How should HR deal with employees looking at adult content in the workplace?

After an MP admitted to watching pornography in the House of Commons, HR and employment law experts explain what policies and procedures businesses should have in place

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Last week, the news that Conservative MP Neil Parish had been caught watching pornography in the House of Commons caused shock and disbelief, with experts warning any employers facing similar situations to act quickly or risk facing harassment claims.

The Member of Parliament for Tiverton and Honiton was reported by two female MPs, who had seen him watching adult content in the House on two separate occasions.

In an interview with the BBC over the weekend, Parish admitted that he had been watching porn and announced that he was resigning from the party and standing down as MP.

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Parish blamed the first incident on technical issues, claiming he was looking at tractors and ended up on “another website [with] a very similar name”. But, he admitted that the second incident, which occurred while he was waiting for a vote, was “deliberate” and “a moment of madness”.

Daniel Zona, employment associate at Collyer Bristow, said that watching porn in the workplace will usually see any employee dismissed without notice, and cautioned that delaying action could leave employers vulnerable to harassment claims.

“Female colleagues will understandable feel deeply uncomfortable if they see a male colleague openly watching pornography,” he said.

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Zona added that watching adult content at work would almost certainly breach IT policies, which should “explicitly state that the watching or downloading of pornographic material will be considered an act of gross misconduct”, whether on workplace or personal devices.

However, while employers can be held vicariously liable for an employee’s actions if a colleague sees them watching porn – on the basis that it’s unwanted conduct of a sexual nature – Keely Rushmore, employment partner at Keystone Law, said that employers should be careful to follow an appropriate process before deciding to dismiss.

“The employer should hold investigation meetings with the employee and any relevant witnesses, and, if there is sufficient evidence, it should invite the employee to a disciplinary meeting,” she said, noting that failing to do this could lead to an unfair dismissal claim, even if the behaviour was gross misconduct.

While the particulars of dismissing an employee are different to removing an MP, all employers have a duty of care to ensure that no one feels uncomfortable, said Sarah Dewar, chief people officer at Mental Health Concern.

“Dignity and respect are vital in a workplace and this act seriously undermines this and no doubt has left team members feeling violated,” she said. In any workplace, those who have been affected by incidents like this should be supported by their employer, Dewar said, adding: “It would be interesting to know what steps have been taken to… ensure [this] doesn’t happen again.”

Rushmore added that employers need to be able to demonstrate that they took “all reasonable steps” to prevent such incidents from happening, including having “clear and well-publicised policies” in place and ensuring employees receive regular updates.

“Crucially, the tribunal will only take into account the steps taken by the employer before the discrimination takes place, not afterwards”, she said.

Laura Ibbotson, UK HR manager at Heras, said when she first heard about the incident she “thought it must be a joke”. “As a society we have come so far, in regards to professionalism, modern thinking and the move away from the ‘boys’ club’,” she said.

Ibbotson cautioned incidents like this would not only impact on the individuals involved – including any witnesses – but could also harm the perception and credibility of an organisation or employer.

“HR’s role is to hold line managers responsible for the next steps and ensure they are ‘above the line’, taking ownership and accountability and ensuring the unacceptable behaviour is dealt with promptly and appropriately,” she said.