Calling all cyber-censors

At a recent conference for HR professionals a survey of delegates showed
that a massive 86 per cent work for a company which provides Internet access to
its staff. Of those companies, 63 per cent have an Internet policy in place and
of those, two-thirds have disciplined or dismissed someone for breaching it.

The figures back up what many HR professionals already know, that
controlling Internet and e-mail use is fast becoming a priority and is opening
up a hornets’ nest of problems and challenges.

"I know from my own experience and from talking to people here today
that it is a serious issue and it is being dumped on HR professionals to deal
with," said Cliff Powell, HR director at software house Trend Micro and a
delegate at the Meeting the Challenge of the Internet Age conference held by
law firm Eversheds in Leeds.

Prime concerns

So what are the problems that the Internet and e-mail systems pose? And what
do HR professionals need to do to protect their organisation and staff from the

By far the most common problem encountered by those at the conference was
downloading of pornography. In an audience survey, conducted using electronic
voting devices, seven out of 10 people said it is the most common breach of
their company’s Internet policy. Another quarter said excessive personal use is
the biggest problem.

Apart from the obvious waste of company time these and other abuses cause,
they can also have serious legal implications for employers, delegates were
told. They can lead to allegations of harassment and defamation, the leaking of
company secrets and potential prosecution under the Obscene Publications Act
and Data Protection Act. Companies also risk damage to their reputation by
disgruntled employees posting rants about their employer on Internet notice
boards – known as "cyber-venting" – and with sabotage of company
computer systems.

Risk reduction

According to solicitor Vanessa Chamberlain, the key to dealing with
cyber-harassment is recognising that e-mails and the Internet are just another
form of communication. So employers need to ensure that current harassment
policies are extended to cover offensive material circulated or disseminated in
that way.

She warned that employers are liable for harassment from a third party under
their control. That means employers can be liable for an image on an employee’s
screen that another employee finds offensive. In one case, an employee won a
claim for sexual harassment after walking past a VDU with a pornographic image
on it, Chamberlain said.

"It should be made absolutely clear in a policy that downloading
pornography is an offence that will lead to dismissal," she said.
"Employers have to be able to show that they have taken reasonable
practical steps to protect staff from harassment. Without a policy stating what
can and can not be done, it would be difficult to prove that reasonable steps
have been taken."

Failing to spell out that pornographic sites are strictly off limits could
also put employers at risk under the Obscene Publications Act, which makes it a
criminal offence to store, disseminate or publish obscene material, she said.

Having an Internet and e-mail policy in place that spells out what is
acceptable and what is not will also protect employers in other circumstances.
Since e-mail has come into common use at work the risk of employers being held
responsible for a libellous remark made in a message by an employee and sent to
another person has become a reality for the first time.

Libel protection

But employers have a defence if they have taken reasonable care to prevent
the defamation occurring – that is, they have stated in their policy that
e-mails should not be used to make critical comments about people. The same
defence can be called on in cases of breach of confidentiality.

If employers are worried about their staff sending out company secrets or
offensive material they can go a step further by monitoring e-mails, said
solicitor Debbie Jones. But she warned, "Employment tribunals take a dim
view of monitoring but if you are open about it and you tell your employees in
advance that you are doing it, then it is acceptable."

Open culture

Keeping staff informed is also crucial to making sure policies work. In some
companies, e-mail and Internet abuse have become so endemic that it is impossible
to discipline everyone.

In these cases, the whole company needs to be reminded of the company’s
stance, said Jones. The best way to do that is to reintroduce the policy by
sending everyone an e-mail letting them know the policy exists and what it

Net statistics

86% work in a company which gives Internet access to staff

77% work in a company which has its own intranet

44% are in a company which uses Web-based training

91% would consider using Web-based training

54% advertise vacancies on the company web site

63% have an Internet policy

66% have dismissed or disciplined someone for breaching it

71% said downloading offensive material is the most common breach

26% said excessive personal use is the most common breach

Source: Meeting the Challenge of The Internet Age delegate survey

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