Asbury Park Press, 11/28/07 - More than a decade after employers began cracking
down on those who view online pornography at work, porn continues to create
tension in offices across the nation in part because laptop computers, cell
phones and other portable devices have made it easier for risk-takers to visit
such Web sites undetected.
Devices providing wireless access to the Internet appear to be giving the porn-at-work phenomenon a boost even as employers get more aggressive about using software to block workers' access to inappropriate Web sites. About 65 percent of U.S. companies used such software in 2005, according to a survey by the American Management Association and the ePolicy Institute, up from 40 percent in 2001.
Many employers say that because it's so easy to access porn on portable devices even those that are company-owned and outfitted to block access to adult-oriented Web sites they are increasingly concerned about being sued by employees who are offended when co-workers view naughty images.
With wireless devices, close monitoring of employees is impossible. "There's nothing you can do," says Richard Laermer, CEO of the public relations firm RLM. "Liability is the thing that keeps me up at night because we are liable for things people do on your premises. It's serious. I'll see somebody doing it, and I'll peek over their shoulder, and they'll say, 'I don't know how that happened.' It's like 10-year-olds. And it's always on company time."
Through the years, surveys have indicated that many workers run across adult Web sites or images while at work, but few say they have done so intentionally.
About 16 percent of men who have access to the Internet at work acknowledged having seen porn while on the job, according to a survey for Websense by Harris Interactive in 2006. Eight percent of women said they had. But of those who acknowledged viewing porn sites at work, only 6 percent of men and 5 percent of women acknowledged that they had done so intentionally.
When it comes to portable devices, employers can use blocking software if they have provided the equipment to workers, says Richard Chaifetz, CEO of ComPsych, a Chicago-based employee-assistance provider. However, there is little they can do if employees have their own BlackBerrys or other devices. In such cases, he says, some employers have begun restricting the use of employee-owned laptops or cell phones during work time or meetings.
"This issue is huge," Chaifetz says. "It's becoming a bigger and bigger problem."
Meanwhile, porn continues to create conflicts in the workplace.
There has been a string of lawsuits filed recently by workers who say they've felt harassed by others' viewing of porn on the job. And in a twist, a few lawsuits have been filed by workers who believe they were disciplined unfairly for visiting porn sites on company time.
The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has brought several lawsuits against companies based on complaints by people who claimed they saw co-workers viewing or distributing adult-oriented material at work.
In one case, the EEOC alleged that First Mutual, a mortgage company in Cherry Hill subjected a male employee to a sexually hostile work environment, sexual harassment by a female co-worker and retaliatory firing when he complained. According to the lawsuit, the alleged harasser e-mailed nude photos of herself and of another woman to the man's company computer.
A First Mutual spokesman, saying the case has been settled, declined to comment.
In a case settled this year, the EEOC alleged that Sierra Aluminum fired a six-year employee after she reported that an assistant manager had viewed pornography on his company computer. The company will pay $200,000 to settle the matter, according to an announcement released in August.
Sometimes, employees who were punished or fired for viewing adult-oriented Web sites at work have struck back.
IBM is being sued by former employee James Pacenza, who in 2003 was fired from his job at the company's research park in East Fishkill, N.Y., after he visited an adult chat site while at work and neglected to log off when he left the computer. Another employee discovered the site and told a manager.
Pacenza, a Vietnam War veteran, took IBM to federal court, claiming that his firing was wrong and discriminatory. In court papers, he says he relied on visiting the Web site to help ease post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Pacenza, who had worked for IBM for more than 19 years, argues that employees with more severe psychological problems, or drug and alcohol addictions, were allowed to get treatment without being fired.
"I really think he did nothing wrong and was fired for having a vulgar word on his computer," says Michael Diederich, Pacenza's attorney. "It was a pretext for getting rid of an older guy who suffered with psychological effects of Vietnam."
IBM spokesman Fred McNeese says Pacenza was "dismissed for violating IBM's business code of conduct." He says the company's employees are informed that computers are to be used for work purposes only.
IBM is seeking to have the case dismissed.
The recent litigation surrounding porn-at-work complaints has many employers scrambling to come up with better strategies for discouraging workers from viewing such material.
About one in four companies have fired an employee for misusing the Internet, according to a 2005 survey by the American Management Association. Some employers have adopted a zero-tolerance policy; others impose progressively more serious penalties when they catch an employee viewing adult Web sites.
Lee Miller of the Web site Your Career Doctors, a career coach for midlevel executives in Morristown, N.J., says that when he was working for another company in 1999 he fired an employee who mistakenly forwarded a pornographic video clip to a female executive instead of a male co-worker. The employee, he says, was a midlevel executive and very embarrassed.
