While doing some routine maintenance of its computer system, Butler Township discovered that members of its fire department – including part-time firefighter Ralph Bowman – had been accessing and downloading violent and sex-related files from the Internet on work time using Township computers. The computer records revealed that Bowman watched eight videos while at work. Seven of the videos were violent, military videos: Lions Eat Man, Hamas Militant Shot Killed, Felony Fights, Helicopter Crewman Execution, Sniper Shots, Guerillas Killed, and Terrorists Guerilla Killed. The other, called Best Girlfriend Ever, contained sexually explicit language, but was not pornographic.
The Township permitted its employees to use Township computers and other media for personal use during down time. The Township did not provide any guidance as to what types of computer usage were acceptable or appropriate, except for a Code of Ethics that instructed Township employees that they were “bound by the highest standards of morality” and should conduct themselves so as to not bring discredit to the Township.
The Township terminated Bowman for malfeasance in accessing and viewing “inappropriate materials” at the firehouse.
In Bowman v. Butler Township Bd. of Trustees (Montgomery Cty. 11/20/09) [pdf], the court of appeals reversed the termination. It reasoned that because the Code of Ethics was vague as to what computer use was permitted, and because there was no other policy to guide Bowman regarding acceptable computer use during his down time, the Township could not use the Code of Ethics as a basis for termination.
This case is an excellent example of the need for employers have a technology policy that spells out, in sufficient detail, what is and what is not acceptable use of an employer’s equipment. As Bowman points out, failing to have such a policy could leave you without a remedy against an employee who misuses technology.
Come back Tuesday when I’ll share some insights on what to think about when drafting a workplace technology policy.