Does ‘porngate' highlight the need for HR to police employees' work time?

A political scandal around porn-watching at work reopened the debate on whether employees need strict management of what they get up to while on-the-clock, says Dan Cave.

At the end of April, it felt like UK media had a new fixation: porn. Specifically, it was watching pornography at work that captured the attention of many news outlets, as details of now ex-MP Neil Parish’s viewing of adult content in the House of Commons were made public.

Although headlines have since moved on, fallout from this ‘porngate’ episode reignited debate on what constitutes justifiable workplace behaviour; what policies and practices are needed to manage it, and if the blurring of work and life are changing attitudes to on-the-clock activity.

The fine line in surveillance at work:

Workplace monitoring on the rise

The social dilemma: can employers police social media use?

On the clock: time and attendance tools

Firstly, Karen Holden, founder of employment law experts A City Law Firm, says HR must understand the gravity and legal exposure that some non-work appropriate activities can cause.

She says: “In cases of being exposed to inappropriate behaviour, such as porn, a colleague could claim harassment and issue a grievance, and the employer must take action accordingly.”

With all employees entitled to a safe working environment, Emma Swan, partner at employment law firm Forbes Solicitors, says workplace behaviours should therefore always be a contractual concern.

However, she adds HR needn’t create new policies for every non-work-related activity that might plausibly happen at work. Instead, she advises considering refreshing contracts as work evolves and becomes more remote, as well as having clear disciplinary procedures.

She says: “Part of employment terms and conditions already outline expectations of staff, so employers don’t suddenly need to draw up ‘anti-walking-the-dog’ or ‘anti-household-chores’ policies to protect themselves against these concerns.”

That said, Holden argues that IT and web policies can be useful for expectation setting, such as reminding staff not to access inappropriate material or go down internet rabbit holes during work.

With a 2018 survey finding that 60% of workers had watched x-rated content at work, and 2021 Journal of Business research noting the deleterious impact this has on teamwork, workplace inclusivity and, potentially, talent attraction, one academic says HR might think about preventative and consequential actions to support any policy covering the digital arena of work.

Nathan Mecham, graduate student assistant at the University of Pittsburgh Katz Graduate School of Business, one of the 2021 report’s authors, argues technology and training can help HR manage this.

He says: “This approach can include such things as internet filters, blocking devices and detective controls which could enforce [consequential] training requirements or penalties.”

Vicki Field, CHRO at healthcare agency Enferm, adds that GDPR compliance must be top of mind if HR takes this approach and the function is probably better served by communicating clearly about work time expectations, digital or otherwise, and then trusting their workforce.

She says: “My preference is to treat employees as adults who can manage their own time. Sending a few WhatApps or sorting bills during work hours is just part of normal life.”

“Viewing pornography is a serious issue, but cracking down on [using] Amazon is probably not worth the effort for the retained productivity.”

Jess Brannigan, lead people scientist at Culture Amp, agrees, arguing that organisations shouldn’t blanket ban employees from using small segments of work time for their own needs.

She says: “Viewing pornography is a serious issue, but cracking down on [using] Amazon is probably not worth the effort for the retained productivity.”

Instead, Brannigan intimates that HR needs to be interested in fostering well thought out and flexible structures and cultures. Here improper behaviour is called out, equal treatment prevails, and desired work and project outcomes are understood by all.

She adds: “Some cultures will say that the company owns every second of your time… others say that your time is totally yours to schedule so long as the needed work gets done.

“Here, having an explicit flexibility policy along with agreed levels of appropriateness is key.”

Within such frameworks, Idris Arshad, HR business partner at St Christopher’s hospice, says employers mustn’t be too rigid, especially as the world becomes more changeable, remote and flexible.

He says: “You could never account for every second of an employee’s time even within the office as employees might be on a break, smoking, chatting away or making tea.

“Therefore, the more flexibility within rules you can have, the more circumstances and situations you can cover. We shouldn’t go in with a sledgehammer against all non-work activities.”

For successful outcomes in an increasingly flexible world of work, Arshad argues that managers should take centre stage, understanding how their reports are delivering against what the business needs.

He says: “They should check in, not in a punitive way, use one-to-ones to manage projects. That’s the key part of this rather than asking what you were searching on the internet at 10am.”

It is a similar type of flexible approach that Steve Collinson, CHRO at Zurich UK, believes has not harmed commitment, employee engagement or productivity at the insurance giant.

He says: “Our people still have contractual hours they have to work, but they also have the flexibility to do other things – which could be anything from exercise, a hobby or caring responsibilities.”

Similarly, Kate Palmer, HR advice and consultancy director at Peninsula, believes letting employees take time out of work time for other activities, such as emergencies, can benefit the employee-employer relationship and help staff better manage their lives.

She says: “Having some flexibility around work when required means employees will feel valued and be honest with you.”

It’s this kind of approach that Nancy Doyle, chief science officer at social enterprise Genius Within, believes can make work more inclusive, while also improving social networks and knowledge sharing.

She says: “Non-work activity is not slacking off. Allowing time to de-stress or to focus on something else is an important coping mechanism.

“Engaging in off-topic social camaraderie is healing and will lead to stronger, trusting relationships, while the prospect of monitoring staff minute-by-minute fills me with dread.”

With many in HR plausibly worried about what flexibility, hybridity and remoteness might mean for work in the long term, understanding these benefits could be key to taking a well communicated and structured, but essentially hands-off, approach.

Indeed, for Field, most staff should understand what they can and can’t get away with on the clock anyway, regardless of where they are, and shouldn’t need a specific policy for this.

She says: “Employees shouldn’t need to be told not to watch porn at work. It’s a simple thing called common sense.”


The full piece of the above appears in the May/June 2022 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.