The consequences of looking at pornography at work
Explicit content is widely accessed in the office, with damaging effect.
Risky business: millions of people access porn during office hours
Is it ever OK to look at pornography at work? The question was raised in debates on social media this year in the wake of harassment allegations against powerful men — some of whom allegedly forced female colleagues to look at explicit images.
This month, claims by former UK police officers that Damian Green, a British government minister, viewed legal pornographic images on an office computer (which had been seized in 2008 during a police raid on Mr Green’s office over an unrelated matter) led to calls for his resignation.
Mr Green has denied he watched or downloaded pornography on the computer.
Pornography in the workplace has legal and ethical ramifications for both employees and employers. The debate is twofold, according to Anthony Sakrouge, head of employment law at Russell-Cooke solicitors in London.
There are practical productivity concerns over employees viewing porn on work computers or during work hours. And the #MeToo revelations have generated a newly open discussion about the weaponised use of porn as a deliberate tool for creating a hostile work environment, and to harass and degrade employees — predominantly women — at work.
Online pornography is an immense enterprise. Almost 92bn porn videos were viewed on Pornhub, the world’s largest free internet porn site, in 2016 — more than 12 videos for every person on earth. Nearly half of Pornhub viewers visit the site between 9am-6pm.
The US is the biggest consumer of online pornography per capita, and the UK is the third (Iceland, perhaps surprisingly, is number two).
Increasingly, porn is viewed on mobile devices. In the US last year, mobile accounted for 70 per cent of hits on online pornography. “I don’t know a single guy who hasn’t looked at porn at work,” says one man who worked in the City of London, describing colleagues taking their phones on periodic “bathroom breaks” during the working day.
45% The percentage of daily viewers of Pornhub visiting the site between 9am-6pm
Most employers will have a clause in their employee handbook or employment contracts to protect the use of work computers and the work internet networks from misuse, such as accessing pornography.
Mr Sakrouge says: “It almost always says accessing inappropriate material at work is grounds for gross misconduct.”
These contracts give the employer grounds to terminate the employment of those who access porn during the work day. Even using porn on your own device can be grounds for dismissal under some agreements if the access takes place during work hours.
“You’re not being paid to be there, but to do your reasonable best while you’re there,” says Mr Sakrouge. “It would be difficult to convince a court that giving your best and watching pornography could happen at the same time.”
The UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission, in its definition of sexual harassment, lists the display of sexually graphic pictures, posters, or photos as an example of unwanted conduct of a sexual nature.
“If you are looking at pornography at work, even very briefly in sight of someone else, that constitutes harassment.
Employers have to be seen to take action very swiftly if it’s brought to their attention, to prevent a hostile work environment claim,” says Mr Sakrouge. “If a manager doesn’t clamp down, then part of the complaint will be that the manager concerned was allowing it to happen.”
“I can’t believe I even have to explain why this is a problem,” says author Melissa Harrison about office porn.
Ms Harrison spent four years working for a UK media company where a senior employee used pornographic images as his screensaver in their open plan office.
When she raised the issue with management, she was told that it was just an eccentric part of the employee’s creative brilliance. “It’s a problem with objectifying women in the workplace, and that’s not OK. It sends a signal that this is not a place for you.”
Under UK law pornography for private use or public display are the same when it comes to workplace harassment. But when used as a weapon of power to intimidate or silence female employees, pornography has painful and wide-ranging consequences.
Pornography in the office “is part of a picture where you don’t have to create a boundary between your sexual self and professional self”, Ms Harrison says. “It’s part of a continuum and also on this continuum are sexual harassment, groping and other inappropriate sexual behaviours.”
One in 10 women reported experiencing displays of pornographic photos or drawings in their workplace, according to a sexual harassment study by the UK’s Trades Union Congress.
Laura Bates, who runs the Everyday Sexism Project, emphasises the importance of separating porn used as a weapon in the workplace from less abusive, private use.
The ESP collects anonymous reports of sexism from women around the world. Women have reported having pornographic images left on their desks or emailed to them by superiors. Their bodies were compared to those of porn stars; others said coworkers publicly accessed porn on mobile devices during the workday.
In an extreme case, a woman’s head was Photoshopped on to a pornographic image and circulated throughout her office. When she spoke up, she was branded a “prude”.
“So often when porn is used as a tool as harassment it’s excused as banter,” says Ms Bates. The pushback from coworkers is that “women should see the funny side.”
“It’s used as a tool of intimidation for women, especially for women working in male dominated environments.”
According to data from the TUC, 20 per cent of women who experienced workplace harassment listed embarrassment as a reason they did not report unwanted sexual behaviour to an employer. A further 15 per cent feared a negative impact on their career. Almost half — 47 per cent — did nothing about it. Some 80 per cent of women who experienced sexual harassment changed jobs within two years, according to one study.
“It’s important to note that we are talking about a variety of workplaces,” says Ms Bates. “For some women there’s an HR department to complain to. But for some women who are working a zero-hours contract or jobs without guarantees or protections, these women are very afraid of losing their jobs.”
“There’s a moment of shock when you experience it,” says Ms Harrison. “You almost learn to tune it out. And that’s a shame.”
But perhaps the silence is eroding, evidenced by the torrent of sexual assault and harassment allegations against powerful bosses such as Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer and Mario Batali. The cultural shift to zero tolerance means employers are updating workplace harassment guidelines to protect employees, as well as themselves. Workplace harassment suits carry unlimited damages when adjudicated in court in the UK because they are linked to financial losses as well as pain and suffering.
All workplaces need to have a process for employees to report harassment incidents and be taken seriously. “Employers have to look at what’s reasonable to be offended by in the workplace,” says Mr Sakrouge. “And it will always be reasonable for someone to be offended by someone else looking at porn at work, because it’s not an appropriate thing to be doing.”
Caroline Walker, director of Cavendish Employment Law, defends both employers and employees from pornography related misconduct charges, and emphasises how much of a case rests on a company’s stated policies towards accessing online content.
She offers clients a 150-page template employee handbook, with a strict internet use policy: “If an employer is relaxed about pornography, they are opening themselves up to a claim. There should always be clear rules, and you should set out what is expected and what is permissible,” she says.
The vice chancellors of Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, Anambra State, Prof. Joseph Ahaneku, on Thursday said more than 40% of the staff of the university spend more time watching pornographic videos and other illicit films at work than doing the work for which they are employed.
The VC said he was able to monitor the development in offices on campus from his own network.
He said when he got the report of the trend and discovered that some people sat in their offices only to watch illicit movies during office hours, he took a decision to curb it by censoring internet services in the university from his office.
He said the staff of the institution had demanded computers to facilitate their jobs, only for them to use the computers for negative things. .
The VC said, “This is one reason we shut down YouTube from the university’s resource centre. People should be made to be conscientious as well as do what they have been assigned to do and eschew indolence.
There have been a lot of abuses on facilities that, ordinarily, should aid staff in their jobs and as a result plans s are underway to remove the televisions in central offices.
He said when he visited such offices, rather than find staff watching news programmes to obtain good information, they were engrossed watching illicit videos, thereby implying that some of them did not need the facilities.
Spending government time without doing what one is paid for is an act of corruption.” He said the Anti-Corruption and Transparency Unit of the university was working to curb corrupt practices among employees and students.
Financial Times / Punch