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12/4/2001
01:16 PM
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Ask The Secret CIO: Billy Gets Their Goat

Herb reacts to readers' divergent comments and questions about Billy, who lost his job because of his love of pornography.

Don't make excuses for him; Billy got just what he deserved

Herb:

I always read, and usually agree with the observations expressed your column- it's the only reason I subscribe to InformationWeek. Your article, Bad Judgment's High Price, is an exception.

I'm sick to death of people like Billy who waste away time on non-productive (and in his case, illegal) activities while using a wonderful personality and good humor as cover and deception. It also occurs with the office grandmother. I'm sure you know the type. Been with the company 30 years, had jobs invented for her as a way to give her higher pay that she couldn't otherwise compete for, and locked into the "we've always done it this way" paradigm.

Billy did know better and didn't care. He got what he deserved. If he is really smart he will learn from the mistake.

Steve

Dear Steve:

When I said he should have know better, it was in the same context that a gambler who wagers the monthly rent on filling an inside straight should know better; the odds are simply too high for the risk involved. What happened to Billy was sad, but the fact is that he understood what the rules were and he knowingly broke them. He also knew what the consequences could be. The company policy states that that "individuals are subject to disciplinary action up to and including termination of employment." There is also no doubt in my mind that his termination was the proper response to his repeated violation of company policy. Not everyone, however, agrees with you (or me) that Billy's punishment was appropriate.

Unfortunately, I doubt that Billy will learn from his mistake. I think that he will feel he got a raw deal. He will make excuses for his actions, blaming everyone but himself for what happened to him. Overall, I will repeat what I said as I ended the column: "What a waste."


Your conscience is telling you that Billy was treated unfairly

Dear Mr. Lovelace:

Although I don't have all the facts, in my opinion it was a bad move to fire Billy. Not only have you lost a valuable employee, but also you have most likely damaged morale among your staff. Both of these will only weaken your company, not strengthen it.

Obviously, your company policy on acceptable E-mail use is quite important to you; however, I am guessing that Billy had no idea the consequences could be so severe. Virtually everyone I know forwards E-mails of an inappropriate business nature from time to time, some more often than others. Men and women do it. Mail clerks and CEOs do it. Billy did it, but he got fired.

Of course, Billy appeared to be deeper into this than most, and some action definitely needed to be taken. However, was firing him the right answer? I don't think so. As he was a valuable employee to your company, it was your duty to offer Billy some alternative to compensate for his wrongdoings: a temporary suspension, a request that he perform community service, or a public apology to the company (ok, perhaps not this one as it could easily backfire).

Perhaps he has a porn addiction, in which case he could conceivably sue you for firing an employee with a disability. Farfetched, but I've heard of sillier things.

The bottom line is that I don't think you should have fired Billy, and I bet your conscience is telling you the same thing.

Regards,Adrian

Dear Adrian:

You lose your bet. My conscience tells me that we took the right action in firing Billy.

Yes, Billy was a valuable employee. No, he was not ignorant of the possible consequences.

I doubt that morale will suffer because of his dismissal. If anything, people will recognize that we are consistent in enforcing the rules of the workplace. Others in the office are adhering to them; why should Billy have been exempt from them -- because we all liked him?

There are lots of excuses that people make for doing things that are illegal, and I am sure that you and I have heard most of them: It's not a big deal. I'll only do it one time. No one will know. And then there is the one that you cited; everyone does it once in a while.

So far as Billy being a porn addict, I suppose that is a possibility, but he never defended himself by saying he was simply unable to stop himself from repeating his actions. If he had, Stephanie would have moved him into a lower-profile job, temporarily, and sent him to get help under our health plan. Instead, he insisted that the rules were silly and that we lacked a sense of humor.

What got Billy fired was his repeated violation of a company policy that said we would not tolerate actions that exceeded the commonsense boundaries of decency or could be viewed as harassment. The policy made it clear that no employee should feel uncomfortable or demeaned in the office.

