putzed around all day, rather than asking what else they could do to help? If you're wasting hours on the internet, I wouldn't worry about getting fired for being "too efficient", as that doesn't sound like an area you're bumping up against.
posted by jeb at 8:57 AM on March 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

if I may plug an old comment of my own, there are some of my ideas on how to look busy.

I might have written it in kind of a light-hearted way, but those are all 100% serious suggestions, especially "never quite finish anything." In my own experience, the problem with asking for more work is that there is no more work or they would have given it to you already.

so either:
a) you get some really really really painful busywork (this is actually the best possible outcome)
b) the boss is now thinking about the fact that there is nothing for you to do, and considers laying you off
c) the boss gets angry at you for "bothering him all the time."

B and C are much more likely. Yes, they are illogical and signs of an awful supervisor. But we already know he's an awful supervisor, or he wouldn't be getting angry at someone for doing an excellent job.

Sorry and good luck.
posted by drjimmy11 at 9:01 AM on March 17, 2009 [4 favorites]

High-concept: salaried employees have responsibilities and are expected to meet expectations in a broad area in as much or little time as it takes, without regard to the clock. Salaried employees are usually in management, responsible for other people, but not always.

Employees paid hourly wages have tasks assigned to fill that time, usually by salaried employee-managers above, with mandatory lunch breaks and overtime limits and other "labor" type arrangements, whether unionized or merely state-regulated.

That's not a legal framework, just terminology and common practice. As for termination in at-will states like Ohio, others have explained: you're looking at it backwards. Instead of trying to make a closed list of reasons you can be fired, assume you can be fired for any reason, with a small and specific list of exceptions (discrimination, mainly.)
posted by rokusan at 9:02 AM on March 17, 2009

Think about this from your boss's perspective: would you think it was reasonable to fire someone who just did what they were directly asked to do and then putzed around all day, rather than asking what else they could do to help?

This a great illustration of the mentality you're up against. Some people really think this way, even though another way to phrase this scenario is "would you think it was reasonable to fire someone who did in three hours what took someone else eight hours, and did a better job too?"

So you see what you're up against. The problem with the "browsing the net" thing is. essentially, that you're standing out. It doesn't matter that you're standing out by doing a very good job, the bottom line is, to them, it's a "workplace" and everyone should appear to be working all day long. No, it's not logical, but that's what the boss is really asking of you: "Just look busy, so no one comes and hassles me about why my employee is 'goofing off.'" You don't want to get hassled, and neither does he, and neither does anyone, right up the ladder.
posted by drjimmy11 at 9:12 AM on March 17, 2009 [2 favorites]

Yes, they can fire you.
America talks loudly about rewarding good employees and wanting educated workers, but the reality is somewhat different.
posted by pentagoet at 9:17 AM on March 17, 2009

If you are in an at will state, they can fire you whenever they want, for no reason whatsoever. It would be wise to not give them a reason.

My suggestion would be to sit down with your supervisor and ask him or her what you should do when you are done with the work that you have been assigned. I wouldn't mention anything about the internet thing at that time, as this has already been addressed. You could bring in suggestions about what you could do, particularly if you would like to have some control over what you get to do.

Ideally you might want to suggest that you have some freedom in what you do, as long as it is work related. You might suggest that you could help someone else with work that they have, or if your organization has any volunteer groups you could ask to work with them. Frequently employers will have someone in the office who coordinates with the Red Cross or Toys for Tots to do blood drives or toy donations in the office. This kind of thing might give you a chance to get out of the office to go to meetings, and it looks pretty good in the eyes of other people.
posted by jefeweiss at 9:18 AM on March 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've been in this situation before, since I tend to work faster than my peers. In my opinion, the best way of dealing with it is to create your own work-related project to do during slow periods. I actually find it more fun and motivating than goofing off at work, which always makes me feel wretched, bored, and sleepy. As well as vaguely guilty and worried about getting caught, for the exact reasons you explain above. In the end, the temptation to seriously goof off is not worth it. Periodic refresher breaks, yes -- but enough surfing that you're contemplating whether it could get you fired? No. (And I've been there. It truly wasn't worth the guilt and worry. I can surf the internet at home anytime.)

Anyway, it's my understanding that you're employed both for your time and the tasks you complete, as well as taking on the kinds of responsibilities rokusan delineates above. When you're at work, you should be working. Really. It may not seem entirely *fair* at first glance, if you're doing more in a shorter amount of time than your equivalent would, but if you take up that extra time as not just time-to-kill, but as an opportunity to direct yourself into doing more interesting, personally-meaningful (but still work-relevant) projects, then it actually is fair. And potentially awesome.

What resources do you have access to through work (e.g. peer-reviewed journals or trade journals or whathaveyou) that you could make use of? Are there seminars, lectures, or courses offered? Use your extra time to avail yourself of these opportunities and resources, and you will be working to better yourself at the same time you contribute to your workplace. Or, seriously, create a project for yourself out of whole cloth -- you can conduct actual research on-the-job, by analyzing processes, or designing practice-based studies, etc., depending on what field you're in (of course, be sure to get all necessary permissions.) You could end up making substantive contributions to your workplace or field, as well as your own reputation and career. If you think about it, that's a pretty cool thing to get paid to do.
posted by peggynature at 9:28 AM on March 17, 2009 [3 favorites]

There's also the question of how important 'face-time' is in your workplace's culture. Infuriatingly, sometimes looking the part is more important than doing your part.


