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E-mail and internet abuse at work exceed other forms of misconduct

Disciplinary cases for e-mail and internet abuse at work in the last 12 months exceeded those for dishonesty, violence and health and safety breaches put together, according to a new survey of firms in the UK.03 Sep 2002

The 212 firms that participated in the survey by Personnel Today magazine and KLegal, the legal arm of KPMG, had taken disciplinary action in 358 cases for e-mail or internet related offences compared to 326 for the other three categories.

Sending pornographic e-mail emerged as one of the top three ways of getting sacked. Nearly 40% of disciplinary cases for this resulted in dismissal, only ranking behind dishonesty (almost 100%) and violence (74%).

Nearly two-thirds of e mail/internet related dismissals and half of the disciplinary cases were for accessing or distributing pornographic/sexual material. There was only one reported disciplinary case for racial harassment by use of e mail - although this did result in dismissal.

Of the firms surveyed, 20% monitor employee usage on a daily basis, compared to 11% in a similar survey conducted 18 months ago. More firms are now telling their staff that they monitor - however nearly 10% of firms still do not tell staff that they are being monitored, even though this is breaking the law. Eighteen months ago up to 20% of firms monitored their staff without telling them.

The three most commonly disciplined ‘cyber crimes’ are:

  • excessive personal use of the internet or e-mail (although less than 10% of these people were subsequently dismissed);
  • sending pornographic emails; and
  • accessing pornographic web sites.

While nearly 40% of those sending pornographic e-mails were subsequently dismissed, only 17% of those accessing pornographic web sites were.

The survey also found that employees are nearly ten times more likely to be dismissed for sending a pornographic e-mail than they are for sending an e-mail that may damage the company’s reputation.

Whilst e-mail and internet usage are closely monitored by firms, the survey found that only 16% of Boards take upon themselves the responsibility of ensuring that data protection rules are not broken. Most commonly responsibility rests with the HR department (42% of cases).

More use could be made by companies of defensive software only 53% of firms said they had software in place to prevent staff accessing inappropriate web sites while 71% had software to block inappropriate e-mail.

Other key facts emerging from the survey are:

  • 93% of firms publish guidelines on employee behaviour and nearly two thirds of these expressly include some form of e mail and internet misuse in their definitions of ‘gross misconduct’;
  • 10% of companies completely ban personal e mail/internet use at work, and 29% of companies ban it during ‘contracted working hours’;
  • 14% of companies have no policy on e-mail usage and 13% on internet usage; and
  • 27% of respondents (92% being HR managers) did not know how often their company monitored e-mail/internet usage.

Noel O’Reilly, editor of Personnel Today, said:

"This survey shows that the internet and e-mail are now causing more disciplinary problems than anything else. Employers must respond by communicating clearly to staff what is acceptable use of the internet and what is not."