Surfing Porn at Work

As someone once said, ‘let he among you who has a free hand cast the first stone.’

Canadian Business recently reported that the head of Houston’s public transit agency has been suspended (for a week) for using the agency’s internet connection to look at porn.

This sort of conflict is likely to become increasingly common, since the only thing more ubiquitous in office settings than boredom are high-quality internet connections. And I suspect that under-prepared employers are likely to continue overreact, for no particularly good reason.

It seems to me that the point here should not be about porn; the point should be whether personal web-surfing at the office is allowed at all. There’s all kinds of deviant, transgressive, and socially controversial stuff on the web. Porn, per se, is far from the worst. So surfing the web for non-business purposes should either be allowed, or not. Either could well be a reasonable policy. A company can reasonably forbid use of company internet for personal purposes, just as most forbid use of corporate stationary or corporate premises by employees who are moonlighting. On the other hand, a company might reasonably allow a certain amount of personal usage as akin to making the occasional personal call on a company phone. But if employees are not allowed to use company internet for personal (including entertainment) purposes, that should be a clearly-stated policy.

There are of course a couple of circumstances in which an employer would have a legitimate interest in limiting the kind of stuff employees access online. One is size. If the employee is downloading large porn files (say, entire movies), that kind of thing could have an impact on the firm’s bandwidth usage, something that could cost money or just slow down internet access for employees engaged in legitimate work. Of course, the same would go for employees downloading the latest episode of Breaking Bad on iTunes. The second circumstance would be if there is a chance that the download would be visible and reflect badly on the company. If for some reason the fact that you’re surfing porn at work is liable to come to the attention of people outside the company, then, reactions to porn being as variable as they are, you should avoid drawing potentially unwanted attention to your company that way.

But in general, at least, the fact that it’s porn you’re looking at on your break, behind a closed office door, shouldn’t much matter to your employer.

None of this is to say, of course, that surfing porn at work is a good idea. It’s generally pretty dumb, especially if there’s any chance at all that co-workers are going to see and be offended. After all, we’re talking about the office, not your own living room. And so while employers have reason to allow their employees a certain amount of latitude, employees have reason to exercise a certain amount of discretion.

4 comments so far

  1. Jonathan Benallack on

    Great write up Chris, on a particularly provocative topic. I tend to see quite a bit of non work related internet browsing, nothing as NSFW (not safe for work) as pornography, but I think you hit the nail on the head when you stated that companies either need to allow personal usage of company resources (like broadband), or not.

    Other options would be allowing access and putting up a security system or firewall to notify users that they are navigating to a page where the content has been deemed ‘not appropriate for work’, and they shouldn’t continue to view the page. I tend to like this system the most, as sometimes the lines are grey, especially when we’re talking about the internet.

  2. Matthew Brophy on

    A well-written and entertaining commentary. I readily agree that one appropriate company concern is the possibility that an employee’s porn-surfing might be publicized, somehow, to the outside world. I’d also think that internal knowledge of a porn-surfing employee might prove just as problematic. Even if behind a closed office door, these sorts of things do tend get out, rather than being quarantined in the minds of the IT department.

    And if there were no policy against porn, specifically, at work, this might condone perhaps a brazen and/or pervasive exhibitionism of porn images and videos, which could pave a fast-track to legitimate hostile work environment grievances and associated legal claims. A woman, for instance, who has her work environment filled with occasional audible moans from XXX websites on the other side of the cubicle wall, sexy screensavers on a peer’s computer, or passing by others workstations where they’re viewing explicit hard-core images on their break – all of these might contribute to a reasonable person feeling that the environment is hostile. The same, of course, would be true of a person who, on their own time, visits white supremacist websites on company computers while sharing communal workspace with ethnic minority coworkers. Having no policy against such gender/race related material would open the company for lawsuits in the way that fantasy football, facebooking, and yahoo games would not.

    While a business might strive not to be too reactionary and puritanical when it comes to what websites employees frequent on their lunch break, a company might have an interest in the character of their employees. And while good All-American Porn might be harmonious with good employee character, a company might want to terminate an employee who visits anime-porn websites that feature animated pederasty or the website “rapetube” which features pornographic videos of simulated sexual assaults.

    So it would seem that an ideal of non-judgmental neutrality on the part of a company leads to conclusions a company seems to have good reason to reject. And while disallowing any personal use of the Internet at work, say during breaks, seems too hostile to the employee, allowing any legal usage of the Internet during those breaks seems too problematically permissive.

    In sum, I can see three reasons for a company to be particular (rather than neutral) concerning acceptable Internet content for employees at work: (1) hostile work environment for employees (2) an increased prevalence of lawsuits related to that environment (3) a company’s interest in an employee’s values.

    I look forward to any response comments if you have the time (if not, no worries). I’m also looking forward to perhaps attending the panel discussion you’re sittin on at this year’s SBE in San Antonio next week, and maybe you’re paper on consumer autonomy and free speech (a very interesting topic!).

    • Chris MacDonald on

      Matthew:

      Thanks for that. It’s interesting that your 2nd argument is posed as a legal risk, but is readily expressed instead as a moral issue (and maybe that’s what you intended). Ethically, it seems to me that it’s not so much the risk of lawsuit, but the risk that other employees will legitimately experience the workplace as hostile. It seems to me that employers DO have a legitimate obligation (within limits) to prevent that. But then, that’s an obligation to keep the porn (etc.) behind closed doors, though as you rightly note doing so is easier said than done!

      Looking forward to meeting you @ SBE!

      Chris.

  3. tony on

    i dont surf porn but i have sent (to non employee) a racy and not particualarly pg 13 email….that is only 1 email like that and never again i will do that….nothing happenend but that doesn mean i am free to do that at work anytime i want…im sure the IT department has probably seen it …luckily for me it was a lousy very blurry picture.


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