When the lines are blurred between work and play


A current unfair dismissals case relating to online behaviour at work raises questions about appropriate e-mail and internet usage in companies, writes UNA MULLALLY

LAST NOVEMBER, PricewaterhouseCoopers in Dublin faced international criticism after an e-mail ranking new female employees in a “top 10” list was made public. The company, which is one of the biggest accountancy firms in the world, was forced to apologise, and it launched an internal investigation, but the damage to its image was done.

According to staff, similar e-mails were circulated every year, yet when the behaviour became known to the wider public the issue became very controversial.

The issue of office culture and what kind of behaviour is acceptable at work was raised again this week in a court case relating to ICS Building Society, a subsidiary of Bank of Ireland. Two employees were dismissed after it was found they were circulating crude and disturbing e-mails. Sarah Rooney and Sarah Murray, who are both 25, were dismissed in 2009 for violating company e-mail policy.

They have brought a case to the Employment Appeals Tribunal disputing their dismissal. The tribunal was told that e-mails containing “sinister” and “disturbing” images of children were circulated among a section of staff. Rooney and Murray’s representative Kevin D’Arcy said the circulation of e-mails was “endemic” in the office, but they argued that the e-mails were intended to be humorous and denied that they were disturbing.

Harry Kane, the mortgage operations manager at ICS who investigated the inboxes of 30 staff, disagreed that such behaviour was “endemic”, but he did say “it was a widespread issue”. Three other staff were dismissed following an investigation into inappropriate e-mail content.

The case raises questions about how widespread inappropriate e-mail and internet usage is in companies – particularly in the area of financial services – and among young professionals in general. Are recent graduate and first-time employees part of a generation who are desensitised to inappropriate content, or unaware of the dangers of overtly informal communication from work e-mail accounts?

Policies relating to proper use of e-mail and internet at work are commonplace. Induction days in financial services firms outline to recruits what they can and can’t do in the workplace. A spokeswoman from the Central Bank and Financial Services Authority of Ireland, which runs a graduate development programme placing about 60-70 graduates annually, said “the Central Bank has an IT policy in place which is provided to all staff and new entrants to the Central Bank”.

But the culture among a group of people in an office can sometimes push such formal policies to the back of the mind.

Séamus McEvoy is the head of careers advisory and work placement service at University College Cork. This year, the service has placed 800 students in paid work placements.

“We would go through workplace etiquette and appropriate and inappropriate e-mail and internet behaviour with them,” he says. “Most companies would have an induction programme as well as internet and e-mail policies.”

Over the past nine or so years, McEvoy says, the service has had “six or seven cases related to internet usage, maybe e-mail as well” in terms of problems with inappropriate behaviour in the workplace from students on the scheme. “It’s just naivety, really,” McEvoy says. “They’re coming from a very loose environment, and sometimes the lines between personal and business get a bit blurred.”

Although companies have varying degrees of induction programmes and policies – some more stringent than others – McEvoy says that “common sense should prevail in these things”, in terms of how young graduates should be acting online in the office, “especially if you’re in a place on a probationary period”.

Patrick Flood, who is professor of organisational behaviour at Dublin City University business school, believes that a “dignity and respect policy” that sets out a code of acceptable behaviour between employees and staff needs to “apply to everybody and without reserve; otherwise the policy is not going to work”. He says that inappropriate behaviour tends to have a domino effect. “If things are flouted and are known to be flouted, then people tend to copy that behaviour, because it tends to be legitimised.”

When it comes to advising new recruits, CPL, an international recruitment organisation, believes that graduates need “constant handling on the basics”. Lisa Holt, the director of CPL, says, “I never stop emphasising the dangers of the internet: stay off personal e-mails, stay off personal phone calls, stay out of office gossip. It’s an onus on the employers when they’re bringing in a graduate to emphasise what gets them into trouble.”

In terms of e-mail, Holt advises recent graduates in the workplace to “be really cautious about what you open up. If something happens, get on to IT, say, ‘Just to let you know, I opened this,’ and you’ve covered yourself.”

The ICS case is ongoing, and its outcome will not be made public for some time. Regardless of its finding, cases such as this and the PricewaterhouseCoopers incident, are likely to affect the behaviour of employees in other similar companies.