What's Your Problem?

I've discovered one of my employees has downloaded 'inappropriate' material on a company laptop, how do I talk to him about it?

by Jeremy Bullmore
Last Updated: 28 Apr 2011

I am the female manager of a sales team of about 35 at a large, blue-chip organisation. As our team is geographically dispersed, and the reps travel a lot, we give them all company laptops. Recently, we had a virus outbreak so we had to hurriedly collect them all in and pass them to IT to check. The head of IT then contacted me to say that one of the laptops had some 'inappropriate' material downloaded from the internet on it. The culprit is a young but very promising salesman on my team. It's going to be an awkward conversation (probably not helped by the fact that I'm a woman), but I'm not sure how to reprimand him. I really don't want to lose him.

A: Many companies ask their staff to sign an agreement that their company computers may be used for company purposes only. In real life, it's extremely unlikely that everyone strictly conforms to this instruction; a certain amount of emailing or googling or booking tickets online is bound to go on. But no harm is done, little extra cost is incurred and employees may even be mildly grateful. The real advantage of such a ruling is that people such as you will never have to make a distinction between 'appropriate' and 'inappropriate' material. If it's nothing to do with work then it's against the rules; and that neatly dodges the need to make subjective judgements.

So, assuming there are no other black marks against him and that what he has downloaded is pornography of the kind that's downloaded daily by tens of thousands of other people, this is what you need to do.

Call him in and tell him that material has been found on his laptop that clearly has no connection with, or relevance to, his work. Tell him that this personal material has been deleted; from now on he is to use his laptop for business purposes only. Look him straight in the eye when you say this. He'll know exactly what you haven't said; will look suitably sheepish; and be extremely grateful to you.

But there's one condition. If the inappropriate material is so inappropriate as to be circumstantial evidence of criminal behaviour, you need to talk to your company lawyer immediately.

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