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The BBC's John Moylan
"Firms are facing serious legal consequences if they allow offensive material to be circulated on their computers, unchecked"
 real 56k

Friday, 5 January, 2001, 18:29 GMT
Big Brother warning after e-mail sackings
Internet screen
Workers are finding their e-mail habits under scrutiny
Union leaders representing insurance workers sacked over 'lewd' e-mails fear the action could lead to a Big Brother office environment.

The Royal and Sun Alliance in Liverpool sacked 10 members of staff and suspended 77 over the distribution of offensive e-mails, including one featuring cartoon character Bart Simpson in a sexual clinch.

The Manufacturing, Science and Finance Union, representing some staff at ongoing disciplinary procedures and appeals, said the firm's action did seem extremely heavy-handed.


We don't believe we are over-reacting

Company spokesman Paul Atkinson
MSF union general secretary Roger Lyons said he did not want this to be seen as a green light for other employers to think they can sack people "willy nilly".

"We're concerned about a Big Brother approach in the office and concerned that workers feel they are in some kind of nanny state without flexibility or freedom," he told BBC News 24.

The internal investigation - launched after a complaint by a member of staff at the Royal and Sun Alliance - uncovered other doctored images.

These are believed to have included one of Kermit the Frog, star of the Muppets TV programme, and another of a donkey.

Warnings

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

Mr Lyons said he had been told the messages were not very nice and it should never happen again.

Roger Lyons, MSF union
Roger Lyons: This doesn't give the green light for other companies
He said most offices were likely to experience pranks and jokes by staff before Christmas, but that was no excuse for exceeding normal courtesy and behaviour.

"Overkill can bring the whole policy into disrepute," he said. "This is not the way you should handle these things."

Royal and Sun Alliance spokesman Paul Atkinson told BBC News Online that the firm was not over-reacting.

He said the obscene e-mails went beyond what any reasonable person would describe as acceptable.

'Bad taste'

"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."

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

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 e-mails 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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