Can employees be sacked for playing Pokémon Go at work?

It all comes down to having an up-to-date internet policy that everyone understands.

By Rita Gillen Employment lawyer, TJOS

UNLESS YOU HAVE been living under a rock for the last few weeks, you have most likely heard of Pokémon Go – the hugely successful app in which players try to catch Pokémon while going about their normal day.

However, the success of the app has raised some interesting employment law issues. The aircraft manufacturer, Boeing, for one, recently had to issue an email to staff banning them from playing Pokémon Go at work after it was discovered that the app had been downloaded on over 100 work phones.

While employers may have thought to implement certain policies and procedures, such as a grievance policy and a disciplinary procedure, many employers are still unaware of the importance of having an email and internet policy.

Email and internet policies are particularly important where an employer may provide employees with work laptops or phones to carry out their work duties since employees’ online activities can place the workplace’s security at risk.

Even if an employer does have an email and internet policy it may be improperly drafted and significantly out of date. For example, there may be no mention of the use of apps in the workplace – one huge development in recent years.

Belgium EU Google
Source: AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert

Policy matters

So what type of detail should be included in an internet and email policy? It is difficult to outline every conceivable app that employees may avail of during their working day, as new programs are being developed daily, and it is unrealistic to expect a business to constantly update its internet and email policy so as to keep abreast of developments.

However, it is advisable that an internet and email policy provides that employees are prohibited from downloading apps and software without the permission of their manager.

This will ensure that managers are aware of what employees are downloading and will also prevent the company’s IT systems being hacked.

Some employers may try and operate a draconian workplace and prohibit any use of the company’s IT systems for personal use while the employee is at work. However, in reality most, if not all, employees will occasionally send personal emails or browse online for their own personal use, so operating such a heavy-handed approach is unrealistic.

It is advisable to state in clear terms that minimal use of the company’s IT facilities for personal use is permitted. However, the policy should then go on to state that employees should refrain from inappropriate or overuse use of the employer’s IT systems and that failure to do so could lead to disciplinary sanctions.

If an employer does not have a properly drafted internet and email policy, then they may find it quite difficult to discipline or dismiss their employees for inappropriate activities, such as excessive playing of Pokémon Go.

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Pokemon Go San Francisco Pokémon Go players in San Francisco
Source: AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

Unfair dismissal

If the employer does dismiss an employee for such activity then they run the risk of an unfair dismissal claim as they had no clear guidelines which prohibited such activity, which is a cost which no business wishes to incur.

It is also important for employers to ensure that all staff are aware of their internet and email policy, as while employers may have the best written policy in the world it will be rendered useless if the employees were not made aware of the policy’s existence.

If in doubt, we would always advise employers to seek legal advice before embarking on a course of action that could have a detrimental effect to their business.

Rita Gillen is an employment law specialist with Cork-based Terence J. O’Sullivan Solicitors (TJOS).

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