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'You can't avoid having an awkward conversation': Why it's such a thorny issue when remote employees access porn on work computers

Business Insider logo Business Insider 8/7/2020 jelder@businessinsider.com (Jeff Elder)
a man using a laptop: Getty Images © Getty Images Getty Images
  • Several new research reports on remote workers' use of work devices in their homes show a spike in visits to porn sites.
  • "The increase in adult content and other risky behaviors is very closely correlated with the increase in people working from home," Netskope found.
  • Experts say this presents a thorny management issue that can't be avoided for security, legal, and human resources reasons.  
  • Companies must have a clear policy that addresses using a work device to access porn, experts say, and management needs to be prepared to discuss those rules, experts say. 
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Employees are going to porn sites on their work computers 600% more than last year during this time of remote work, according to new research, which means that employers are increasingly confronted with a thorny management issue.

While cybersecurity products can block access to adult sites, the issue can't be solved simply with software, experts say. Employees going to porn sites may be a symptom of larger human resources issues that lead to serious cybersecurity and legal problems.

"You can't avoid having an awkward conversation," says Steve Albrecht, an expert in the intersection of cybersecurity and human resources who consults with government agencies and companies. "Having that talk is critical. Your policies are your culture, and they have to be clear."

Companies must have a clear policy about work computer usage – updated for remote work if needed – and that policy should be cited in email reminders and conversations, 

Albrecht says that remote work may be causing two kinds of employees to access porn on work devices: Absent-minded workers who have gotten a bit too comfortable at home and potential porn addicts. Both are HR issues. 

"Some employees may be doing the equivalent of making 1,000 copies for personal needs on the office copier. It's not malicious, but it is against the rules for a reason," Albrecht said. "On the other hand, if someone is addicted to porn, their use of it may go unchecked until they hit real consequences. That's why a policy that's clear and understood is really important." 

Legally, companies can be liable for creating a toxic environment if, say, an employee harasses a coworker by sharing porn on a workplace computer. At the other end of the spectrum, if a company fires someone for looking at porn on a work computer without having a clear and accessible policy, that employee can win a termination lawsuit. In a 2015 Australian case, an employee who was fired for looking at porn on a work computer after being warned about previous incidents won a $25,000 lawsuit for lost wages when a court found the company had not correctly followed procedures.   

a man and woman standing together smiling for the camera: Jared and Jennifer Pope, cofounders of Work Shield Work Shield © Work Shield Jared and Jennifer Pope, cofounders of Work Shield Work Shield

Jared Pope, the CEO of Work Shield — a company that provides software for employees to report inappropriate workplace behavior — concedes that porn is "not exactly typically a workplace conversation." But as remote work affects employee habits, difficult discussions may need to become more common. 

"Addressing an issue or accusing an employee of viewing pornography is not an easy or enjoyable task for any employer," Pope said. "But, it's a legal and moral necessity."

It's a problem regardless of whether it's happening in the office or on a work device at home: "Culture starts at the top," Pope added. "If employers are turning a blind eye to employees engaging in porn during work or on company-owned devices, they are reinforcing a toxic workplace environment."

The topic has been brought into sharp focus in several recent research reports. 

New research this week from cloud security company Netskope shows 240% more workers are going to porn sites on their work devices while total traffic to the sites on work computers is up 600%. "An abrupt shift to remote work in 2020 sent a shockwave through organizations," the report said, "As people found work and personal lives blended unlike ever before."

This follows April research from the cybersecurity company Kaspersky that nearly one in five workers admitted to accessing porn on their work computers.

Netskope found "increased risk as employees used work devices for personal reasons." The company, along with Kaspersky and others, sell software products that can send a warning to employees if they try to access this kind of content, and loop in other parts of the company, based on customer settings. Porn sites can be a significant source of malware, and past breaches of porn sites have been used to blackmail people, Kaspersky found.

"The increase in adult content and other risky behaviors is very closely correlated with the increase in people working from home," says Ray Canzenese, a threat research director for Netskope. "As the lines between people's work and personal lives blurred, they increasingly used company devices for personal reasons." 

That blurring of the lines is where the danger lies, says Pope of Work Shield. Companies' computer policies need to be specific during remote work: If shopping online at lunchtime is OK, and looking at porn on company devices is never OK, make that clear, he says.

According to Pope, if a policy "doesn't already include explicit language that addresses the use of porn on company time, devices and network: include it."

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