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“Tie Up” Your Employee Policies to Guard Against “Grey” Areas of Liability

Last week Representative Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) introduced into the U.S. House of Representatives H.R. 901, "The Eliminating Pornography From Agencies Act," an Act with the purpose of prohibiting the accessing of pornographic web sites from federal computers and for other purposes. While the Act was likely introduced in response to last year's investigation of an EPA employee who was accused of downloading over 7,000 files of pornography at work on a government computer (and additionally watching said downloads for 2-6 hours a day), it coincides with a number of other national events—like the Hallmark holiday that occurred on Saturday and the release of 50 Shades of Grey in theaters (yup now you see where I was going with that title). With all of these events simultaneously occurring, let's do a refresher on some of the company policies that should be reviewed to protect yourself from some of the liability that could be hidden within this trifecta.

  • Computer Use Policies: First make sure that you have one. Second, make sure that you delineate what is and is not appropriate behavior when an individual is using a company device. Within this step, make sure that even if you previously had a computer-use policy that you have reviewed it since the NLRB's recent (December) ruling in Purple Communications. While specifically delineating your expectation that individuals not visit pornographic websites on work computers is not necessary, make sure that the language that the company utilizes is broad enough to encompass this type of behavior.
  • Sexual Harassment Policies: If you are currently experiencing a situation where employees are talking about the release, details, or "themes" of 50 Shades of Grey remind employees of the provisions of your sexual harassment policy with an emphasis on the fact that discussion of the movie's plot line or any perceived artistic merit is not appropriate for the workplace. *Note I have not seen the movie but figure that someone out there will argue both that the story line of the film is stellar and that there is some level of artistic genius to the film.* By making your expectations clear, even if the conversation appears to be undertaken by a group of individuals who are enthusiastic and interested in discussing the film (or the book's) merit, remind them that the workplace is not the appropriate forum for the discussion in order to guard against future claims that someone did, in fact, feel uncomfortable that the discussion was occurring at work.
  • Workplace Romance Policies: Google Workplace Romance Policies and you will see some very strong reactions as to the pros and cons of such relationships. After a brief review I think Wikipedia does a tremendous job of summarizing these opinions. Like many things, however, how you handle workplace relationships is a byproduct of your company's culture—maybe watching a Jim and Pam Office-esq. romance unfold truly will energize your workplace—but be careful and cognizant that when things go wrong—like when Jim forgets Valentine's Day—things can go horribly wrong and segment your workplace. Further, if you are dealing with a situational relationship between a supervisor and a subordinate even more steps should be taken to guard against claims of favoritism and harassment. Check out our December post that discussed many of the issues that should be taken into account when crafting such a policy.

While love, like, and all the gray areas in between are often present in the workplace, take steps to guard against all the gray area becoming a liability for your company. Contact a member of Verrill Dana's Labor & Employment Practice Group if you are currently dealing with the issues that accompany romantic workplace relationships.

Topics: Best Practices, Computer Use Policy, Legislation, Office Romance, Sexual Harassment