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Beware crossing the line with workplace texts, e-mails

People may drop their guard when communicating with more casual texting, but beware of crossing the line.

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People may drop their guard when communicating with more casual texting, but beware of crossing the line.

FORT LAUDERDALE — A former waitress is suing the Hooters restaurant on Fort Lauderdale beach, claiming a manager sexually harassed her by sending explicit text messages and photos, a practice known as "sexting."

Two city employees recently were fired and 11 others disciplined after being accused of sending or receiving pornographic and other inappropriate e-mail on work computers.

New forms of sexual harassment in the workplace are developing as greater numbers of employees use text messages and e-mail to communicate with coworkers.

"Every employer is going to have a policy in place that covers sexual harassment," says Brian Lerner, partner with Hogan & Harston in Miami. "But many policies don't address the new technologies: cell phone, camera, instant messaging."

People drop their guard with texting, he says, because they think texting is a more casual form of communication than e-mail. Most employees realize now that e-mails don't go away. They also should know texts can be pulled from a phone number for documentation in a harassment case.

"Everything leaves a footprint," Lerner says.

Jay Zweig, a partner with Bryan Cave law firm, says the increased use of texting and social-networking Web sites is not limited to technology-savvy teenagers and young adults who just joined the work force.

"It's something that's spreading across the work force," he says. "We have the phenomenon where two people in the same room send text messages to each other."

But sometimes the electronic conversation crosses the line into sexual harassment.

"If it's not something you would say to your grandmother," Zweig says, "then it's probably not appropriate for the workplace: sexual references, comments on physical makeup, are not something most coworkers welcome."

He is handling one case in which two employees in a personal relationship created a "hostile work environment" through their public displays of affection and sending of explicit e-mails about where they could rendezvous.

Employees who receive an inappropriate message should report it to a supervisor or human resources. But, Zweig says, telling the person who sent the e-mail that you prefer not to receive those kind of messages "usually ends it."

"Employees need to stop and think. What they believe may be funny or a cute remark may not be well-received or (may be) misinterpreted by a co-worker," he says.

If it is repeated behavior, it's important to report it.

"If the person is harassing you, the likelihood is the person is harassing others as well," Zweig says.

Employers should remind employees of their policies prohibiting sexual harassment, making mention of all forms of communication, whether verbal, or by e-mail or text. It doesn't matter if the text or e-mail is sent from the employee's personal cell phone or computer.

"It's a misconception that, 'If it's my phone, I can do what I want to do,' " Zweig says.

Lerner says employers might consider whether they need to provide all employees with cell phones or smart phones such as BlackBerrys. With a smart phone, an employee often can access staff e-mails and contact numbers that could be used for unwelcome communication, including sexting.

Zweig reminds employees that distribution of inappropriate texts or e-mails ultimately could result in someone being disciplined or even losing a job. "With high unemployment rates, this is a time to be particularly vigilant in your own conduct and to keep it beyond reproach," he says.

Beware crossing the line with workplace texts, e-mails 08/29/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 29, 2009 4:31am]
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