Sex Surfing at Work: Employers Need Protection

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IBM continues to find itself embroiled in ongoing litigation surrounding the wrongful termination claims of former employee James Pacenza, who is suing the company over his dismissal after it was revealed that he had utilized his office computer to access sexually oriented chat rooms.

Sex Surfing At Work: Employers Need Protection
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Wow, where do I even begin with this one?

One could debate the obvious points of whether or not Internet addiction is a valid clinical disorder, an issue that my colleague Mike Sachoff took on in a piece from yesterday.

There’s also something to be said about the frivolous nature of lawsuits in the United States these days. You can literally sue just about anyone, over just about anything you want. Anyone remember when McDonald’s got taken to the cleaners over the temperature of the coffee?

It seems to me, however, that there’s a deeper issue for business owners, whether small or enterprise, that is lurking beneath the surface in a situation such as this, the story behind the story, if you will.

The pervading theme here revolves around workplace responsibility, and in particular, where it lies when dealing with sensitive and controversial topics such as addiction and sexual misconduct. Do employers take on an assumed liability when hiring individuals who could possibly be harboring such tendencies?

In what I like to think of as my own brand of investigative journalism, I took to the blogosphere to check the social temperature regarding the IBM case, and the perhaps larger debate of employer vs. employee liability.

Some bloggers, such as Lady Aeval (the only flippin’ name listed on the post) have taken the direct approach in speaking out against the lawsuit:

Your employer is not responsible for your addiction to the Internet. Please. IBM has policies against employees using the Internet for personal use such as sex chats so how can this guy even hold a case against them? People will sue over anything.

Others, such as Pastor Tom, try to tackle the concept of personal responsibility with a little more subtlety, even attempting to draw upon corollary elements that could cause such behavior:

The bigger problem evidenced here is the ever increasing lack of responsibility that people feel for their actions. No one is just simply responsible. We have become a culture that shifts the blame to everyone and everything else. It is our upbringing, it is our parents, it is our lack of schooling, it is the fact we were abused, it is whatever we can come up with to deflect the responsibility to someone or something else. Which enables us to never have to look in the mirror and deal with the reality that we are at fault and therefore we must do something to correct the situation. This is why we are a dependent needy culture addicted to addictions. We spend more time diagnosing and defending our addictions than we do dealing with them.

Ultimately, what questions need to be asked here? Is there a simple, catch-all method of effectively approaching these types of situations? Sarah Moore of MooreThoughts.com ponders the quandary:

Where do we draw the line on being responsible for our own choices? Or, even in dealing with behaviors that seem to be out of our own control, to what lengths must an employer go in being lenient with destructive personalities? If a teacher is an alcoholic who repeatedly shows up to work drunk or suffering from a hangover, should that teacher be allowed to seek treatment while taking a paid leave of absence? I don’t think so.

Does the burden of liability fall squarely on the shoulders of the transgressor, or does IBM (in this case) share some of the blame?

At first, the answer would seem obvious. How can IBM be held responsible for the action of a single employee, especially when those actions are clearly in breech of a contract signed by both parties in good faith?

No, IBM cannot be expected to personally hand-hold each of its employees. However, it doesn’t seem entirely unreasonable to question why the company seemingly had no procedures in place to monitor employee activity and block access to restricted content, a sentiment which is echoed by Robert Gerace:

Here’s an idea: how about preventing him from reaching those types of sites before this ever has a chance to become a problem? How about a way to monitor his use of the Internet, notice when his usage is above average, counsel him – even get him help. I’m not saying whether it is or is not a true addiction – all I’m saying is that somewhere, an IT Guy failed.

It’s our job to convince the people we serve that there are things that just need to get budgeted and paid for. Internet filtering and security software is one of them. Today we are looking at a case where an employee made an inappropriate post about an adult topic. Tomorrow it could be illegal acts, gambling, hate speech, or things that could bring shame, embarrassment, and even lawsuits to a company.

Or as I would say, “It takes two to tango.”

As both small and enterprise companies become increasingly dependent on the Internet to function on a daily basis, the danger of misuse begins to loom heavier. Provisos in contracts and finger-crossing isn’t going to be enough to protect a business from having its reputation smeared from one side of the web to the other should a misguided employee engage in unsavory activities when using the company’s computers.

Instead, companies such as IBM need to be proactive in squelching this type of behavior before it ever has the chance to become a serious issue. A rogue employee may be the source of the problem, but a well-protected employer is the source of the solution.

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Joe is a staff writer for WebProNews. Visit WebProNews for the latest ebusiness news.

Sex Surfing at Work: Employers Need Protection
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