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The BBC's John Moylan
"The sacked workers will now appeal"
 real 56k

Friday, 5 January, 2001, 16:30 GMT
Workers sacked over 'lewd' e-mails
Internet screen
Workers are finding their e-mail habits under scrutiny
A leading insurance company has sacked 10 people and suspended at least 77 over the distribution of "lewd" e-mails, including one featuring cartoon character Bart Simpson.

An internal investigation was launched after a member of staff at the Royal and Sun Alliance in Liverpool complained about an offensive e-mail, reportedly showing the character from the hit US cartoon series The Simpsons in a sexual clinch.

It led to the uncovering of other doctored images, which are believed to have included one of Kermit the Frog, star of the Muppets TV programme, and another of a donkey.


We don't believe we are over-reacting

Company spokesman Paul Atkinson
Royal and Sun Alliance spokesman Paul Atkinson told BBC News Online the company could not confirm details and numbers of staff involved as disciplinary action and appeals were still under way.

But he said the obscene emails went beyond what any reasonable person would describe as acceptable.

"The implication that this is simply about some bad taste Bart Simpson cartoon is wholly wrong," he said.

"It goes well beyond that.

"As far as I am aware no-one who has been through the disciplinary procedure has seriously contested the fact that the material they have been caught with is unacceptable.

"It is important that we maintain the standards that our employees and customers would expect of us."

Warnings

Staff at the Liverpool office, where there are about 3,000 staff, and the company's other sites were sent guidelines about email use last June with warnings that offenders would be dealt with rigorously.

"We did make it clear we would strictly enforce this policy which outlines what is acceptable and what is not," said Mr Atkinson.

"Unfortunately we have found ourselves in a position where we have had to demonstrate that."

He said no-one had been disciplined for simply receiving the email.

Bart Simpson
Bart getting festive - but a 'lewd' e-mail brought trouble at Christmas
Some members of staff are said to be considering legal action against the company while union representatives said they were investigating the sackings and suspensions.

Ian Templeman, of the Manufacturing, Science and Finance Union, said investigations were under way.

"We will look at individual cases and where appropriate represent our members," he said.

A member of staff accused the insurance giant of "an absurd over-reaction" that had sent "a real shockwave" through the office.

Watching workers

New government guidelines unveiled in October, under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, gave companies the right to monitor their employees' e-mail.

But critics say the measures go too far, giving businesses too much freedom to snoop.

Legal experts have said that it will take the courts to sort out just how the regulations apply and what freedoms they give employers.

The result of the legal action could be demands that employees only use e-mail and the internet for company business.

Products now on the market enable bosses to screen emails for suspect words or images, and even to record keyboard activity.

In December five law firm employees who forwarded copies of a smutty e-mail sent by a woman to her boyfriend were disciplined but not dismissed from their jobs at Norton Rose.

Mobile phone firm Orange and telecommunications company Cable and Wireless have both sacked staff for misusing the internet at work.

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See also:

15 Dec 00 | Sci/Tech
Press send to censor
12 Jun 00 | Sci/Tech
Criticism of net snooping bill grows
10 May 00 | Talking Point
Should your e-mails be screened at work?
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