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Porn on shared computer? Investigate carefully

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in Discrimination and Harassment,HR Management,Human Resources

Your computer-usage policy no doubt prohibits visiting pornographic and other inappropriate sites. But what if someone surfs forbidden sites using a computer that an entire group of employees has access to? That makes it difficult to positively identify the guilty user.

When you investigate, be sure to check out everyone’s story. When did the offense take place? Who had access then? Your IT department can provide technical assistance so you can base your investigation and conclusions on facts.

Recent case: David Farr worked as a respiratory technician at a hospital. He was the only man in a large department. All the technicians had access to one computer, and each were supposed to log in and out when using it. In practice, that rarely happened.

During one shift, one of the other technicians noticed that there were links to pornographic sites under the Internet favorites tab. She complained to a supervisor, who referred the matter to HR.

HR sent the computer to the IT office, which broke down the web surfing history and matched it to the shifts each technician had worked. The IT investigator discovered that on one day when the sites had been accessed, Farr had been the only technician working. Farr was fired for breaking the hospital’s Internet policy.

He sued, alleging sex discrimination and claiming he had been singled out because of his gender.

But the court disagreed. It believed the IT department had managed to narrow down who had access during a shift when no one else was working—and only then concluded that Farr was the culprit. (Farr v. St. Francis Hospital and Health Centers, No. 08-3203, 7th Cir., 2009)

Final note: Consider adopting a policy requiring employees to log in and out whenever they use shared computers. Then enforce it. That makes tracking activity much easier.

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