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I have a colleague who also freelances on the side after hours (I assume this is ok, it's none of my business). I discovered today he's using his work laptop and work software license for his freelancing work. He showed me what he was working on at lunch and I was surprised to see him using the work pc and software license for his side stuff.

Is this ok?? It doesn't sit well with me. Should I say something to our boss? Or speak to him about it? I wasn't really planning on saying anything because it's none of my business but I just was curious of this something that is common and considered OK to do. I'd never do this myself.


(I know this question may seem obvious to some but I'm asking because I have Asperger's and tend to have a pretty high sense of morality. So often I see things as black and white when others don't, and I can be wayyyy off sometimes. So I like to hear what other people think about a given situation just to check my viewpoint. I also am a foreign national living in the USA so there are cultural differences too).

I understand for the most part the ASD isn't relevant, the only reason I included it is to show that i have a reduced ability to judge appropriate responses to social situations. I appreciate everyone's concerns regarding me ratting on my collegue. My entire point of the question was to gauge my response and I understand this is not as big of a deal as I initially thought. As a woman, my ASD presents differently from men's and this means that I tend to do a lot of research regarding social situations and have a lot of practice behaving correctly. Many colleagues don't know i have ASD. As such, I tend to put a lot of thought, time and effort into my actions, including speaking to family members, friends and mental health professionals about these kinds of questions, and on occasion asking on places like this to have a better understanding of appropriate social behavior. I appreciate everyone's concerns about narcissism and general assholery and I assure you that my family and therapist would be the first to tell me if that were ever the case :)

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Neo
    Jan 24 at 17:39

10 Answers 10

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It may or may not be OK based on their employment contract and the details of how the hardware is procured, but in any case it is not any of your business.

In general, when hardware and software completely provided to a direct employee, there's something in an employee handbook or policy saying not to use it for other purposes. This is not always the case depending on the company and the specifics of its business and stance towards employees and security, and especially not if the employee has to procure the equipment in any way (BYOD for example) or if they are a contractor. And sometimes they just don't really care - I've worked for some companies that didn't have a bunch of IT spyware and as long as you're not always wanting a new laptop because you jacked yours up they didn't care how you used it.

But unless it's dangerous or serious fraud, narcing out coworkers for whatever real or imagined ethical slight will generally turn out at least as poorly for you.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Neo
    Jan 25 at 16:51
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I would say this entirely depends on company policy. At a previous company I worked at, this would have been considered a breach of my contract. I was actually contractually obligated to give any work done using work resources over to my employer. Where I currently work, however, I was informed that my work laptop is to be used as a personal computer if I so desire. Essentially, they see the benefit of my learning new skills and gaining experience so long as I continue to keep up with my work and provide quality code. Check your contract, and possibly inquire with your manager, without bringing up the individual in question. If he were working on this within company hours, this would be a cut and dry case, but given that it's during after hours, it will depend on your company's policies..

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First of all, it is better not to talk with your boss about this. It is not your business. You might want to talk with your co-worker about it that using the company's equipment for a side job feels wrong to you. If talking to your co-worker is a good idea or not probably depends on your relationship.

Others already pointed out that it all comes back to how does your co-worker's contract looks like or what does your employee handbook or other policies tell.

One thing, I would like to stress is – because that would probably be the worst outcome – several times I had sections in my contracts that when there are company resources involved then all work I do and all IP I create belongs to the company. With a contract like that, it means using a company computer for a side-project might not only be a breach of contract, even worse, the company could demand all income that your co-worker earned with his side-project and the source code of the project.

But again. It is not your business, you might want to express your worries to your co-worker, but do not talk to your boss.