"We called the guy in and said, "Here it is, we have solid proof,' " says Miller, who has worked in human resources at several companies. "Often, they're sufficiently embarrassed that they usually resign, and companies don't want to make a big issue of it. Even though companies have the right to monitor (employees' Internet use), it's just not cost-effective" for many. "This tends to come up when somebody sees (adult content) over somebody's shoulder."
Discipline policies regarding adult content are a key issue in today's work environment, where it's not unusual for adult images to be passed around by e-mail.
In a 2004 survey of 15,000 people by Elle magazine and MSNBC, 15 percent of men and 8 percent of women acknowledged having e-mailed sexual images to co-workers. The online survey is the subject of an analysis on the Internet that will be published in the coming months in the Journal of Sex Research.
Julie Albright, a sociologist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and author of the upcoming article, says employers are right to be alarmed about adult content in the workplace.
"A lot of companies are very worried about a hostile work environment," she says. "Larger companies are more likely to have codes-of-conduct policies and are more likely to block sex Web sites, but smaller companies may not."
Researchers and psychologists who study Internet users' behavior say those who view online porn at work are doing so because they get a rush out of risk-taking behavior, engage in self-delusional beliefs that they won't get caught and, in some cases, suffer from addictive behaviors.
The rising use of mobile devices such as video phones could exacerbate the problem, they say.
"This dilemma is going to get much worse, given the capacity of handheld, electronic devices to download porn from the Internet," says Carleton Kendrick, a psychotherapist in Millis, Mass. "That will eliminate an employer's opportunity to check which workers have been going to porn sites on company computers."
Michael Leahy, who used to work in computer sales for employers such as IBM, Unisys and NEC, agrees that mobile devices make it easier for workers who are bent on accessing porn sites to do so without their employers' knowledge.
He says that because of advances in mobile technology, employers' efforts to block or monitor workers' Internet usage can be circumvented easily, and that efforts to block access to adult-oriented Web sites can be futile because so many new sites are popping up.
Leahy, 49, who says he is a recovering sex addict, says his employers never knew that he spent hours viewing pornography on his laptop during work hours.
"I always hid it. I always used laptops, and I'd look at it behind
closed doors," says Leahy, who lives in Atlanta, is a professional speaker
and writer on the issue of Internet pornography. "The biggest impact was
the risk I brought to businesses in terms of sexual harassment or other claims
and the lost productivity. Even with blockers and filters, I could view
Employees waste time surfing the Web or e-mailing football pool information to friends. They download content that can offend fellow workers or passers-by in the office. They write down passwords and carry the list in their wallet or purse.
The result: Productivity drops, civil liability increases, and the company network and security are compromised, said Peluso, president of Centuric LLC, a Fort Lauderdale Internet security firm.
Improper Internet usage is pervasive in the workplace. Some 70 percent of Internet pornography traffic occurs between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on workdays, according to Websense, which helps companies develop Internet policies and enhance their security. Four out of five companies have Internet access policies outlining acceptable and unacceptable use, and almost a third of companies have fired workers for violating company Internet policy, according to a Websense survey.
Industries such as banking and finance, insurance, and professional services like legal, accounting, medical and real estate have long been subject to client confidentiality and federal regulations. Yet, Internet access and acceptable use policies are foreign to many small businesses.
Using outside applications, like instant messenger, can open the network to intrusion. Client or company confidentiality can be broken, and claims of sexual or racial harassment or a hostile work environment can emerge if people are offended by Web or e-mail content, potentially exposing the company to criminal or civil liability, which can hurt a company's reputation.
From a practical standpoint, prohibiting personal Web surfing or e-mail transmissions can help reduce vulnerability to viruses, spyware, adware and other malicious software as well as keep productivity from slipping.
Internet use policies go hand-in-hand with employee manuals and document retention policies, said Thomas A. Sadaka, an of-counsel expert in information security and privacy with the law firm Berger Singerman in Fort Lauderdale. It's up to companies to draft policies and educate employees about suitable online conduct.
Internet and e-mail use is for company business only; a company should decide whether personal use is allowable during lunchtime or other breaks, and still within limitations.
Derogatory or offensive content, messages or images may not be transmitted or downloaded.
User IDs and passwords for network access should not be written down, disclosed to anyone, or contain common words or names, and should be changed quarterly.
A confidentiality notice should be included in all e-mail messages. Install it as part of the signature setting so it automatically appears when any new e-mail is generated.
The company has the right to monitor employee Internet, e-mail and instant messenger use and to take disciplinary action on any violations to its policy.
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