Ethical dilemma in the work place

The Issue: An X-Rated Work Habit

Violating workplace rules leads to a hasty exit

Word about Greg Kale’s* inappropriate forays on the Internet started out as vague rumors about his “not pulling his weight” in his department, recalls Jackson Ford, a partner at the Sacramento architecture firm where Kale worked as an engineer.

The firm had a staff of 150, and Kale, a 41-year-old father of two who had worked at the company for five years, had never created a problem before. “He was a little independent-minded-if you said sit down, he’d want to get up-but in general he was in good standing,” says Ford.

Soon after the rumors started, Ford received a call from the IT department. A random check had revealed Greg was cruising to, and clicking on, pornographic Web sites, a violation of the written policy the company required each employee to sign.

Prime Viewing Hours
“We make it clear that if your spouse or grandmother wouldn’t approve of something, don’t do it in the office,” says Ford. “And it turned out the inappropriate sites weren’t exactly Sports Illustrated swimsuit pictures. It was hard-core porn, with intercourse and close-up shots of genitals.”

Brazen as such behavior sounds, it doesn’t surprise Dave Greenfield. “The peak hours for Internet porn use are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.,” says Greenfield, an East Hartford (Conn.) psychotherapist who treats patients with addictions to Internet pornography. “You’ve got the ease of access. In some cases, it’s like the company putting a six-pack on an alcoholic’s desk, and saying, ‘Here, don’t drink it.'”

Even so, the company couldn’t tolerate porn-watching on the job, because its presence constituted a “hostile environment” that could alienate female employees, says Eli Kantor, a Beverly Hills (Calif.) attorney who specializes in labor and employment issues. “In the old days, a hostile environment was a trucking company where the lunchroom would have girlie pictures pinned up,” says Kantor. “Now you have porn sites available everywhere.”

You’ve Been Warned
The day after IT gave him the heads up, Ford arranged a meeting for himself, an HR representative, and Greg. “We told Greg this was unfortunate because he’d been doing good work but that if he didn’t stop watching porn at work, we would fire him,” recalls Ford. “He denied any porn use, so we showed him documentation from IT. Then he said the documentation was all a mistake. But by the end of the discussion, he admitted what he’d done and signed a document acknowledging it.”

Less than a month after the meeting, Ford happened to walk by Greg’s desk, which was situated not in a private office but in an open work area. On his computer screen were four panels of streaming videos depicting hard-core pornography.

“I immediately asked an HR rep to come downstairs. While Greg was in the men’s room, I had an IT person shut off his access to the computer network. Then we called Greg into my office and fired him. He admitted what he’d done right on the spot. He said the adult Web sites were so tempting, he just couldn’t help himself. We told him he had 15 minutes to collect personal belongings from his cubicle.”

Preventing a Dangerous Situation
This provoked a request that sent up a red flag. “Greg said he had to pick up his daughter at target practice and wanted to come back afterward to pick up his stuff.” His wish denied, Greg was escorted to his desk to collect his things, then ushered out of the building forever.

“Naturally, I was afraid he’d come back and go postal. I knew for a fact his family liked to shoot guns-real firearms, not BB guns-as a hobby. But fortunately we never heard from Greg again.”

Likewise, no employee ever complained about Greg’s behavior, and it never caused any formal sexual harassment complaints or litigation. So was the firing too harsh on the company’s part? Or did it leave itself open to trouble by not dismissing him sooner?

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