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Use your Internet policy to justify terminating potentially dangerous employee

by on
in Employment Law,HR Management,Human Resources

Employers that want to maintain a productive workplace are smart to set limits on the websites employees can visit.

After all, spending work time looking for bargains, planning a vacation, checking in with friends or indulging a hobby may be productive for the em­­ployee—but it steals time and adds nothing to an employer’s bottom line.

Advice: Invest in software that blocks employee access to off-limits sites. Then tell employees what kinds of web content you consider inappropriate. That way, if an employee attempts to circumvent the blocking, you still have grounds to discipline him based on the subject matter.

Consider the following case, in which an employer was able to use its Internet policy to terminate an e­mployee whom co-workers and super­visors feared might do them harm.

Recent case: Tony Jackson worked for Planco as a software administrator. The company had a clear Internet policy that prohibited employees from visiting inappropriate websites. It also used blocking software to filter web use.

Jackson had to take FMLA leave several times after having a heart ­attack and two strokes. He recovered and returned to work. But his performance began to deteriorate. The company documented the slide in several performance appraisals. Jackson was counseled that he had to improve.

Finally, when things didn’t get better, Planco told Jackson it felt he would be better off with a less stressful, but lower-paying position. It offered him a transfer.

Jackson got angry and acted “disgusted” according to the HR staffer who delivered the offer.

The next day, Jackson discovered that the Internet blocking software wasn’t working properly and visited several prohibited websites including Playboy—and several gun pages. Jackson’s supervisor, who knew that Jackson already owned guns and frequented shooting ranges, concluded that he might be dangerous after catching him looking at the websites.

Management suspended Jackson pending an investigation. It then checked his Internet usage and discovered he had indeed visited a number of gun-related sites. Man­age­ment asked Jackson about this, and he admitted what he had done and confirmed that he owned a number of weapons.

Jackson was then fired for breaking the Internet policy and because the company believed he might be dangerous, based on his anger and gun interest.

He sued, alleging disability discrimination.

The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals said Planco was in the right.

It fired Jackson for breaking a policy and had a reasonable fear he might try to do harm to his fellow workers. The court also noted that the company didn’t have to be right about any danger that Jackson might actually pose as long as its concern was sincere. (Jackson v. Planco, No. 09-4201, 3rd Cir., 2011)

Final note: Employees have the right to work in a safe environment. Employers are free to punish em­ployees who make threats, get in fights or exhibit other behavior that may cause a reasonable employee to fear for his or her safety.

Blocking access to certain web content can prevent other potential problems, such as the creation of a sexually hostile work environment.

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