Spotlight on…e-mail abuse

Twenty years ago, science teacher Jean Porcelli successfully brought the first case of sexual harassment before the courts. To mark the anniversary of the case, the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) has issued a new guide for employers so they can understand the ramifications of harassment.

The issues today are very different, and some of the biggest threats facing em­-ployers are e-mail, text and internet harassment. The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency in Swansea recently fired 14 staff and disciplined a further 101 for sending pornographic e-mails.

The EOC’s guidelines latch on to this growing problem, recommending that employers become stricter on disciplining e-mail and internet abuse if they are to avoid a tribunal claim.

Jane Hobson, employment law specialist at Ollerenshaw solicitors, says that this is simply common sense. “There is nothing revolutionary or panic-causing there,” she says.

“The new guidelines are more a response to changes in technology, rather than changes in the law. The fact that the press focused on e-mail is just coincidence – the next headline-grabber will be text abuse,” Hobson adds.

Work with IT

So should employers be worried or relieved by the guidelines? “If you have detailed policies on technology abuse, and staff have been trained and have a thorough understanding of the issues, then there is a possibility that liability could rest with the individual employee rather than the employer if a case was brought,” explains Hobson.

One way to ensure policies are followed through is to build closer ties with IT. “Your IT department will undoubtedly be able to help HR identify aspects of the IT system that can be used to combat abuse of e-mail and the internet,” says Cathy Monaghan, who leads the HR department at tax and employment specialists Premier Employer Solutions.

“You can place restrictions on content that can be viewed via the internet, or received via e-mail, and HR guidelines can be created specifically to reflect IT procedures. Regular usage checks can identify those using the system incorrectly or viewing inappropriate content, and the IT evidence can be used in subsequent disputes and dismissals,” adds Monaghan.

Individual responsibility

Stuart Beattie, senior manager of international marketing at IT company Network General, believes the EOC’s new guidelines have shifted the emphasis firmly towards individual, rather than corporate, responsibility, and that means there will always be shades of grey. “Software is rules based, but those rules must be fixed by a human and ultimately interpreted with contextual understanding to reflect a company policy,” he says.

Controlling individual behaviour on a day-to-day basis is impossible, so ultimately all employers can do is understand the ramifications of sexual harassment – whether it’s done within the confines of an e-mail system or in person.

Sexual Harassment: Managers’ Questions Answered is available from the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) website

Sexual harassment -the new threats

  • Passing around lewd jokes by e-mail, whether or not they are directed at certain individuals.
  • Downloading pornographic material on to computers.
  • Inappropriate use of e-mail or internet sites.
  • Offensive office banter, whether over e-mail orin person.

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