Court backs dismissal of Net surfer

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A WOMAN sacked for using the office computer to book a holiday on the Internet has lost her claim for unfair dismissal in the first case of its kind.

An employment tribunal in Liverpool ruled that Lois Franxhi was guilty of misconduct and justifiably dismissed last year after using the computer at Focus Management Consultants in Alderley Edge, Cheshire, to make 150 searches on the Internet.

It is the first time a tribunal has judged that the use of a company computer to gather information for personal use is a dismissable offence. Employment lawyers said yesterday the case was a warning to employees. "I'm aware of no other such case but more and more people are being dismissed for abuse of the Internet and this is the first of many cases which will follow through the system," said Sue Nickson of lawyer Hammond Suddards, which works with the Institute of Personnel Development on the issue. "If it was made clear [by the employer] that this use of the Internet would be characterised as abuse then you can understand where he is coming from."

A study by computer security organisation Infosec in April showed employee surfing is costing companies pounds 2.5m a year. An employee on pounds 20,000 who surfs for non-business use costs the employer pounds 2,500 in lost working time.The average employee browser spends 30 minutes a day on the Internet and half look at pornographic sites.

A case of 150 searches constitutes concerted use, say lawyers. "That kind of number is not just somebody tapping in," said Ms Nickson. "The offence is theft. The employee is taking money from the employer and using the time to look at the Internet, so depriving the employer of the benefit."

Mrs Franxhi, of Winsford, Cheshire, a successful IT manager who had been awarded three promotions and pounds 6,500 in pay rises, claimed she had been dismissed because she was pregnant and was the victim of sexual discrimination.

Her company's director, Stephen Jones, said: "I found she had been using her computer to do nearly 150 searches ... for personal reasons and it was when she should have been working. The main reason for dismissal was that when I confronted her she lied about how often she had used the Internet. I had proof documenting searches on four different days. I can't believe she would accuse me of discriminating because of her pregnancy."

Mrs Franxhi said: "I had used the Internet for personal use in the past. Stephen even asked me to show him how to access the Liverpool Football Club web page." The tribunal dismissed her claims of sex discrimination and unfair dismissal but upheld a claim for breach of contract and awarded her one month's pay in lieu of notice.

Ms Nickson added: "We are telling employers to set the ground rules so nobody can say, `We didn't know'. A growing number of firms are guarding against the problem by contractual provisions."