Another old person who doesn't understand the title of your post
posted by Space Kitty at 9:48 AM on March 17, 2009

The problem with the "browsing the net" thing is. essentially, that you're standing out. It doesn't matter that you're standing out by doing a very good job, the bottom line is, to them, it's a "workplace" and everyone should appear to be working all day long.

No, the bottom line is, when you have that much slack capacity and you just let it all go to waste, you are *not* doing a good job. You should not appear to be working, you should be working. If you get whatever your immediate responsibilities are done super-fast, awesome, find some additional ways to contribute.
posted by jeb at 9:48 AM on March 17, 2009

What DrJimmy1 said. Also, I've had similar problems. From pasting Metafilter threads into open CMS windows I graduated to a solution of resizing the browser so that it fit into the Outlook window, plus a user stylesheet overriding any page to make it like work email. As the next level I used a screen capture tool (eg Adobe Captivate) to play a video of "work happening on my screen" on a loop - catnaps for two hours in the morning. To be fair, that was after the company had introduced some pretty offensive policies, actually most of the team left and got more rewarding jobs. good times for companies now, with everyone keeping their head down.
posted by yoHighness at 9:51 AM on March 17, 2009

The best thing to do is ask for more work.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:51 AM on March 17, 2009

Rightly or wrongly, perception matters in the workplace. If you can get 8 hrs worth of work done in 1 1/2, that's fantastic and impressive, and good for you, but what I see when I walk by your work area is a guy that's always online and doesn't seem to care about the job he's supposed to be doing or the company he's supposed to be doing it for.

If I see that once, I probably ignore it; if I see it every time I walk by, I'll start to notice and you'll know about it. By the time you know I know about it, assume the rest of the office already does too. Which includes your boss.

Either ask for more work or find a way to do what you do from home so you don't have to worry about people's perceptions.

pdb (age 40)
posted by pdb at 10:02 AM on March 17, 2009

I forgot to say that what KokuRyu said applies if you work in a good place. If you work somewhere near the low end of some kafkaesque megacorporation hellbent on extracting the maximum labour out of a disposable workforce with high turnover, I'd subscribe to DrJimmy's advice instead. But generally I would really agree with the above posters - finding something else to do, instead of pretending to work, because at some point the latter will start making you feel like what the fuck am I doing here?
posted by yoHighness at 10:11 AM on March 17, 2009

I think you have received a lot of thoughtful advice so far in this thread. In fact, I mostly agree with what has been said. However, I think you should use some combination of this advice. I have been in your shoes before. I too often complete my work very quickly. I am a business professor and what I often tell my students is that you want to make yourself indispensable at work. You want to be the person that would get fired last during a layoff. Along those lines, here is what I suggest.

First, search out new opportunities with your work. Rather than simply asking for more work, try to figure out ways to improve existing processes. So, if you can take tasks that are currently being done and make them more efficient this makes you look great. I think taking initiative is MUCH better than asking your boss for more work. To be honest, most bosses that I have seen get annoyed if you are constantly asking them what you should do. They get annoyed because it may seem like you are showing off, and also because it makes them think (and thinking is hard).

Second, when you get work to do make sure you pace yourself. When you get an assignment try and get a feel for how long your boss expects it to take you. Then get it done in your usual speed, but don't turn it in. Wait until it is close to your deadline and then turn it in. You still look good because you are exceeding expectations. One reason to do this is because there will likely be times when you are assigned tasks that you can't complete much faster than expected. If you raise expectations too high, then it may come back to bite you when your boss expects you to complete every assignment in no time flat.

Third, if you do find yourself with free time, follow many of the suggestions above to make sure you don't look like you are goofing off. The suggestions provided are good. As people have said, perceptions matter. If everyone else at works thinks you are just messing around all day they will complain. So do your best to look busy, even if you are not swamped.
posted by bove at 10:30 AM on March 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Seconding what peggynature said:

What resources do you have access to through work (e.g. peer-reviewed journals or trade journals or whathaveyou) that you could make use of? Are there seminars, lectures, or courses offered? Use your extra time to avail yourself of these opportunities and resources, and you will be working to better yourself at the same time you contribute to your workplace.

And if there aren't any courses/work-related education offered BY your job, then why not look into other options? You may be able to talk your employer into allowing you to take classes THEY pay for (making you more saleable in this crap economy -- hello from another Ohioan) even if they don't have an education benefit if you promise to, say, turn around and train others who might be interested or need those skills. So let's say, for example, that your employer allows you to take an online course about databases. One, it'll fill the time (I presume you can't work from home or you'd already be doing it!) and two, make you "worth" more and three, you can turn around and teach those skills to your co-workers, gaining prestige as a "go-to" person.

When I worked at a big financial company, the older guys (and they were ALL guys...55 brokers, 3 of them women) all loved to come sit in my office and after the usual pleasantries........ "Soooo. I hear you know about computers. Can you tell me about [x]?"

