By Bob Sullivan Technology correspondent
msnbc.com
updated 9/6/2004 3:21:02 PM ET 2004-09-06T19:21:02

A new survey released last week suggests viewing and transmission of pornography at work continue to be a big problem for both companies and employees. The study, conducted by Queen's University in Belfast for porn-filtering firm SurfControl, says one-third of workers admitted passing along porn at some time — and half of all workers said they'd been exposed to sexually explicit material by co-workers.

"It certainly shows that there continues to be an issue related to employees downloading unacceptable material," said Susan Getgood, spokeswoman for SurfControl.

According to the survey, which was conducted at 350 companies in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, 28 percent of those questioned said they had downloaded sexually explicit content from the Web while on the job. U.S.-based employees were slightly less likely to do so than workers in other countries, Getgood said.

The survey also found abuse to be slightly higher in organizations with more than 500 employees. Of the 31 percent of employees who distributed sexually explicit material from work, 36 percent worked at companies larger than 500 employees; 27 percent worked for companies with 20 employees or less.

The persistence of workplace porn usage is a bit surprising, given the publicity surrounding the issue, and the fact that companies have been cracking down on unauthorized Internet and e-mail usage, said Douglas Towns, an attorney who represents corporations in Internet-based harassment cases. According to a study done by the American Management Association, 25 percent of U.S. companies have terminated an employee because of e-mail misbehavior, up from 22 percent last year and 17 percent in 2001.

"The surveys seem to be pretty consistent. This year's mirror last year's numbers — about one-third of individuals seem to be viewing adult material at work," Towns said. "If anything, I see an increase in the behavior."

Getting more sneaky?
There isn't universal agreement on that point, however. E-mail filtering firm MessageLabs, which compiles statistics on virus-laden and porn-related e-mail, actually claims that e-mail with sexually explicit content has fallen sharply. 

Last year, 1 in every 1,350 e-mails was porn-related. This year, the ratio is 1 in 4,700, suggesting that employees are being more careful because they are aware that many employers read their workers' e-mail, said MessageLabs spokesman Paul Woods. Still, he isn't convinced that means the e-mail sex issue is subsiding.

"It would suggest that the volume of traffic has decreased, but it raises another question. Have people who were sending those messages around turned to another medium?" he said.  "Have they started using encryption, or Web-based e-mail? We don't know whether the problem has gone away or it has moved somewhere else."

Lawsuits based on employee e-mail
Gender-based sarcasm also can cause big headaches for companies. In 1995, Chevron Corp. paid $2.2 million to settle a sexual harassment case brought by employees who were offended, in part, by an e-mail titled "25 reasons beer is better than women."  Towns says he has a steady workload of such cases now, and American Management Association statistics say 13 percent of companies have faced a lawsuit based on employee e-mail.

While he instructs companies to have clear Internet usage policies in place to head off such unsavory workplace situations, Towns said the job of keeping cubicles clear of smut is getting even harder with the explosion of instant messaging at work. MessageLabs predicts that by 2006, instant messages will surpass e-mail as a means of communication — and a recent study shows that already, 1 in 5 U.S. adults uses IM at work . Towns said employees can be even more cavalier with their one-line messages, because they are viewed as ephemeral.

"Many employees view them as instant and temporary," he said. "Well, it's quite to the contrary. Those messages are backed up, they are on hard drives. For some reason folks feel more latitude saying things electronically that they would never have said personally or in a memo."

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