No sexting on job

Posted: Thursday, January 07, 2010

The following editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune:

It takes a special kind of chutzpah to send sexually explicit messages on your employer-issued pager and then howl that your privacy was violated when you get caught. Especially if you're a cop.

This happened in California, which probably explains why Sgt. Jeff Quon got mad instead of fired. But his lawsuit got the attention of everyone who has a company cell phone, BlackBerry, PC or similar device.

The first two questions that spring to mind, not necessarily in this order: How could anyone be so dumb? And, can my boss really see all my messages?

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to weigh in on the case, which could have big implications for workplace privacy.

Quon and three other officers sued the Ontario Police Department after the police chief retrieved and read their messages. The chief was curious because they had been exceeding the number of texts covered under the department's monthly plans. Though they had signed statements acknowledging the department's policy, which clearly states that messages can be monitored, the officers said their supervisors had told them they could use the devices for personal business if they paid for texts that exceeded the limit.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the officers, saying they had a reasonable expectation of privacy. Don't count on the Supreme Court letting that stand.

Given the increasingly blurry line between home and office, it's easy to rationalize using your employer's devices for personal business. If you carry a BlackBerry so the boss can bother you at home, what's wrong with calling your mom on the company dime? Official policies notwithstanding, many workers make it a firm rule to never, ever, ever use the company cell phone or e-mail for personal business, unless they need to.

Do it at your peril. The boss may not know or care, but your next boss, or the boss's boss, could be a stickler. And if the content you're sending is graphic or worse, your employer isn't your only worry. Ask former U.S. Rep. Mark Foley. Ask Tiger Woods. Anything you send might be kept, forwarded or hacked. If you're a public employee, your messages could be considered public record in some states.

In one study, fully half of employers said they monitor their employees' Internet usage. One in four said they had fired someone for inappropriate use of e-mail. Other studies have found that 65 percent of men and 58 percent of women visit nonwork Web sites on the clock, and 30 percent shop online from their desks.

A lot of people are doing personal business on company gadgets, and a lot of bosses are watching. Govern yourself accordingly.

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