Being the go-to person = awesome. And in return, I was able to go pick their brains whenever I wanted to or needed to on things they knew more about. It worked out well for everyone.
posted by bitter-girl.com at 10:39 AM on March 17, 2009

I've seen people get fired for this. I've also seen employees who do this get fired for making a mistake that would have been forgiven if it had happened to someone who works "less efficiently." The reason is that if your work is taking up all of your time, the assumption is that you're doing the most work you possibly could be doing. Whereas if your work takes up only a portion of your time and you develop a reputation as someone who has a lot of free time, the assumption is that you could have and should have corrected any minor mistakes in your free time before you slacked off. So you could get fired for this, or you could get fired for something else because of your reputation for this.
posted by decathecting at 11:34 AM on March 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Years ago I've been in a position similar to where you seem to be. It took me two or three days to do a week's work, and asking for more work didn't work (I was a programmer at the time, and I was writing and testing code faster than the analysts were writing specifications). My solution was to go walkabout for two or three days a week - wander through the building and talk to anyone who looked like they could use a break and some company. Doing this I learned a lot about the company and the people who worked there, and also it gave people a chance to get to know me.

In your situation, why don't you use your spare time at the job to work your way into a managerial position? You seem to have ambition and possibly some talent in that area.
posted by rjs at 12:43 PM on March 17, 2009

My solution was to go walkabout for two or three days a week - wander through the building and talk to anyone who looked like they could use a break and some company.

If you're going to do this, make sure you can properly read people. Also, make sure you're not as boring as hell. Few things are worse than Chattersen McWalkabout coming around thrice a week to trap me in my cube and bend my ear for an hour or two.
posted by speedo at 1:46 PM on March 17, 2009

In my own experience as a supervisor, the people who complained about how unfair this situation was were about evenly divided between a) the people who really were more efficient at doing the assigned tasks in a shorter period of time than their co-workers, and b) the people who rushed sloppily through their work so they could have more time to do their on-line shopping or play FreeCell or what have you.

Given the current employment scenario, it may seem easier for the boss to fire everybody who seems to be Websurfing "too often" and let God sort out the details. Maybe your boss could find someone really efficient AND really motivated to replace you, even if you are one of the efficient ones (and if you're one of Clan Sloppy McRushalot, so much the better).
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:47 PM on March 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Sure, legally, they have the right to fire you, for pretty much any reason they want. But would they? If you are productive, you are productive, regardless of how you spend your time being productive.

Remember that the economy is not based just on individual productivity, as logical as that might seem. There is a whole bunch of psychology thrown in there, too. We're not machines, and you have to fit in with the company's attitude here. If other people who work with you are going to become unmotivated and resentful when you web surf, then you are a drain on the company when you do it, because you're causing a reaction in other employees. You can say that the problem lies with the other employees' reaction, with the effect not the cause, but if it is a multiple effect vs a single cause, then it's much simpler to fire the single cause and get a new guy who won't do that.

In a perfect world - or just if you got a job at Google - your co-workers wouldn't be bothered by your relaxing in between tasks as long as all tasks were completed well. But don't try to fight this out to prove your point. You have a job where you have a job. Accept the local custom, or accept the likely consequences.
posted by mdn at 5:49 PM on March 17, 2009

You're breaking written policy (from a handbook they probably made you sign off on). You're in an at-will employment state. Hmmm, let me put on my thinking cap! What, is your question "is life fair?" No, it isn't, Billy. It isn't fair at all. Also, you're not an "overachiever." You're a fast worker. An overachiever would take that extra time and, you know, "achieve" things with it.
posted by nanojath at 10:14 PM on March 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'll echo the "training/learning" suggestion, above. But there are some related things: join a professional organization related to your work, get formal certification (if available), join the local organization, become an officer in the local organization, write professional articles for the local or national organization. Professional organizations also often have mailing lists and discussion boards, where you can contribute (takes time) and learn from others (takes time).

Also, there are plenty of books about how to do things better that you could be reading. That could be technical stuff (for example, advanced Excel techniques) or general stuff (how to write better, how to communicate better, etc.). Your boss would probably agree to pay for a few of these, particularly if they were useful to others in the department (a little sharing library); others you could get from a public library. Self-education is part of the American way; you'll certainly not get in trouble if you're reading a book or professional journal that will help you do a better job.

And something that hasn't been mentioned: documenting what you do. What you don't want is to be considered so valuable that you can't be promoted and can't be moved to another position where you'll learn new things. Documentation can help you be mobile.

Writing step-by-step procedures not only will take up more of your time, but it will also be useful if/when some of your more routine tasks can be assigned to someone else. For example, if your organization is under pressure to cut costs, and someone in your office leaves, then tasks might be rearranged so that you got some of the more complex stuff that the departing person was doing, and some of the more routine (well-documented) stuff went to someone else.

Plus documentation can include checklists, and those are good for making sure that you're doing quality work as well as doing things quickly.
posted by WestCoaster at 7:43 AM on March 18, 2009

« Older Parks & Lakes near Dallas, TX   |   Remember this text based college basketball game? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.