Internet porn: Guilty till proven innocent

Surfing questionable content is being cited as grounds for an increasing number of sackings but is it really just a convenient excuse?

Is there an employee, you want to get rid of but can't find a good enough reason to fire? Well, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, there's now an easy and hassle-free answer: their Internet history -- there's sure to be something in there that will nail them. Confused? Then let's take a look at the precedents.

In July, Chancellor Gordon Brown announced plans to axe 104,000 civil service jobs over the next three years. Of that 104,000, around 84,150 will be lost from Whitehall -- 30,000 specifically from the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP). Overall, the Chancellor claimed, the cuts, plus other efficiency measures, would help save £21.5bn a year for frontline public services. A great message for a government facing opposition attacks over waste and complacency.

Now fast forward six weeks to Friday 27 August. The Sun newspaper splashes on its front page details of a massive internal crackdown on Internet porn surfing at the DWP. The government fires around 19 civil servants and disciplines more than 200 for viewing Internet porn at work. An interesting chronology.

While to suggest that this purge was done simply to tick 19 heads off the 30,000-strong DWP hit list is obviously misguided; what this investigation does do is plant in public consciousness the idea of a lazy civil service with nothing better to do all day than surf the Web for pornography. As a piece of propaganda, it's a powerful message and so easy to execute. Give an average workforce free access to the diversity of content available on the Internet and you're bound to snag some of the dumber ones looking at stuff they shouldn't. And before you can say "lower headcount", it's P45 time.

If the same kind of moral light was shone into most organisations of a size equivalent to the DWP, then a similar number of sackings wouldn't be at all surprising. Unfortunately for the DWP, someone decided to take a long hard look for something rotten: and after looking long enough, they found it.

Computer misuse and, more specifically, porn surfing at work, has the potential to become an extremely useful tool with which to eliminate specific employees. Not convinced? More evidence required?

At the end of May, the millionaire chief executive of the Bank of Ireland Group, Michael Soden, resigned after it was discovered he had used his office computer to view pornography and access an escort agency's website. "Disgraceful, disgusting, he got what he deserved," the gallery cries. That's the initial reaction anyway, but look further into the story and it emerges that the porn in question was, according to one insider, nothing harder than that in the average men's magazine. While there is an extremely complex back-history to the Soden case, which we don't have time to go into, what is significant is that it is another example of Internet porn contributing to the sacking of an individual whom certain elements of his company wanted gone.

And it doesn't end there. Most people will be aware of the fracas that took place between several members of train drivers' union ASLEF at a recent barbeque. The fall-out from that incident resulted in the dismissal of general secretary Shaun Brady. Five days later, assistant general secretary Mick Blackburn was sacked for falsifying a signature on a reference, with another charge of downloading a pornographic film withdrawn due to a lack of evidence. What's interesting is that, once again, porn has appeared in a case in which an organisation has rid itself of an individual whose position was already under threat.

The average employee is guilty of a catalogue of minor indiscretions, from slightly overblown expenses claims to stealing the odd bit of stationery for personal use. Not right, but not that bad. However, while trying to nail down whether someone falsified a taxi receipt is pretty tricky, trawling through their Internet history for anything incriminating requires a lot less donkey work.

Porn also has the added benefit of carrying a social stigma that will ensure the accused employee will probably leave without making a fuss. You might be tempted to fight an accusation of an over-enthusiastic expenses claim but only the bravest soul is going to enter into an extended legal tussle over porn.

Internet pornography carries a malignant association and significance all of its own, partly because recent child pornography cases have inextricably linked Internet pornography with child pornography in a lot of people's minds. If Bank of Ireland's Soden had been axed for bringing a copy of Loaded into the office, there would have been an outcry, but the child pornography connotations inherent in any Internet porn case were sufficient to guarantee his speedy exit.

There are plenty of legitimate reasons for sacking employees because of their surfing habits and there are no excuses for viewing illegal material at work. The problem occurs when the cause and effect are reversed; there is a very real danger that Internet pornography is becoming increasingly used as a convenient nail on which to hang a pre-determined dismissal.

The machine on your desk at work may be called a "personal computer" but, as these cases show, thinking of it as anything but your employer's property could be just the excuse they are looking for.

Newsletters

You have been successfully signed up. To sign up for more newsletters or to manage your account, visit the Newsletter Subscription Center.
See All
See All