The Ethics of Web Work


We’ve all devoted a tremendous amount of effort to figuring out how to move forward in this new world of web work. Ask us to set up a laptop or organize a task list or find a way to network with our peers and we’ve got a pretty good idea how to get started. But some other parts of the web work story are less clear. For instance, have you ever thought about the ethics of web work? That is, how do you know what behavior is right and wrong in this new sort of workplace?

Some of this is covered by your particular profession. For instance, if you’re a software developer, you can look to the Code of Ethics and Professional Practice worked out by the ACM and IEEE. But the ethical concerns covered by such codes – act consistently with the public interest, act in the interest of your client, and so on – are not unique to web work. What about the new issues raised by telework, the digital bedouin lifestyle, and working in multiple virtual teams?

There’s one ten-year-old academic paper that tackles some of the telework issues. “Teleworking Ethics,” by Ruth Guthrie and Janet Pick, used a survey to sample attitudes towards some potential ethical dilemmas in the field. While I don’t trust their survey sample to be representative of the current industry, some of their cases are worth considering when defining the limits of ethical behavior. For instance, which of these do you think are ethical behavior?

  • Doing personal work on company time as long as you stay available by phone and email.
  • Holding down two full-time jobs by telecommuting to both.
  • Making personal phone calls while waiting for data sets to download (and staying on the company clock).
  • Checking personal phone bills to verify that people were actually online and working.
  • Telecommuting from a bar when your boss thinks you’re working at home.

As we move out of cubicles and on to the web, some of the rules of the game seem to be changing. Your attitude towards which behaviors are ethical may be another data point in the busyness vs. burst dichotomy. Those who are most comfortable with the old-style busy economy will tend to see ethics on the side of tradition and control: the worker owes a duty to the company to be actively engaged at all times, because there is an exchange of money for time agreed to by both parties. The bursters, on the other hand, will be more comfortable ethically with any behavior that gets the job done, seeing the exchange as one of money for productivity.

Still, there are limits to ethical behavior, no matter how far you’ve moved away from the traditional busyness economy. Outright fraud, for example, should be unethical in anyone’s book (though, sadly, I’ve known web workers who billed hourly on the basis of “what the client expected the job would take” instead of the hours they actually spent). One useful touchstone for many cases is to ask yourself what you’d think of your own behavior if you were on the other side of the table. If a subcontractor acted the way you’re acting, would you be OK with it? If not, it’s time to think some more about your own ethics.

Have you run into ethical dilemmas in your own web work? How did you resolve them?



I think it depends on what type of worker you are. I run my own business, and my relationship with clients is as an independent contractor. The only one of the listed activities I would object to is the first (personal work on client time), but only if they were being directly billed for time I spent on personal activities. (That is, if I charged them my hourly rate for hours I spent doing personal work, as opposed to actual billable work for their account.) Otherwise, I can do anything I want when I want to, because how I do my job isn’t within their control. To quote the IRS: “The payer h[as] the right to control or direct only the result of the work done by an independent contractor, and not the means and methods of accomplishing the result.” As long as they get the product they paid for, how, where, and when it came into being, as well as what else I was doing at the time, is my business.

Barbara Saunders

Before ethics can be defined, the job itself has to be defined: It’s reasonable for an employer to expect a “full-time” employee with a desk at home to work basically a “full-time” schedule and not be holding down another “full-time” job. It is unreasonable for an employer to expect that person to keep arbitrary office hours and breaks as long as the work gets done, and the employee is available when it’s necessary.

Whether the desk the person works at is in a bar, a cramped basement office, or a neighborhood cluster office is none of the employer’s business — unless security is compromised. Checking phone records is icky and silly. People make personal calls at work, too. In my last job, most employees didn’t get phones and had to make company calls from personal cell phones! The boundaries are breaking down every which way…


The beauty of web work, in my opinion, is that the focus is (or should be) on productivity not seat time or logged-in time.

With the exception of snooping through personal phone records, I think all of those things are okay, provided you’re using your own network, computer and phone. As long as the work gets done and done well and on deadline, why care if they work a solid 8 hours in a bar?


Fantastic article!

This has put much food for thought in my head, as I had been wondering what the ‘accepted’ behavior has been for web workers.

I am currently still a cube-slave, but looking to making the move to web work and telecommuting.

It’s tough to find that first telecommuting position, any suggestions?


Comments are closed.