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  • If OP's contract/training states an obligation to report misuse of company resources, and if this falls under the employer's definition of "misuse", then it very much is OP's business. Jan 24 at 2:37
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If you want to know whether you can do this or not, you can always ask. There certainly do exist companies that permit this. There is a spectrum of policies:

  • we own everything you do no matter where or when you do it and what equipment you use; no moonlighting or freelancing
  • it's ok as long as it's on your own time, in your own premises, and with your own equipment (often this also includes that it's not competition)
  • it's ok as long as it's on your own time, in your own premises, and not competition
  • we don't care, you're probably learning, don't do too much of it while you're actually at work, a few emails or phone calls are ok

None of us can predict which of these your employer has implemented. My policy was that you had to check with your manager in advance, you usually couldn't use our stuff or do it on work time, and you couldn't go around our sales process to a current prospect trying to get the work for yourself as a freelancer. But you don't know what your policy is.

If you decide to go find out what your policy is, don't lead with "someone here at work is doing X and I wanted to know if I could too." That could derail the conversation into being all about the coworker. Instead, try something like this:

I have a friend [*] who does freelance stuff in the evenings and says it's a great way to learn things that he often ends up using at work later. I am curious to look into it more, but I figured the first step would be to ask you if it is even allowed and what the restrictions are.

* - note you do not lie and say "who works somewhere else" but neither do you say "who works here". The identity of the friend is not important in your question, it just provides background about why you are curious -- you have learned this is a thing some people in the world can do.

Then listen to the policies, ask clarifying questions if needed, and ask what the procedures are (eg if you're supposed to get permission from your manager, is that a verbal conversation, an email, what?). Now you will know what you need to know for yourself. You won't know if your friend is cheating or not, but if that becomes important to you, you can loop back to your friend later and say "did you clear that with X? is it a secret that you're doing this?" and similar questions.

If you aren't interested to know whether you can do this or not, and are only concerned your friend is breaking a rule, I would recommend you not try to find out. It's delicate work with nuances, and probably too much work for the possible gain of knowing whether someone else is wrong or right.

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Instead of talking to him, you can point him to the answers on this site.

For £999 I can get a laptop that is better than my work computer. I can use that for all side jobs that I might have, but also generally for having a laptop of my own, which most people have. That's the expense that I would have. Ok, add a backup drive, a large monitor if you want, it's not that much more.

What does that money buy you: Security. He can read his contract carefully. Many contracts say that everything created with company propery is owned by the company. That could cost you a money. There may be no strict policy, but if the company finds out, they might take not, and if they are in a situation where someone needs to be laid off for money reasons, there's a good chance that it's your colleague, because they have a good excuse to fire him without any compensation.

And generally, if the side project causes any problems, breaks anything on his computer, he will be in trouble. Not worth it.

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    A new laptop may be cheap, but software licenses are not. Not that I support using the company's software licenses for freelancing work, but just want to point out that the saved expenses may easily be several hundreds per month.
    – wimi
    Jan 24 at 8:48
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This question was in my Computer Ethics class, a long time ago. Time may have changed the answer, or your country may see it very differently.

You don't own the work that is done with someone else's equipment. The reasoning is that they somehow partially funded the effort, by having bought the equipment. Also, without their funding, the work wouldn't exist; so they participated in creating the work (by providing equipment).

This means you can sell the work without their knowledge, as that would be like a form of theft. Unfortunately, you can't go back in time either and pay for the portion of their laptop you used; as the value of the work isn't in the cost it took to produce; but, in the price a person is willing to pay for the work.

Now, it is possible to get agreements that redefine the relationship to put you in the clear for this kind of work; but, without an explicit agreement, you could find yourself talking to lawyers about the work your sold to others, which they partially funded.

Buy a separate laptop for your own efforts. If the side-job is legitimate, the laptop will pay for itself.

