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Is It Ethical to Use Your Business Computer for Personal Use?

by Ryan Guina

A growing number of businesses issue laptops to their employees instead of, or in addition to, a desktop computer. Many laptops offer the same capability as desktop computers, and the added flexibility of having a company laptop means employees can be productive at work, home, and on the road.

But what about personal use when you are off the clock?

The added flexibility of having a company laptop brings up certain issues. Having a state of the art laptop is tempting for many people, especially when you are stuck at a hotel or airport while on a business trip. Should employees be able to use their company laptop for personal use, or should it be strictly forbidden?

There are obvious pros and cons that businesses must consider, including legal ramifications, viruses and spyware, and other issues.

So here is the question I am asking you today: Is it ethical to use your business computer for personal use when you are off the clock?

I’d love to read your opinions.


Published or updated February 15, 2009.
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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

1 DDFD at DivorcedDadFrugalDad

I don’t use mine for personal use.

I would be very, very careful, because the company can monitor and see everything you do on the laptop.

That’s enough to stop me . . .

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2 Writer's Coin

I second what DDFD says: at my work you know they see everything on that machine, so if you’re looking at reservations for your vacation you should be OK, but I’d be totally paranoid to even do that.

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3 Megan

We have what they call “limited personal use” when it comes to using the computer on work hours. That means that you can use the internet to read your personal e-mail or make vacation plans but probably shouldn’t gamble all day. You can print your tax returns but don’t print eight copies of the novel you just wrote on company time. They also ask that we not “clog up” the internet, meaning you can read the news or your favorite blogs over your lunch break, but don’t watch streaming movies because of the bandwidth issues.

So that said, in terms of using the work computer for personal use, I say you always want to be careful because they can see what you’re doing. So perhaps the work computer should not ever be used to watch porn. But you’re stuck in the airport, connected to the airport’s WiFi, by all means, go play some mindless games online. You’re not on company time, you’re not using their bandwidth, so it shouldn’t be a problem.

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4 frugalcpa

It’s true that companies have the legal right to monitor everything you do with their equipment. That said, it would take a lot of manpower for companies to analyze everyone’s internet activity in depth. They’re more likely to generate reports that show hours spent on the internet, identify outliers, and then go look at the records more closely.

In the past, I’ve used work laptops for personal things. But I’m no longer comfortable with that for the sake of safety and privacy. Going forward, I won’t use company laptops in a way that is not related to business, unless just to look up the news, an address on google maps, etc. I won’t, for example, blog or read google reader on the company laptop.

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5 Imani

The short answer, NO! The longer answer, ABSOLUTELY NOT! It just makes life a lot simpler that way.

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6 Imani

@Nate….you made me laugh, and thanks for that!

I guess I never worked in a place that had “down time”. :-)

If it works for you, then it is all good. Thanks again for the chuckle.

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7 The Passive Dad

It is tempting to use a work computer, but feel that it’s much safer to just use our personal computer. We have setup a dedicated laptop in the kitchen that we can use for our family email, pictures, calendar and budget spreadsheet.

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8 Bankman

In my company we only have laptops with docking stations and a flat screen monitor. I used my computer on a recent vacation because I had some work to take with on my travel day and I didn’t want to carry two comps. Other than checking e-mail and CNN/SI, I try not to use it for personal stuff.

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9 Craig

Do you think there is a difference between a laptop and desktop you use in office? In that case I can see where you might want to be careful. If you work for a smaller and more liberal company, I don’t see why not. I haev begun making edits or setting up blog posts at work on my work computer. as long as it doesn’t get in the way.

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10 Curious Cat Investing Blog

Yes. If the company policies prohibited it that would be a factor but that would likely be a bad policy.

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11 Manshu

I would never work at a company that wouldn’t allow me to use company resources to enjoy myself at the cost of productivity.

That is just inhuman.

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12 Kristy @ Master Your Card

As long as company policy does not specifically forbid it, then using it within reason for personal use is not unethical, in my opinion.

That said, there are some guidelines that should be followed.

– If the content you are looking at is inappropriate and you would not view it in front of your boss, then don’t view it on the lap top.

– If there are certain websites that are restricted from use (i.e. gambling sites, etc.) on your desk top, then respect those rules with the lap top.

– Do NOT download anything not pre-approved by the IT department.

– Do not use any software with the lap top that is not pre-approved by the IT department.

As long as you stay within those guidelines, then you should be fine. Of course, as others have mentioned, it’s important to note that employer’s can look at what you’re viewing, so it’s probably not a good idea to view the job ads on Yahoo and Monster while using the company lap top.

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13 NatalieMac

I’ve never worked anywhere that didn’t allow for ‘reasonable personal use’ of computers, email, phone, faxes, copy machines, etc. for the employees. So I use my desktop computer at work throughout the day to check personal email, read blogs (though most I read are related to my industry and therefore relevant) and do quick web searches if I need anything. Since my boss/company has no problem with me doing that, I don’t see why I wouldn’t have the freedom to do the same with a company laptop, especially if I were at home or traveling and not even using the company’s bandwidth.

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14 Ryan

Thanks for the comments, everyone! I had planned on chiming in, but I was laid up in bed when this was posted. I’ve been sick all week!

The company I work for allows minimal personal use, such as e-mail, travel arrangements, and news sites, but they would frown upon using their resources for more than that – especially on the company network. Like most other companies, they also prohibit downloading software, but they haven’t locked computers like some companies have (to prevent any unauthorized downloads).

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15 fathersez

I think it would be almost impossible to have a strict cut off line. During office hours our time sort of belongs to the company. Does this mean we cannot take a phone call from our spouse or child? What if we use a office pencil to write down something personal on a company note pad? What if the time spent on doing this was docked?

A company that spends time monitoring this would probably spend less time on what it should really be doing.

Both the employees and the employer need to be reasonable and exercise good judgement. A person who is goofing off on his computer would probably be goofing off on a lot of other more visible things too.

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16 Andy @ Retire at 40

I think as always, people have to be sensible about this. Luckily I work in a place with a bit of give and take, sometimes we work longer than needed and in return we get flexi-ish hours and they know we use work things for personal use when we have to.

It goes both ways, especially if both parties see it as fair.

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17 TStrump

Where I work, they recently rolled out a new computer policy.
But in the policy they do allow for some personal surfing and emails.
I think we just have to make sure we don’t abuse out time on the computer.

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