IT's shame at top of mucky e-mail league

Most companies think of IT staff as their enforcers when it comes to stopping Internet and e-mail abuse, but a new survey has...

Most companies think of IT staff as their enforcers when it comes to stopping Internet and e-mail abuse, but a new survey has unmasked them as some of the worst offenders when it comes to dubious online practices at work, writes Nathalie Towner.

A study by market research company NOP found that 69% of ITers are unable to resist the temptation of opening an e-mail they suspect to be inappropriate for the work environment (the survey defined "inappropriate" e-mail as containing pornographic, racist, sexist or discriminatory content). Twenty one per cent of ITers would open such an e-mail straight away, and 36% said they would send it to their home e-mail address and open it there.

Once the inappropriate e-mail has been opened, 42% of ITers then forward it to their friends and colleagues.

Fortunately, not all IT staff appreciate these e-mails popping up in their inboxes. The survey found that, after spam, sexually explicit and discriminatory messages are the types of e-mail that ITers find most upsetting.

Other professions have clearly done a better job of adopting appropriate e-mail conduct, 48% of workers in both the civil service and the manufacturing industry said they would delete dodgy e-mails straight away.

"It is clear that businesses face a real challenge in educating IT staff as to the risks e-mail misuse poses, although IT staff really should know better," said Steve Purdham, chief executive at Internet filtering company Surfcontrol, which commissioned the research.

In fact, IT staff do know better. The survey revealed that although many IT professionals will carelessly circulate potentially career-damaging e-mails, 66% admit to knowing that any personal comment or material sent from their work e-mail address is the equivalent, in legal terms, of writing and posting the message on paper bearing their company's letterhead.

There has been plenty of publicity about workers that have been caught out. Last year, London lawyer Bradley Chait gained notoriety when he forwarded to colleagues a message from his girlfriend Claire Swire about a sex act she had performed on him. His sexual prowess was soon legendary as within hours the message - entitled "Yum, Yum" - had reached millions of computer users worldwide. Chait and five of his colleagues were suspended over the incident.

In another case, 10 staff were sacked and 80 suspended by insurance giant Royal & Sun Alliance for circulating an e-mail containing graphics of Kermit the Frog and Bart Simpson having sex.

A survey of 544 human resources staff by Internet filtering company Websense International and Personnel Today magazine found that nearly 30% of employers have disciplined staff for Web abuse, and 23% have dismissed staff over the issue. Of those companies that dismissed staff for Internet misuse, 69% did so for pornography, 10% for visiting chat rooms, 9% for accessing personal e-mail sites and 5% for visiting racist or discriminatory sites.

However, other people's mistakes, particularly high-profile ones, do make people think twice, and they have certainly hammered the message home for a lot of ITers. In the NOP survey, 70% of IT professionals said highly publicised e-mail blunders such as the Jo Moore incident - the Labour spin doctor encouraged colleagues to "bury" bad news on 11 September - made them more wary about the content of e-mails at work. Unfortunately, many in our industry are not yet worrying enough.

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