When employees are caught breaking the company’s computer use policy, they usually have an explanation of why they’re innocent. Does that mean bosses can’t fire them without absolute proof?
No, it just means you need to conduct consistent and thorough investigations. Here’s what happened in a recent court case:
A manager noticed excessive personal computer use by one of his employees, so he asked IT to examine her hard drive and Web browsing history.
What they found was worse then the manager expected: The hard drive contained pictures of nude men, and her work e-mail contained a message with a pornographic image attached. The employee was fired for violating the company’s computer use policy.
The employee, an African-American, denied responsibility for the images. She said she received the e-mail from a co-worker and didn’t know how the pictures got on the hard drive. She claimed she had complained to HR about the images, but nothing was done about.
As for her termination, she believed she was fired because of her race. She sued the company.
In court, the employee pointed to numerous events to show her co-workers were biased against her. For example, she claimed she was told she “didn’t know her place” and said other employees disapproved of her dating white men.
She argued the company didn’t investigate the computer situation thoroughly enough and had just wanted to get rid of her.
The court didn’t buy the argument. First, the instances she mentioned had nothing to do with the people who decided to fire her and were just stray comments that didn’t seem connected to the termination.
Second, even if she was telling the truth about the pornography on her computer, that didn’t necessarily matter. The company just had to show it honestly and reasonably believed she broke the policy. It did that, and the judge tossed the case.
When it comes to computer policy violations, figuring out who’s to blame can be complicated. Employees in other lawsuits have claimed viruses automatically downloaded porn or that someone logged into their computers without permission.
But the good news for HR is you don’t need to prove to a judge that the employee was guilty — just that you investigated properly and made a non-biased decision based on the information you had.
Cite: Twymon v. Wells Fargo & Co.
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