Dow Chemical fires 50 for sending porn e-mail

A two-month investigation by Dow Chemical, sparked by complaints from an employee, resulted during the past two weeks in the firings of about 50 workers for sending explicit pornographic images through the company's email system.

Another 200 workers also were disciplined by the chemical manufacturer for distributing, downloading or saving pictures that were either pornographic or violent in nature, said Eric Grates, a spokesman for Dow's operations in Michigan, where the firings and disciplinary actions took place.

"The problems have crossed gender lines and job classifications," Grates said. Punishments for disciplined workers were unpaid suspensions ranging from several days to up to four weeks. Some workers who were "right on the line" between being fired or disciplined were eventually suspended and also put on probation for one year by the company, he added.

Dow is the second major company to fire and discipline employees this month for what was deemed to be inappropriate email usage. Earlier, pharmaceutical maker Merck & Co confirmed that it had taken action against an unspecified number of employees as part of an ongoing corporate crackdown on improper use of email and the internet.

While a few similar email incidents have occurred at Dow before now, Grates said those cases only involved a single worker. "This has never happened before to this magnitude," he said. Dow doesn't normally monitor employee email and has no intention of starting regular screening despite the latest incident, Grates added.

Dow's investigation into the problem began in May after an employee complained about inappropriate email usage by other workers. The company immediately reviewed all email transmitted by one of its servers during a one-week period, covering messages sent by plant workers as well as employees in Dow's corporate offices.

The review turned up a number of offensive images, which ranged from mild pornography to more violent and sexually explicit pictures. "This was more than dirty jokes," Grates said. The punishments were handed out as part of Dow's policy for providing employees with a harassment-free work environment, something that wasn't fostered by "having this stuff on our computer system", he noted.

Lauren Haywood, acting president and CEO at the Electronic Messaging Association & E-Business Forum in Virginia, said companies must be dogged in having and enforcing clear and visible policies on email use and other employee behaviours. All workers need to be trained and informed about the policies they're subject to on the job, she said.

"It's a tough issue certainly, but the problem that companies have is they're under tremendous liability for their employees," Haywood said. She added, though, that employees "need to understand (that) it's the company's email" -- not theirs.

Ken Dort, a Chicago-based attorney at Gordon & Glickson, called Dow's actions "appropriate" to the findings of its investigation. "I don't see a problem with what Dow did," Dort said. "They found a problem and took immediate action."

While it doesn't routinely monitor email use, Dow does have written policies on employee behaviour in the workplace, including computer usage, Grates said.

The policies are available to employees on the company intranet and were outlined separately in March in a booklet, called "Respect and Responsibility", that was distributed to all Dow workers.

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