Net abuse action causes stir

The sacking of 44 Orange employees for downloading offensive material from the Internet is a reminder to all HR managers to back up policies with education and technical support, legal experts warned this week.

Orange confirmed last week that it fired the staff at call centres in Darlington and Peterlee and offices in Hertfordshire for circulating material from the Internet that it described as “offensive but not pornographic”.

A company spokeswoman said, “Orange’s policy states that the creation or exchange of messages or attachments that are offensive, harassing, obscene, racist, sexist, threatening or libellous is strictly prohibited and that failure to comply with the policy may result in disciplinary action, including dismissal.”

She said the decision to go ahead with the mass sackings followed a thorough investigation. Employees are aware of the policy which is e-mailed to them as a reminder regularly, she said.

David Engel, an expert on Internet policy at law firm Theodore Goddard, said the case showed companies may need to do more than have a well-publicised policy to prevent staff abusing the Internet.

“It is not simply a question of drafting the best e-mail policy, it is just as much a question of education,” he said.

Staff should be given training in what they can and can’t do, he said, and the legal risks the company could face through their actions should be explained.

He added that employers should consider software that prevents staff accessing certain sites and that allows the company to intercept e-mails containing key words.

Marcus Rowland, solicitor at Kemp and Co, said mass sackings for Internet abuse will become more common as companies are increasingly reviewing all staff’s e-mail and Internet accounts when complaints are made.

“The employer will have to decide whether to fire all or none of them,” he said.

By Dominique Hammond

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