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I have an issue that hasn't ever surfaced as a problem, but it's a question that's been bugging me internally a little bit for the last several years.

I've worked at a few different places where they hadn't given me explicit permission to read programming books on the clock, but I've done it anyway.

On one hand, it seems totally appropriate to do my learning on the clock. Even if I were explicitly told that I'm not allowed to read programming books at work, I feel like it would still be irresponsible for me not to, in the same way that even if your boss told you not to bother writing tests for your code or use source control, it would be irresponsible for you not to. I see sharpening the saw as part of the job, just as much as writing production code is part of the job.

On the other hand, I just feel a little bit funny about it. According to reason, I'm not doing anything wrong - in fact, I'm going out of my way to do something right. But according to my gut, something's up. I don't get it.

And to address the question of why I don't just read these programming books at home: on the off-hours, I read books about self-improvement, psychology, productivity, marketing, business, and other topics that certainly improve my overall effectiveness as an employee, but usually don't have much to do with programming. These skills bleed over into helping me be a better developer. For example, my enhanced persuasive skills have helped me install new development best practices, whereas in the past I've floundered in that area due to my naiveté in dealing with people. So I couldn't justify replacing that reading with technical reading...although I guess I could pepper the queue with technical books and just reduce my reading bandwidth a little.

Anyway, my question is: Is it ethical to read programming books on the clock?


I didn't ask for permission to read because "it's easier to get forgiveness later than to get permission now," and if my policy is to ask permission before doing any particular thing, I know I'll never accomplish much.

By "on the clock" I mean, at my desk during work hours. (I do happen to be hourly, but I'm expected to work about 40 hours per week, so I don't see a meaningful difference from salaried employee.)

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migrated from programmers.stackexchange.com May 29 '13 at 2:40

This question came from our site for professional programmers interested in conceptual questions about software development.

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If you have a hard time justifying why you do X (study marketing when you are paid for programming) it might indicate that X should be done on your own time. –  Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen May 30 '13 at 9:58
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Are we talking about "reading a book" -- as in reading a career-related book during interstitial times at work (eg compiles, or when waiting on things). Or are we talking about spending a few hours at a time reading hundreds of pages? –  Angelo May 30 '13 at 16:36
    
Reading a directly work-related book for about the last hour of each day. –  Jason Swett May 30 '13 at 16:59
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inverse question: is it ethical to ask employes to expect employees to further their education outside of working (and paid) hours? –  haylem Nov 2 '13 at 12:22
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If you need the knowledge in the book to do your job, and your employer knows that you do not already possess the requisite knowledge, then you are basically required to learn the material, either through a book or via the internet. Most of my employees read Stack Overflow as part of their job to solve issues they see. This is no different. If you were not forthcoming about your existing knowledge then that's the ethics issue, more so than reading information relevant to completing your work. –  DShaw Jan 21 at 22:12

9 Answers 9

I think it is ethical, but there are a few areas of consideration:

  1. Don't hide it from your boss. If you have to hide it, you're getting into insubordination.
  2. The text should relate to your current job, project or to something reasonable in the future. Otherwise, it's sort of goofing off or using company time to prepare yourself to work somewhere else. Again, you should be sharing this with a boss. You may be encouraged to try different things, but you would know this already.
  3. Make sure you're getting your work done. If I let an employee read on the job and they constantly tell me they didn't get something finished because they didn't have enough time, I would have you cut-back on reading. Assuming you are factoring this time into your estimates.

Basically, if you have to hide this from the boss it's a problem. Billing this time to a client would be unethical unless they were aware they had to compensate you for research.

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Good points. I am following all three. That last point is also a good one to bring up: I've never considered it ethical to charge consulting clients for my education. A client is paying for results, not the education of the vendor. –  Jason Swett May 28 '13 at 15:43
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@JasonSwett, if the education is NECESSARY for you to deliver the results to the client, and the client knew going in that you were not already up to speed on whatever it was, then the time you spend studying for it IS legitimately billable. Example: If they're paying to deliver a USB thingie, and you told them BEFORE you accepted the job that you'd have to do considerable study on USB to do it, and they said "That's OK", you're in like Flynn. –  John R. Strohm May 28 '13 at 15:55
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+1 for "Make sure you're getting your work done". Ultimately, it comes down to providing a good value to your employer. If your reading pays off more than some other work that you could do, then you are justified. Otherwise, if your self-improvement is really more beneficial to you than to your employer, then it is similar to doing other side-work. –  TimG May 28 '13 at 16:10
    
