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Making Sexting a Turnoff in the Workplace

Just when you thought it was safe to walk by your co-workers’ cubicles without a blindfold, a new technological menace may be coming to a small screen near you. It took years for employer-employee etiquette to merge into manageable desktop rules regarding pornography and social Web sites. Now, ‘sexting’ has arrived to threaten the workplace environment and it is high time to make sexting a turnoff in the workplace.

Too Much of Too Little

Speeding ever more quickly to a Blackberry or iPhone near you, accompanied by innocent chuckles:  well, you don’t really want to know.  And that’s the problem.  Too much of ‘too little,’ as in the form of tiny but sexually explicit cell phone images and photos.  The screens may be small . . . but the pixels tell way too much of the story.

A recent story in the Workplace section of The Daily Oklahoman noted that a former waitress is suing a Hooters restaurant in Fort Lauderdale, claiming a manager used texting as a way to sexually harass her.  Well, you say  . . . that’s Hooters.  Right, and if sexual harassment were limited to places where skimpily dressed waitresses push hot wings, HR managers everywhere wouldn’t have big thick binders, training sessions and pending cases.

In the same story, a jeweler notes he handles all the potential ‘little device’ problems by having his employees leave their cell phones in the car or the break room.  Maybe that works at a jewelry store where rings of a different sort are in order, but in most businesses, separation from cell phone is a death sentence.

False Sense of Security

Chris Pentella, in her blog, Workplace Diva, notes that sexting is recognized as a rapidly growing workplace problem in part because the technology gives users a false sense of security.  She quotes Shanti Atkins, CEO of ELT, Inc., a San Francisco firm that specializes in ethics and compliance training.

Atkins, whose firm is now offering sexual harassment training based on sexting, says it is ‘a huge, growing problem because the technologies are developing faster than companies can keep up.’

Mark Toth, chief legal officer for Manpower North America, says sexting is a real challenge for employers because they can’t yet monitor it, but can be held responsible for it.

‘It has the potential to create significant legal risk as some employees appear to believe that texting is far more casual than e-mail or other forms of communication, employers can’t/don’t monitor it and, thus, the normal rules don’t apply — anything goes,’ said Toth.

Time to Update the Manual

What’s a conscientious employer to do . . . short of confiscating phones at the door and proceeding backwards in the technology time tunnel?

Experts advise that HR managers, who are already updating their manuals to cover tweeting and instant messaging and social sites, include ‘sexting’ as well, to eliminate loopholes like ‘that was just between my boyfriend and me . . . and no one else was supposed to see it.’  Oops.

Make sure employees know that texting and sexting both create a permanent record that could be used in a sexual harassment case.

You might be tempted to appeal to employees’ sense of virtue and love of Mom and apple pie, by asking them if Mom would really approve of sending nude photos or potentially misinterpreted ‘compliments’  over the phone.  Of course, you can’t always be sure of the answer to that one, so concrete and enforceable policies are probably a better plan.

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