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Michael Leahy is not ashamed to admit it. He is a recovering sex addict who spent countless hours surfing online for X-rated materials.
Leahy said he spent most of that time surfing for porn at work, not at home.
His out-of-control sex habit sabotaged his performance as a salesman and manager at IBM and other companies. It ultimately cost him his first marriage.
“I was a company’s worst nightmare,” said Leahy. “I would always come in with big expectations. But over time, more and more of my time and energy was in pursuit of porn.”
Leahy, 51, has written a book and lectured about how pornography has become commonplace in American homes and has fueled higher rates of sexual addiction.
His new book, to be released in April 2009,
Porn at Work: Exposing the Office’s No. 1 Addiction, includes some startling statistics:
He added that porn use is widespread in American workplaces and will worsen as young people who grew up in a culture saturated with sexual imagery enter the job market.
An HR Nightmare
Leahy hopes his new book will alert employers to a problem that could put them on the wrong end of a lawsuit. Employers should try to offer counseling to workers who might be suffering from the addiction, he said.
“The stigma that today’s work culture attaches to employee health issues like sexual addiction and pornography addiction are reminiscent of the way alcoholism and drug addiction were commonly viewed 60 years ago,” Leahy said.
However, experts say pornography use at work is not a top concern of employers—finding qualified workers and maintaining productivity are bigger worries, especially in these harsh economic times. And they question Leahy’s claim that most employers immediately fire workers who are caught using pornography. The situation is not so black and white, they said.
“Unless anyone has done a statistical sample, it’s hard to know what employers do,” said Steven Kane, a human resources expert and consultant based in San Francisco.
Wireless Technology Spreads It
Videocassette recorders revolutionized the pornographic industry in the 1980s. More recent technological advances such as wireless electronic devices and cell phones have made pornography even more widespread.
Leahy claims that the abundance of porn has got more people hooked on the material. Up to 8 percent of the U.S. population—or 24 million people—are sexually addicted, he said.
The problem is showing up more at work, creating headaches for some employers. Michael Bull, a Glynn County, Ga. school superintendent, was fired in February 2009, for using his company-issued BlackBerry and e-mail to solicit sex. And longtime IBM worker James Pacenza sued the company for $5 million after he was fired for accessing a pornographic web site from his workstation. Pacenza claimed his porn obsession as a disability. A spokesperson at
SHRM Online that the company was attempting to have the case dismissed but a decision was still pending.
In addition to loss of productivity, employees who surf porn put employers at risk of lawsuits, Leahy said. Employees who notice co-workers downloading such material and are offended can file a lawsuit claiming a hostile work environment. And the porn habits of an executive, if discovered, can embarrass a company, depress stock prices and lower morale, Leahy said.
Leahy said employees who download porn in the office might be more prone to become sexual harassers. “It desensitizes you to what are appropriate boundaries in the workplace,” he said.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the encyclopedia of mental illness, does not recognize pornography addiction. Still, Leahy says employers should offer Employee Assistance Program support to workers with the problem, just like they do for those with alcohol or drug habits.
Filters? What Filters?
Using blocking and filtering technology to stop employees from downloading pornography is not the answer, Leahy said. Savvy computer users can always figure out a way to get around the roadblocks or use their personal wireless devices to download pornography, thereby avoiding using an office computer, he said.
“Technologies are advancing faster than companies can come up with blocking and filtering technologies,” Kane said.
Experts say employer response to workers caught using pornography is not consistent. There is no tolerance for such behavior in school and university settings, said William Bainbridge, a research professor at the University of Dayton and president of the
SchoolMatch Institute. A no-tolerance policy might be in force at formal workplaces such as law firms while more blue collar workplaces might be more lenient, Kane said.
Leahy said repeat offenders should be fired but that it is in a company’s best interest to try to work with a good employee with a bad habit.
“There are a lot of people, if they are given an opportunity to get help, it won’t cost the company much and the employer will gain a loyal employee,” he said.
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
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