@JohnR.Strohm I forgot that case. That's totally right. –  Jason Swett May 28 '13 at 16:23
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@GreenMatt - I'd be concerned if you started reading one of those books at work and didn't feel compelled to take them home and finish them. –  JeffO Jun 5 '13 at 19:46

It's unethical to act against the express request of your employer; so if they told you not to, the answer would be no it's not ethical. Outside of that however, I would absolutely say yes. Like you said, sharpening the saw 'n such is a necessity, and it's unethical for a company to expect you to do that in your off hours; those are hours for you, not your company, if they want them they'll have to pay.

So in short, if they told you to stop then stop, but that doesn't mean you should start doing it in your off hours, absolutely not (unless you wanted to).

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Thanks for the answer. I would mostly agree. It's an interesting proposition that it's unethical to act against the express request of my employer. That's a whole other can of worms, but I might challenge that idea. For example, if your boss wants you to do all your coding in production and tells you not to waste time setting up a development environment, but you do it anyway, I would say that that's more ethical than working directly in the production environment, putting your boss's business at risk. In any case, no one has told me to stop reading yet. –  Jason Swett May 28 '13 at 15:41
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@JasonSwett we'll have to agree to disagree there. I would say it's unethical to do it without raising every issue and ensuring your employer was making the most informed decision they could, but at the end of the day insubordination is unacceptable, as an employee you never have the full picture and can only do everything in your power to ensure your employer sees what you see, then trust that they also see things you don't when they make decisions that don't make sense with what you know. This has happened to me before; finding out after the fact there was good reason for what I was told –  Jimmy Hoffa May 28 '13 at 15:46
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Crap, that's actually a really good point. –  Jason Swett May 28 '13 at 15:49
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Sometimes it's easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. –  JeffO May 28 '13 at 20:14
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@JasonSwett said: "Crap, that's actually a really good point." And thus enters wisdom. Remember, you're not there to run the company for your employer. You're there to help your employer. Offer him good advice, but do what you're told. Eventually the advice will take root. –  Wesley Long May 28 '13 at 20:17

Is it ethical to read programming books on the clock?

Is it ethical for lawyers working on retainer to read legal volumes on the clock?

The answer to both questions is 'YES'.

We have seen the computing world undergo enormous change in the past two decades, and you should expect more of the same for the foreseeable future. An employer should expect and want its employees to keep abreast of these changes so that they retain their value to the company.

This is much like the relationship between a client and his/her lawyer that works on retainer. The client would undoubtedly want that lawyer to stay abreast of all changes occurring in the legal world, so that he/she can best represent the client in mediation and court room interactions.

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+1 Fair comparison. –  Jubobs Jan 23 at 11:59

Whether it's ethical or not is not really the question you should be asking, since ethics is subjective and can encompass many things not necessarily to do with insubordination or not following the rules of the employer.

At the end of the day the question comes down to "are you doing things within the rules laid out by your employer". If they have not displayed any issue as of yet with the desire to further ones knowledge within the scope of your job then I would say it's not something to worry about until they express otherwise. Think for yourself and ask yourself "What am I looking to accomplish with this?". If your answer is that you are looking to further your knowledge, and improve your skills so as to make yourself invaluable to your employer and to produce better results and to help the business grow, then good job, you're a fantastic employee. There is absolutely no need for you to be "aware of the bigger picture" in that regard.

Additionally be sensible about how much time is dedicated to training yourself and how much time is dedicated to actually getting work done. Try not to spend more than 5-10% of your actual work time reading books when you should be getting your work done, keeping in mind that average true productivity for a person is roughly only 60%. If you can do it in the time you would normally be spacing out, goofing off, having coffee, reading mail, checking Facebook, watching YouTube videos, chatting to the cute girl in the opposite cubicle, or whatever else, then even better.

The thing is, any programmer who is actually any good understands that being a programmer is something you are always learning. Whether it's through a book or via an Internet search, we do it every day, day in and day out in an effort to accomplish the goals we, and the businesses we work for, set out for us. Too many times does one see an individual who thinks they're a rockstar (both fresh out of college and sometimes even after 7 or 8 years) and yet in practice their actual abilities stink. Why is this? Because they never took the opportunities to really learn what they were doing nor to learn anything new.

