One porn move and it’s last (pay) cheque mate

by 14 Oct 2010

The sacking of NSW Ports Minister and subsequent resignation of the HR director has shone the light yet again on inappropriate internet usage, writes Bryan Cook

Although we have had more than a decade of access to email and the internet at work, it seems that many organisations are still struggling with managing inappropriate use of these essential tools.

The sacking of the NSW Ports Minister in early September for accessing adult and gambling websites on his parliamentary computer was just the latest of many such scandals. In July, an Airservices Australia manager was fired over a series of incidents including an allegation that pornography was being emailed between Melbourne air traffic controllers while aircraft was being directed on radar screens nearby. Another example arose in late 2009 when evidence emerged of widespread electronic distribution of inappropriate material amongst Royal Australian Navy personnel.

There is strong evidence that these transgressions at work may be part of a trend occurring in the wider community. Earlier this year in a report published on news-medical.net about a University of Sydney study, Dr Gomathi Sitharthan declared that “some 70 per cent of men and 30 per cent of women access internet porn”. A casual check of popular search terms on Google appears to support this claim – for example Australia ranks fourth in the world for the use of the search term “free pornography”.

However, while accessing legal pornographic material outside of work may (arguably) only be an issue for moral campaigners, it becomes much more sinister if the material is accessed either by using work information and communication technology (ICT). Governments are taking a particularly hard line – for example the Queensland Public Service Commission’s policy on internet and email use by state public servants (issued in 2007) is very clear about the consequences of inappropriate use:

“Employees found to be intentionally accessing, downloading, storing or distributing pornography using government-owned information and communication technology (ICT) facilities and devices will be dismissed.”

The reason for such a stance is that there are so many potential negatives for organisations. The media and indeed the community have proven to be harsh judges of such behaviour, even when the material is relatively innocuous and possibly not even pornographic. For example look at the uproar that resulted when a Macquarie Bank employee was busted looking at revealing images of Miranda Kerr online in the background of a live television broadcast. Aside from the obvious damage to reputations, sharing inappropriate material in the workplace could very easily breach anti-discrimination and sexual harassment laws, with emailed images potentially becoming the 21st century equivalent of the long banished nude calendars and offensive ‘joke’ type posters that previously adorned the walls of many workplaces. There is also a cost to the bottom line, not only in lost productivity but also in the storage and transmission of the material – which is usually in the form of memory and processor sapping photographic images or worse – video clips. Several years ago ICT staff in a large law enforcement agency reported that the organisation’s network performance was degraded when several thousand employees distributed the same inappropriate video clip between each other over two days.

As always, prevention is the key but unequivocal action in response to inappropriate behaviour is also important. Aside from ICT networks having appropriate firewalls, filters and monitoring and tracking systems in place, there are three essential steps for managers and HR professionals to manage the risks:

1. Have a very clear policy about appropriate use of ICT

Employees should be left in no doubt what is and what is not appropriate. Most inappropriate use of ICT is associated with a blurring of the line between work and private life (where an employee regularly communicates with friends and family about private matters) and / or a workplace culture that has become desensitised over time through the distribution of offensive but non-pornographic material such as ‘dirty jokes’ or risqué images. Therefore it is more effective (and much less ambiguous) to limit personal use and to have an absolute ban on any material that is in any way discriminatory or offensive, even if it is not technically classed as pornography.

It should also be made clear to employees that their internet and email use may be audited or even monitored by the organisation at any time. Ideally they should sign a document acknowledging that they are aware of this possibility and they understand what it means. This should overcome any issues with privacy that may arise in the event of inappropriate behaviour being detected and also satisfies the requirement in the NSW Workplace Surveillance Act 2005 that monitoring is illegal unless the employee is given 14 days notice.

2. Review, update and educate regularly

It seems that every year we have new electronic media to ‘stay in touch’ with each other. It is vitally important that policy keeps pace with advancements in technology and also that everyone is regularly reminded of their obligations.

3. Act quickly and decisively in response to inappropriate behaviour

Despite all the warnings, it is human nature that some employees will push the boundaries or even break the rules. It is important that transgressions are dealt with quickly and effectively so that a workplace culture does not develop and also so that the message from the organisation is clear and consistent.

There is no doubt that some workplaces will be more challenging than others, with years of entrenched culture to overcome. However, a complacent or apathetic approach will almost definitely result in serious consequences for an organisation.

It is worth noting that in a postscript to the sacking of the NSW Ports Minister, the human resources executive who requested the audit of staff internet use, apparently without appropriate authorisation, has since resigned. Talk about shooting the messenger!

Bryan Cook is the Managing Director of Ashdale Workplace Solutions and is an expert in managing misconduct and inappropriate behaviour in the workplace.

COMMENTS

Most Read