- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 24, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Pornography is a major workplace problem in contemporary American society - and yet few private employers or government managers are willing to talk about it for fear of seeming prudish, or blindly trusting their employees, or being accused of infringing on individual liberties. With these attitudes, porn-at-work has grown like a virulent cancer, robbing employers of work time and wasted wages, causing litigation, and - most important - truly corrupting the minds of offenders while helping a squalid and perverted industry.

Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, to his credit, has the courage to tackle the issue of pornography at work head on. His action is an opportunity to begin a national conversation on the widespread social effects of Internet porn at the office. Is this the kind of America we want to live in?

As ranking member of the Committee on Finance, Sen. Grassley has sent a letter to the National Science Foundation asking for more information on employees viewing pornography on company time. He cited the most recent NSF Semiannual Report that referred to a systemic problem in which government computers were being used to view sexually explicit material.

One employee spent 20 percent of his work time viewing pornography - a cost of $58,000 in compensation he received for work he was not doing. Sen. Grassley is calling for a complete account of the use of the NSF drive by its employees. This, he rightly says, is an essential component of his oversight responsibilities - especially since the NSF relies on public funds for scientific and engineering research. Certainly Americans do not want their tax dollars being used to pay employees for indulging their sexual fantasies.

Sen. Grassley has tapped into a problem that has multiple layers and affects the private sector, too. Pornography creates tension in the workplace both between employers and employees and among employees.

Employers are liable for activities done by their employees on company premises. Hence, if one sees a colleague viewing pornography and objects, the employer incurs a legal responsibility to ensure that the work environment is comfortable for all. Also, of course, employers do not want their employees being compensated for work that is not being done.

These issues have opened more venues for litigation. For example, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has brought lawsuits against companies in which workers complained that employees viewed or distributed pornography. In other instances, lawsuits have emerged in which employees believed they were unfairly fired for viewing explicit materials - or that the incident was used as a pretext for a dismissal that was already desired. And believe it or not, an employee fired for viewing pornography can possibly seek protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act on the ground that he/she has a compulsion.

In a nutshell, a mouse and a small click can bring on a whole lot of trouble.

The porn-at-work phenomenon is pervasive enough, a 2007 survey by the American Management Association and The ePolicy Institute found, that 65 percent of American companies use porn-detecting software - a dramatic increase from 40 percent in 2001.

Employees circumvent this by using laptop computers, cell phones and other portable devices. Even with blocks and filters on employee computers, those who really want to spend part of the workday viewing pornography can do so largely undetected. Consider that Sex Tracker, an adult search engine, reports that 70 percent of pornography is viewed between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. This gives a whole new meaning to the question: “What did you do at work today, honey?”

Employees do indeed waste much company time on a whole range of personal business. Yet, the pornography problem tops the list of employer concerns. Of the 30 percent of bosses who fired workers for misusing the Internet, a whopping 84 percent said it was because the employee was watching inappropriate materials. Some of these employees know full well that they are being monitored - and get an additional thrill for being so brazen and taking such a risk. This bespeaks the magnitude of the porn-at-work phenomenon.

With so many employees now having their own work computers, the workplace has become a center of pornographic voyeurism among some segment of American society. How to respond, beyond more porn-detecting software and greater vigilance, remains to be seen. We claim no answer. But until we discuss the challenges, America will look less and less like a shining “city upon a hill” and more like Sodom and Gomorrah - a land in which workers betray the taxpayers, cheat their employers, embarrass their colleagues, diminish their lovers, and nobody cares.

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