Billy chose to ignore -- repeatedly -- the rules of the workplace. He knew the potential consequences. The termination of his employment was an appropriate response.


I know what it is like to be a Billy

Dear "Herbert W. Lovelace"

Thanks for your article, Bad Judgment's High Price. Stories like that need to get high profile from time to time. But I think that it's more than "bad judgment."

It's possible that in the beginning, Billy's problem was simply bad judgment. But considering how great of a risk he had been taking, it seems that he'd entered the "addiction" phase a long time ago. And few things are more addictive than the male sex drive.

If a person doesn't use wise judgment and set some firm boundaries early on in life, then the sex drive can become an addiction whose only rival may be hard drugs. And I fear that this is especially true in today's multimedia culture, where access can so easily feed such an error in judgment.

I recall a similar story to yours at a global telecom company where I did contract work. At the time, Internet use/access was relatively new to the general population, so the workplace guidelines for its use were not as well defined as they've become. But this man got caught a couple of times (including leaving printed material at shared network printers), finally winding up with a six week leave without pay. And after he returned, had he "learned his lesson"? Nope. This 17-year veteran of the company was unceremoniously escorted out, never to return.

What can explain it? Bad judgment, sure. But in these kinds of incidents, it seems that it's gone way beyond that. Maybe an addiction, or even out-right rebellion (thumbin' their nose at everybody and saying "I dare you"). But in either case, your last statement was right on the mark: What a waste.

There's hope for people like Billy, but it's a long row to hoe. Possibly longer than the road it took to get there.

Very sincerely, A Recovering Addict

Dear Recovering Addict:

Thank you for sharing your letter. Receiving a note from someone who has been down that road is very meaningful.

It was, indeed, a waste. I do not know whether Billy was addicted to pornography or not. I do know that he felt that he did not have a problem; instead we needed to "lighten up." Billy simply did not agree with us that his behavior was inappropriate.

As with any addiction, whether it is alcohol, narcotics or compulsive gambling, the person first has to accept that the problem exists before treatment is effective. It's a shame that Billy would neither change his behavior nor seek help. All in all, it was a sad experience, for everyone involved.

Best wishes for your own career and peace of mind.


I read about Billy; can you I get a copy of your policy? Dear Secret CIO:

I am a consultant assisting a city in Georgia to set up their Web site and E-mail service. One of their concerns is a policy for Internet usage. Your article about Billy discussed your company's policy that was distributed to employees.

Would it be possible to obtain a copy of this policy, so that we could use it as a guide in developing one for the city? If not, could you steer me toward a good template?

I am a regular fan of your articles and look forward to the InformationWeek issues containing them. Thanks for your insight and wit.

Paul

Dear Paul:

While I am not able to send you a copy of the policy, I can provide you with the key elements.

The policy states:

  • E-mail and the Internet are for business, not personal, use.
  • The use of E-mail and the Internet must be consistent with other company policies (examples: Business Ethics, Harassment In The Workplace).
  • Violators are subject to disciplinary action, at the discretion of the company, up to and including termination of employment.
  • We respect our employees' right to privacy, but we may be compelled by law to turn over records that may compromise that privacy.
  • In cases where we believe that a violation of the law or company policies may have occurred, we reserve the right to review and monitor E-mail and Internet usage. Such review and monitoring requires the approval of both the vice president of HR and the chief counsel, and final authorization by the CEO.

Hope that information helps you.


Your letters to my print column and this E-mail forum raise some serious issues about managing information technology in today's world. Since today's world is essentially absurd, my serious responses may sometimes sound a little whimsical, and my occasional whimsical one, serious. In any case, if you want to participate, or comment, write to me at lovelace@home.com. I reserve the right to edit for size and content. Just sign your E-mail the way you want it to appear online. And feel free to join me in my discussion forum.

As I've mentioned, I am planning to put my InformationWeek columns together into a book with a little bit of additional commentary around the events and people about whom I write. If you would like to be notified of such an event, please drop me an e-mail and I'll build a mailing list to let you know about it. Just use the word BOOK as the subject line.

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