I'm saddened by some of the responses listed above, especially some of the more popular ones that seem to be under the impression that a good employee is one that tows the line, unquestioning, and is always asking permission rather than thinking for themselves, and to them I say for shame. You are the reason finding high quality skills out there is a complete crapshoot. I can guarantee you, only the best programmers are the ones that are passionate, experimental, and willing to push the boundaries, while the worst are the ones who are drones: there to punch in, punch out, and to be an extension of their manager or their manager's manager.

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Hi Tharaxis, welcome to The Workplace SE! The last two paragraphs are spot on. Developers should be able to think for themselves and do whatever it takes to get the job done. Thanks for writing such a great first post on our Q&A site. –  jmort253 Nov 10 '13 at 21:46
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The thing is, any programmer who is actually any good understands that being a programmer is something you are always learning. Yes! This! –  starsplusplus Jan 21 at 8:52

it seems totally appropriate to do my learning on the clock.

If you're not an independent contractor (where you discuss in advance whether something is billable or not), I'd say it's expected that during your work hours you work simultaneously on short-term issues ("here's a bug to be sorted out") and long-term projects. For example, you know your iOS app will have to support iCloud eventually, and you read up on it.

According to reason, I'm not doing anything wrong - in fact, I'm going out of my way to do something right. But according to my gut, something's up. I don't get it.

From the way you describe it, you're honestly using your best judgement to make sure you're performing your job correctly in the long term.

If you have the gut feelings that the managers wouldn't approve of your activities, you should honestly talk with the boss about those issues.

You should resolve these issues as soon as possible. If they have the same view about the way to do your work, that's great! But if your managers see things differently, it's likely that the disagreement will increase, not decrease over time.

In that case, it is important to admit that perhaps you're not a good match for each other?

I see different ways how the conversation with your managers may progress further, from

sure, I know I frowned a couple of times when I saw you reading the books, but now that you explain how those are useful for the company, please continue!

to

we need to work 60 hours per week on finishing this app for the foreseeable future, so if I see you opening the book again, you're fired.

In the latter case, it's probably a good time to think about changing work places.

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Ethics aren't relevant [edit] to this discussion[/edit]. The question is are you performing the duties you were assigned and complying with the company's code of conduct?

Whether the Zeitgeist approves of your activities or not, the only thing that matters is the agreement between you and your employer, and whether each party is meeting their obligations.

Most development jobs have a fairly explicitly-defined training program. If your company doesn't, talk to your manager about defining one. It can be something as simple as a company account for SafariBooksOnline.com and an hour a week of time to read it. Some companies will send you to a local training course or two a year, and if you're in a senior position, it might be one of the big events that you travel to.

In short, this is not something you should be worrying about. If you have a question about it, ask your supervisor. If your compensation package (including training, learning time, and such) is not what you feel is adequate, then it's your responsibility to renegotiate your compensation, relocate to another position, or resign yourself to the reality of your existing position.

In no event should you go against your employer's instructions or code of conduct. That's unethical. It's also insubordination, grounds for dismissal, and damaging to your references list.

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+ Ethics do matter, but they strongly relate back to policy on training. Referencing something from any resource is par for the course, but self-directed training can be different than confirming a technique or answer. In other words, it can get into a grey area if the time spent 'referencing' is fairly lengthy. The 'fairly lengthy' is a matter of discretion more often than not left up to the supervisor. –  JustinC May 28 '13 at 19:27
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"Most development jobs have a fairly explicitly-defined training program" - Not in my experience. I've been a dev at several places now. I've yet to have worked for a place that has an actual dev training program. –  Brian Knoblauch May 28 '13 at 19:41
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@ioSamurai : "Ethics aren't relevant" refers to this person's situation. Ethics are what is considered the "right" thing to do when there is no authority to ask. This person is trying to use "ethics" as a way to sidestep authority, even though he probably doesn't realize it. Ethics are for those in leadership positions. Authority is what line-level employees should worry about. This person is trying to make decisions that are supposed to be made above him, and that's what's likely to get him canned if he isn't careful. BTW - shorting you on pay isn't "Unethical." It's fraud. –  Wesley Long May 28 '13 at 20:00
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@WesleyLong fraud is unethical... –  ioSamurai May 28 '13 at 20:53
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@ioSamurai - Well, yes, fraud is unethical in the same sense that the ocean is damp. Ethics is colloquially defined as a code of conduct that guides you in making decisions where either choice is technically legal, but one is clearly accepted as superior to the other by a common sense of right and wrong. Shorting your pay goes beyond ethical considerations and goes to tort and crime territory. –  Wesley Long May 28 '13 at 21:31

If your employer explicit allow you (or anyone) to read books on the clock, do it as you wish.

