More than a decade after employers began cracking down on those who view online pornography at work, porn is continuing to create tension in offices across the nation — in part because laptop computers, cellphones and other portable devices have made it easier for risk-takers to visit such websites undetected.
Devices providing wireless access to the Internet appear to be giving the porn-at-work phenomenon a boost even as employers are getting more aggressive about using software to block workers' access to inappropriate websites. About 65% of U.S. companies used such software in 2005, according to a survey by the American Management Association and the ePolicy Institute, up from 40% in 2001.
Many employers say that because it's so easy to access porn on portable devices — even those that are company-owned and outfitted to block access to adult-oriented websites — they are increasingly concerned about being sued by employees who are offended when co-workers view naughty images.
With wireless devices, close monitoring of workers is "impossible. There's nothing you can do," says Richard Laermer, CEO of the public relations firm RLM. "Liability is the thing that keeps me up at night, because we are liable for things people do on your premises. It's serious. I'll see somebody doing it, and I'll peek over their shoulder, and they'll say, 'I don't know how that happened.' It's like 10-year-olds. And it's always on company time."
Through the years, surveys have indicated that many workers run across adult websites or images while at work, but few say they have done so intentionally.
About 16% of men who have access to the Internet at work acknowledged having seen porn while on the job, according to a survey for Websense by Harris Interactive in 2006. Eight percent of women said they had. But of those who acknowledged viewing porn sites at work, only 6% of men and 5% of women acknowledged that they had done so intentionally.
When it comes to portable devices, employers can use blocking software if they have provided the equipment to workers, says Richard Chaifetz, CEO of ComPsych, a Chicago-based employee-assistance provider. However, there is little they can do if employees have their own BlackBerrys rimm or other devices. In such cases, he says, some employers have begun restricting the use of employee-owned laptops or cellphones during work time or meetings.
"This issue is huge," Chaifetz says. "It's becoming a bigger and bigger problem."
A string of lawsuits
Meanwhile, porn continues to create conflicts in the workplace.
There has been a string of lawsuits filed recently by workers who say they've felt harassed by others' viewing of porn on the job. And in a twist, a few lawsuits have been filed by workers who believe they were disciplined unfairly for visiting porn sites on company time.
The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has brought several lawsuits against companies based on complaints by people who claimed they saw co-workers viewing or distributing adult-oriented material at work.
In one case, the EEOC alleged that First Mutual, a mortgage company in Cherry Hill, N.J., subjected a male employee to a sexually hostile work environment, sexual harassment by a female co-worker and retaliatory firing when he complained. According to the lawsuit, the alleged harasser e-mailed nude photos of herself and of another woman to the man's company computer.