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  • 1
    If it was that simple, then Dell, who manufactured the laptop I'm writing this comment on, would own this comment. Or my employer might. (One of those two companies definitely owns the laptop.) However, it's not that simple. I own this comment. My employer has a policy about this which allows some non-work related uses and disallows others. Jan 24 at 16:06
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    "You don't own the work that is done with someone else's equipment." That is not true where I live (or at least, not so clear cut). Jan 25 at 16:51
  • Well, you can do it, but you need permission to do it, with clear indication they won't have an interest in the work, is the more accurate way to say it. After all, we can't borrow the company car to deliver pizzas, or the company server room to mine bitcoins; unless, a company gives us permission to do so.
    – Edwin Buck
    Jan 26 at 13:53
  • @JirkaHanika Don't be daft. There's this thing called a "sale" and when you buy something, you own it. Any work products coming from items you own aren't entangled by those you paid to make the items. What we are talking about here is different. It's "borrowing" someone else's property without permission to make money on the side that they never hear about.
    – Edwin Buck
    Jan 26 at 13:55
  • @EdwinBuck - I didn't pay anybody to get access to that particular laptop and yet the IP ownership is clear. Sorry, the law just don't work the way you think (in countries like the U.S.) - your Computer Ethics teacher may have used a different definition of "theft" than your local criminal code. Some concepts that might or might not apply to your scenarios are called "unjustified enrichment", "absence from work", "breach of contract", or even "non-competition agreement violation" if your employer is an order aggregator; rather than "theft". (Supposing the pizza was paid for.) Jan 26 at 14:41
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I recently asked our lawyers about this (France). I took my own example, of someone who participates at various open source programs on the company laptop at home in my personal time.

The answer was that, in theory, the output belongs to the company.

In reality, it would completely depend on the kind of work.

  • competition for the company: bad
  • work that is interesting for the company: company may be interested
  • coding that has nothing to do with the company, on opensource projects without legal involvement of the company: tolerated
  • coding for money: needs management approval as any paid work outside of company

The reality is that the company does not really care until this is not a legal/IP problem. And is usually dealt with on a case-by-case basis for more complicated cases.

I must highlight that my company is very reasonable (and a great company besides that) so only problematic cases would be handled. This may be very different in another country or company.

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  • To remember: Your company might know about it and as long as they are happy to employ you it is Ok. If they need to lay off someone to save money, they may suddenly realise that they can fire you without any compensation.
    – gnasher729
    Jan 23 at 20:00
  • @gnasher729: yes of course. Then it depends on the company, country, local culture etc.
    – WoJ
    Jan 23 at 20:19
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The answer is a flat NO.
A company laptop is company property that is legally meant for doing work that the company gives you. You are meant to use it only for company work.

Being ethical has nothing to do with Aspergers syndrome. It's just commonsense that when somebody entrusts their hardware to you with the trust that you will use it in a particular way, you make sure that you do not break that trust.

Irrespective of what people say about checking with the boss or "some companies allow it", I say that it's better not to use the company laptop for any other use because there's a risk of introducing malware into the laptop (which has HUGE consequences for companies), it may breach your contract with the company and the company may very well have installed software in the laptop which could even possibly record your screen and activities while you are offline and then upload them to the company IT guys when you get back online. When freelancing for a client (assuming the company allows use of the laptop for personal work), it can be a breach of confidential info for the client's data if the company is using software to monitor your activities on the laptop.

Simple thing to do: Just use your salary or save up slowly to buy your own laptop or desktop PC or even a cheap Raspberry Pi (after checking if it suits your need).

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  • 4
    Well, you're simply wrong, and the other (older) answers explain why. Jan 23 at 18:23
  • 3
    I've upvoted; I think it most likely is this clear cut, and I think it's vanishingly unlikely that any of the "maybe it's ok if..." scenarios would be borne out in reality.
    – CCTO
    Jan 23 at 19:21
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    Well, these fear-mongering scenarios are just as unlikely. Jan 23 at 21:35
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    @MartinZeitler: The "fear-mongering" scenarios are actual documented incidents well known in the cyber threats community. Sure, if a person takes due care, there won't be any problem, but we don't know if OP has family members or room-mates using the laptop or what sites OP visits etc. In general, the safest bet is to just use your own computer.
    – Nav
    Jan 24 at 4:20
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I don't think it's possible to give a general answer to this. The answers will depend on your company's policy and the nature of the work that you're doing.

