By some accounts, a large majority of employees access the Internet on company computers for personal reasons while at work. The obvious adverse effects of this on productivity are only the tip of the iceberg with regard to the potential headaches that such activities can cause for employers. Personal Internet activity by employees can pose security risks to the company’s computer network itself, such as by exposing a network to a computer virus.
Less immediate but just as serious is the threat of legal liability of the employer to injured third parties. Some scenarios are not difficult to imagine. An employee uses his computer as a tool for sexually harassing fellow workers by visiting pornographic websites. Or, an employee embroiled in a bitter domestic dispute uses his office computer to communicate threats to his spouse, and the employer fails to take action.
In a recent case, one such nightmare scenario was all too real for an employer that had to defend itself against the alleged victims of an employee who used a workplace computer for conduct that was criminal, not just indicative of poor judgment. This case may be the first reported decision on the matter of an employer’s liability to a third party for having failed to take action to stop an employee from using a company computer in a manner that harmed the third party. It most certainly will not be the last such case.
The case involved an employee who used his company’s computer at work to visit pornographic sites, including some relating to child pornography. Over a period of time, a supervisor and some coemployees became aware of this activity and complained to management. Eventually, the offending employee was confronted and was told to stop such use of the computer, but, a few months later, he was again discovered to have accessed pornographic sites.
Eventually, the employee was arrested on child pornography charges, including allegations that he had transmitted nude pictures of his 10-year-old stepdaughter over his office computer to a child pornography site. The employee’s wife, who divorced him, sued the employer for failing to investigate and for failing to report the employee’s viewing of child pornography. The case was settled, but not until a precedent was set when the lawsuit survived attempts to have it dismissed before trial.
There are limits to what companies can or should do to prevent improper use of company computers, but it is only prudent to take at least some basic measures. It makes sense to have a written e-mail and Internet use policy that clearly informs employees of what, perhaps, they should already know–that the employer has and reserves the right to monitor employees’ use of the company’s computers and to discipline violators. In addition, there needs to be even-handed enforcement of the policy. Even the best written policy will do little to convince a jury, if it comes to that, that a company has done all it reasonably could have done, if the evidence is that the policy was toothless or rarely enforced.