Ten employees have been sacked and about 75 suspended at insurance company Royal and Sun Alliance (RSA) in Liverpool for distributing "lewd email".
The offending emails featured a doctored picture of Bart Simpson in a sexual clinch, although a company spokesman says that other emails contained far more offensive material.
Though the sackings were condemned as "an absurd over-reaction" by one company source the spokesman says that the offensive nature of many of the emails justifies the dismissals. "They were of an offensive nature, unacceptable by most people's standards," he says.
As many as 100 of the Liverpool branch's 3,000 staff were involved with circulating the emails. An internal investigation was launched after an email was sent to someone outside the company who complained to a company director. Sackings began this week and the suspensions occurred over the Christmas period.
Email sackings have gained momentum in the UK in recent months.
In November, Cable & Wireless dismissed six members of staff for email misuse. A month before, Holset Engineering successfully defended itself in court for sacking two employees over lewd emails.
September saw Orange sack staff for distributing images of severed body parts in emails. Last month, in the Clare Swire case, a City lawyer was disciplined for distributing an email about his girlfriend's sexual "tastes" which eventually spread to millions over the Internet.
Company policy typically bans downloading pornography and circulating content that could be considered sexist, racist or defamatory.
While it is important to have a policy preventing misuse of email, says the Trade Unions Congress (TUC), it is also crucial that this should be developed in consultation with employees and should allow for some private use.
"There's got to be dialogue to sort out a sensible policy," says a representative. "You've got to be flexible on the email issue and can't have a Big Brother situation."
However, overuse of company Internet and email resources is costly for companies. A recent survey by Integralis indicates that up to two hours a day is spent on personal Internet and email each day by workers in companies with more than 1,000 staff at a total cost of £3.9m annually.
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