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Pentagon Case Highlights Need for HR to Have Clearer Rules About Internet, Porn

By Greg Wright   8/5/2010
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Recent news that Pentagon employees and contractors with high-level security clearances were downloading and buying child pornography over the Internet at work points to the need for companies to have more comprehensive policies to ban such practices, said labor attorneys and workplace experts.

Experts add that if such a blatant misuse of work equipment can occur at the high-security Pentagon, it can happen anywhere. What’s more, they say, companies could face huge legal headaches and embarrassment from such abuses.

“Unfortunately, the Pentagon case also is a reminder that some employees lack even the most basic common sense and believe they can do what they want with their employers’ resources,” said Karin McGinnis, an employment and labor lawyer with the Moore & Van Allen firm in Charlotte, N.C.

The Boston Globe reported recently that federal investigators discovered that over a period of years several dozen Pentagon officials and contractors were using government computers to access Internet child pornography. Some of the individuals were prosecuted.

“I’m appalled, but I’m not surprised,” said Michael Leahy of Herndon, Va., a recovering sex addict and author of Porn at Work: Exposing the Office’s No. 1 Addiction (Northfield Publishing, 2009). According to the book, 70 percent of all porn is downloaded during office hours and two out of three of 500 polled human resources professionals found pornography on employee computers.

Pornography in the office can present huge problems for employers, experts said. Other workers can sue a company if the pornography habits of colleagues create a hostile work environment. At least one court has ruled an employer can be held liable for harm caused to a child because they knew an employee used company resources to distribute child pornography.

In addition, the government can subpoena a company to turn over work computers used to download child pornography, McGinnis said.

“This means that all of the information on the employee's computer will be in the hands of, and potentially reviewed by … law enforcement,” she said. “Although typically the government will agree to keep the employer's sensitive company information confidential, the employee who accesses child pornography from a company system has created a headache, to say the least, for his or her employer.”

Human resources professionals have posted their companies’ workplace privacy and Internet usage policies for employee review for some time now, said Heather Sager, a partner in the Labor and Employment Practice Group at Drinker Biddle in San Francisco. However, these policies can be outdated and too generic, she said.

Experts offered human resources professionals this advice in crafting better Internet and pornography policies:

  • There should automatically be an investigation of any alleged misconduct, Sager said. There should be a record of the investigation and outcomes as well, she said.
  • Employers need to enact a zero tolerance for online pornographic viewing but give employees chances to stop before firing them, Leahy said. They should offer assistance to employees who might be addicted to pornography as well, he said.
  • Employer policies should clearly state they can monitor workers’ online activities and take necessary disciplinary action for unacceptable usage, Sager said.
  • Monitoring is important, said Donna Flagg, a workplace expert and founder of The Krysalis Group, a business and management consulting firm in New York City. But many companies do not have a fair and effective way to keep up with what their employees are doing online. “It can require a lot of time, money and manpower that companies don’t have or don’t want to expend,” said Flagg, author of Surviving Dreaded Conversations (McGraw-Hill, 2009).
  • Employers should state clearly that they will contact law enforcement if workers download material such as child pornography, said Ian Meklinsky, a labor and employment law attorney at Fox Rothschild LLP in Princeton, N.J.  

Ron Shechtman, managing partner and chair of the Labor and Employment Group at the Pryor Cashman law firm in New York City, said HR needs to be blunt about this issue.

“All employers should maintain e-mail and Internet policies that make the implicit explicit: the company’s computer system cannot be used for illegal or improper activities.”

Greg Wright is a former financial reporter for Dow Jones News Service and Knight-Ridder Financial News, and a technology writer for Gannett News Service/USA Today. He can be reached at

Related Articles:

Porn Addiction Seen as Growing Workplace Problem, SHRM Online Technology Discipline, March 2009

Study: More Employers Blocking Access to Porn Sites, SHRM Online Technology Discipline, October 2008

Related Link:

SHRM toolkit: Discipline: Employees are searching Internet porn sites while at work. What action should we take?

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