IMO, If the books you're reading is just to grow your own professional skills and have nothing with your job, I don't think that do your learning on the clock is "ethical" or that your employer MUST permit you to do. You were hired to be productive for your company and not to study, except if the subject you're studying is required to do your job and someone asked you to do knowing that you have to study.

Your growth as a professional should come from your experiences and what you study off the clock.

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While I have nothing to add to the opinions already posted I'm tempted to post a question:

Is it ethical for my employer to expect me to read programming books in my spare time


What I tried to imply above:

Ethics really?

Why do you aks about ethics in a specific direction. If you are the party caring about it you already know the answer.

On the other hand, I just feel a little bit funny about it.

There you have it. Feeling bad about something should indicate to you what is right and what is wrong. There is no answer anyone else can give you. No I'm not mixing up ethics and morality, both are something very personal and only for oneself to decide.

Cultural Background

It depends a lot on the cultural background you come from. I'm pretty sure that cultures exist where it is pretty much unethical to do anything not being directly tasked with while at work. Personally where I currently live I can tell you that it is highly unethical not to educate oneself during work hours.

The real issue is expectations/assumptions here.

Do you know or assume

  • that people want you to educate yourself or do you assume?
  • that people want you to only do things with a direct "order" (lacking a better term here)?

My advice is: If you have to reach out and ask that the trust relationship that should be between an employer and employee is fundamentally broken, do whatever you can to restore that.

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Post your own question, or make this a comment. This is not an answer. –  Amy Blankenship Nov 9 '13 at 23:46
    
Slightly more verbose now. The question itself if IMHO very bad since ethics (especially without information which culture) is something you just cannot answer. What if this person is from a place with a completely different background than most people here asume? –  Server Horror Nov 10 '13 at 0:32
    
@ServerHorror - Location and culture is one of the challenges on our site. Some folks try to catch the asker and ask them what country they're in, but sometimes we don't quite catch that and make assumptions. Your post adds value by pointing out that it may differ. Although I'm not sure that feeling bad is a good way to tell if something is right or wrong as that could just be that social conditioning kicking in. At any rate, thanks for taking the time to post a good first post on our site! –  jmort253 Nov 10 '13 at 21:51
    
The social condition is my point. All of us have been trained for years to feel bad if we do something that is not quite accepted in our culture (for better or worse). That's why I tried to point out that using the feeling is something very personal... –  Server Horror Nov 15 '13 at 22:33
    
this is awesome. i am a little sickened by the question and a bit more sickened by the tow-the-line attitudes shown here. –  the0ther Feb 21 at 16:00

Anywhere I have worked (web development companies) I have had a library of books on my desk. The reason being, any programmer knows, you never learn EVERY function and having a resource like a book is an important tool.

Also I have a lynda.com account and I have a video going 90% of the time, not always watching, but always listening.

Any employer who wants you to be writing code should allow you to use books / Google / movies as resources.

That being said, when it comes to work, livelihood, paycheck, it's always better to ask permission first.

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I don't think the question is about using books or Google as resources or reference for specific problems. No-one in their right mind would object to that. He probably meant reading programming books out of interest, to find out about cool new things, and not because there is a specific problem in the current project that is addressed in the book. –  Andres F. May 28 '13 at 17:18
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isnt it the same thing though? reading a book, is reading a book. generally a manager gives an order, its best not to split hairs. the whole point to my post, and i probably should modify it...is always ask for permission, not for forgiveness. in this day and age...people get let go for less. –  mheinke May 28 '13 at 17:33
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@JasonSwett: You'll change that forgiveness/permission position after you've been through a couple of recessions and you have a family. That smug attitude doesn't go far when you come home and hear, "Food, Daddy?" –  Wesley Long May 28 '13 at 20:19
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What keeps you employed and employable is not following every rule from "authority" to the letter, it is providing demonstrable value to your employer. There's a bit of a grey area here and plenty of room for a judgement call on the part of the OP. –  Angelo May 30 '13 at 17:02
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Most bosses I've had don't want you running to them every time you're not sure about something. The reason we get paid like we do is because we are able to figure things out. It's only when we go completely off in the wrong direction that they need to direct us back to the right path. –  Amy Blankenship Nov 2 '13 at 14:20

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