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What should we do? We’ve heard rumors that some employees are downloading porn at work

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Q. All of our employees have Internet access at work. We have heard rumors that several employees have been logging onto pornographic and other inappropriate sites, and have been displaying or disseminating objectionable material to others in the workplace. Even though we have not received a formal complaint, do we have an obligation to address this now? What steps can we take to avoid these problems in the future?

A. Under the Fair Employment and Housing Act and Title VII, employers are prohibited from engaging in discrimination or harassment based on an employee’s race, color, national origin, religion or sex. Employees who flaunt or disseminate sexually objectionable material (or objectionable material concerning a particular race, color, religion or national origin) obtained on the Internet can be contributing to a hostile work environment, which may violate Title VII.

In general, an employer is liable for employee harassment only if it knew or should have known of the misconduct and failed to take remedial steps. The fact that you are aware of “rumors” about this type of activity likely creates the requisite knowledge that would expose you to liability if you fail to remedy the situation.

There are several steps you can take to address this issue.

  • Identify the employees causing the disruptions. Discipline them in accordance with your policies.
  • Reacquaint your employees with the company’s anti-harassment policy and complaint procedure.
  • If you have not already done so, expand your anti-harassment policy to prohibit harassment based on race, color, religion, national origin, disability and age.

To prevent similar problems from arising in the future, monitor your employees’ Internet usage. As with any employee monitoring system, you need to inform workers that their use of the Internet during work hours and on company computers maybe be monitored. This should eliminate any expectation of privacy and will reduce your exposure to an invasion-of-privacy claim.

Finally, as with all your workplace policies, require all employees to sign an acknowledgment that they have read and understand the provisions of this new policy.

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