Human Resources News & Insights

Company sued for firing obscene Web browser

When an employee’s caught looking at offensive Web sites, the person’s usually fired. But it’s not always that simple. Take this recent case, for example:

An oil field operator was fired for allegedly looking at pornography while at work. According to the company, he did the browsing on a computer located in the break room that about 200 employees shared.

Workers each had their own username and password, and were required to sign in to use the machine and sign out when they were finished finished.

While running a virus scan, an IT staffer discovered porn sites had been accessed under the employee’s username —  including “hundreds of prohibited websites” over the period of two days. The staffer told the employee’s manager, who verified the employee was scheduled to work on those two days.

He was fired for violating the company’s computer use policy, which strictly prohibited the downloading of any offensive content.

The employee, 57 years old at the time, was replaced by a 43-year-old employee. He sued for age discrimination.

He claimed there was no proof he’d actually downloaded the porn — he saw the company’s log of his alleged Web activity and pointed out that many of the sites were visited outside of the times he was scheduled to work.

The judge didn’t buy his argument and ruled in favor of the company. Why? Two reasons:

First was the way the computer policy was written. It forbid users from sharing or even writing down their passwords and said that “System Users are responsible for all transactions made using their passwords.”

Second, there was no evidence the company was discriminating. Even if they were wrong, the manager and the IT department reasonably believed the employee had been viewing pornography at work and fired him for that, not because of his age.

The lesson: When employees share computers, it can be tough to monitor improper usage. But one good way to make it easier is to write a policy prohibiting password sharing and often behaviors that make them easy to steal.

Cite: Cervantez v. KMGP Services Company, Inc.

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