Is it okay? Some companies take a very restrictive approach to use of company equipment and may actively police that. This becomes more likely when taxpayer money is involved, or when IT security is a high priority, or for organisations that receive a lot of tax scrutiny.

For example, a few years back we had a case where a council road crew had finished road repairs for the day, and still had a small amount of asphalt left over that they didn't need. The crew used it to do a private repair for a friend, for which they were paid in sandwiches. I don't recall the final outcome, but it got them in serious hot water because government assets aren't supposed to be used for private benefit to friends.

Depending on your local tax laws, being able to use work equipment for private ends may also be seen as a taxable fringe benefit, which creates administrative headaches.

Other organisations are far more lenient. Your best course of action here is to check for any organisational policies on use of IT equipment, and then ask your manager to clarify how strictly they're applied.

If the response indicates that the company is okay with this kind of use, you can leave it there. OTOH, if your manager tells you "no, people would get fired for doing that kind of thing", you might then suggest to your colleague that it's not a good idea.

I'm going to push back a bit on the "don't snitch" answers. In many workplaces, management might consider this kind of use acceptable, in which case there's no obligation to report. But that's not universal. Some workplaces not only forbid this kind of use but also make it an obligation on other staff to report misuse of employer resources; I'd have to check the corporate manuals, but if something like this happened in my workplace, I suspect it'd be my legal obligation to report it.

So you need to figure out, through employer policy and discussion with your manager, what the organisation expects of you here. Different posters on SO can speak for their own workplaces but none of us can really tell you how it works for yours.

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This is mainly an add-on to the answers that point to the company policy:

The policy and your contract tell you what applies to you.


You still cannot know what applies to your co-worker.

I've repeatedly been the odd coworker with a non-standard contract that allowed me to freelance in ways my colleagues (probably) weren't allowed to.
All that was perfectly clear and open between my employer and me and put down in an addendum to the working contract. But few colleagues knew: While no secret, it was also none of their business so I only told them if the topic came up somehow.

I'd say it contributes to a healthy work environment to take the default position that your coworker knows what they are doing and does it in an honest fashion.


Being concerned about your colleague

There also have been situations where I've been concerned about colleagues whether they maneuver themselves unknowingly/by oversight into the wrong.

  • In your case, the potential problem lies between your colleague and employer, you are only a third party. As others have said, this makes it mostly none of your business.

    • If that colleague is also a friend and you do have a trustful relationship, you may express this concern e.g. privately asking them "I'm a bit concerned about your standing here, you did get any required approval by management, did you?"

    • Otherwise, I'd say that it is none of your business - the more so since you cannot know that your colleague is doing anything wrong even if the standard policy does not allow such use.
      I gather (mostly on academia.sx) that there may be significant cultural differences when it comes to informing between the US and my Central European background. Over here, denouncing is by default bad, and if it happens it sows distrust (even if the outcome is that your colleague had permission!) - but academia.sx tells me that students may be expected to denounce colleagues in the US.

      Even without Asperger's and only a different cultural background, the subtleties here would make this too hot a topic for me to take any action with management.

  • Related but different from OP's situation: I've been a direct part of an occurence where someone was about to communicate information to me that I should not receive then/that way, and I politely but clearly told them to be careful to not tell me anything about X since I'm not supposed to receive that information because of Y. (My work includes some tasks where professional independence is important which limits what can be discussed and disclosed, and it is quite possible to accidentally run into this.)
    In turn, I've been told by a colleague that some suggestion wouldn't do because their reputation of independence may be endangered. (Which I could have realized had I thought about it, but I had interacted with them as researchers and I was not sufficiently "conscious" that their institute also has legal examiner/referee responsibilities which limit with whom they can collaborate)

    Both have been perfectly fine professional interactions, and I hold that it is good to make sure all is well if you think someone's professional integrity may be endangered.

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