The Internet and Employee Liability – Part 2 of 3

Three Part Blog

Part 2: The Internet and Employee Liability

In the previous article, we looked at productivity concerns related to employee use of the Internet. In this article we turn our attention to liabilities managers must consider when employees use company resources to access the Internet. So what new liabilities have you brought upon yourself since your company decided to connect to the ‘Net?

The term “hostile workplace” conjures up images of screaming supervisors publicly berating employees. Now, Sally walks past Fred’s cubicle and Fred has a provocative YouTube clip running on his screen. Then Fred, who has always had a weird sense of humor, email broadcasts an off-color joke that he thinks is a riot. Most of the recipients in the office think Fred’s joke is marginally funny, if that, but Sally, who is miserable to begin with, is now sent over the edge and decides to retire by slapping a hostile workplace lawsuit on you. Sound like an exaggeration? The Internet has broadened the definition of sexual harassment. Edward Jones, one of the world’s biggest brokerage firms, issued a memo demanding its workers disclose if they sent pornography or off-color jokes over the brokerage’s e-mail system. Forty-one employees who confessed were disciplined, but 19 who failed to come forward were fired.

Dow Chemical fired 24 employees and disciplined hundreds of others for storing and sending sexual or violent images on the company’s computers. Twelve librarians in Minneapolis filed a complaint saying that library visitors were downloading porn, including bestiality and child molestation, and leaving it for librarians and patrons to see. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) ruled against the library in favor of the librarians saying that the library “did subject the charging party to [a] sexually hostile work environment.” Losing these lawsuits can be very costly. Recommended restitution for the librarians was $900,000. One customer of Pearl Software’s Internet Management software implemented our solution in her business because she suspected employees were wasting too much time on the Web and sending an inordinate amount of personal e-mail. Not only did her instincts prove correct, she also found one employee who was starting her own Internet adult Web site – while at work. While on the company dime and using company computers, this employee was developing her web site including downloading porn to post on her website and creating lurid sex stories for her potential customers.

Public image and how customers perceive your company is crucial to any business’s success. Goodwill is an intangible asset that adds significant value to the equity in your company. One need only think of Enron or BP to realize the host of issues beyond the Internet that can negatively affect a company’s image forcing the company to fold or spend an inordinate amount of money to rebuild the way people perceive it. The Internet brings a new dimension to potential PR nightmares – Ladies Home Journal is a case-in-point. An associate editor for the well regarded magazine decided to publish work details in her then anonymous and very popular Blog. She wrote about lavish perks given only to executives, detailed a “beauty hierarchy” within the organization and named names of favored employees. When the associate editor was outed as the author of the blog, her criticism of her employer was an embarrassment to Ladies Home Journal with its customers, agents and competitors.

Whether you’re a small or large organization, if you’re a company that spends time or money building an image, nothing can tarnish that image and erase the value of those advertising dollars quicker than being associated with child porn. One of our multinational manufacturing customers quickly dismissed an employee for intentionally downloading child porn and reported the individual to authorities. Our customer not only realized that they had to circle the wagons to protect their image but had a legal and moral responsibility to the community in which the offender resides.

In addition to image problems, lawmakers have piled on a host of laws and regulations that require the safeguarding of personally identifiable information. Issues abound protecting privacy on the Internet. In Florida, a statistician working for the Palm Beach Health Department inadvertently sent a broadcast email containing a highly confidential list of the names and addresses of 4,500 Palm Beach County residents with AIDS and 2,000 others who were HIV positive. In a similar mishap, a large pharmaceutical company sent an email to all registrants of its time-to-take-your-drug reminder service. But instead of sending an email individually to each customer, the company broadcast the email to all recipients by placing all subscribers’ addresses in the “To:” field of the e-mail thereby unintentionally disclosing to each individual subscriber the e-mail addresses of all subscribers using its drugs. The company received a slew of bad press.

Managing liabilities is part of the cost of doing business; extraordinary liabilities such as hostile workplace suits, negative public relations and the negligent disclosure of personally identifiable information exacerbated by employee Internet misuse can go a long way towards sinking a business. Part 3 of this series will discuss security considerations in managing Employee Internet usage.

Posted in Cyber Security.