Public sector raps 1,700 staff over computer misuse

Government bodies have sacked 130 people and disciplined 1,700 over IT abuses in the past three years, according to figures uncovered by The Observer newspaper.

Misuse of computers ranged from excessive use of social networking sites such as Facebook to the viewing of material deemed inappropriate for work and the sending of offensive emails.

The figures reveal how big a problem employers face when trying to balance the need to limit a company's exposure for employee actions or losses through time-wasting with the expectation of employees that they will be permitted to use work computers for some personal use.

The Observer submitted a freedom of information (FOI) request to 65 public bodies. Amongst the 1,722 disciplinary cases it found that 132 people were sacked, a further 41 resigned and 1,554 people were warned about their behaviour.

The figures found that the Ministry of Justice sacked 30 people over the three year time period for conduct related to IT use, while the Department for Work and Pensions cautioned 313.

One offensive video clip forwarded around the email addresses of employees of Hertfordshire police resulted in 25 people being disciplined, the figures showed.

Trade unions have warned employers that any action taken over such activities must be in line with policies established by employers so that workers know where they stand.

Employment law expert Ben Doherty of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind OUT-LAW.COM, agreed that the establishment of rules is a crucial part of managing employees' use of computers.

"Improper use of email and internet facilities in the workplace is currently a hot topic for lots of our clients. This is partly due to the publicity surrounding the success of Facebook and Myspace," said Doherty.

"We advise employers to ensure that they have a email and internet use policy setting out what, if any, personal use of the internet and email is allowed at work," said Doherty. He said that having a policy is not enough on its own: it must be actively communicated and enforced.

"It is important that this policy is clearly communicated to all employees and that the employer monitors compliance of it and takes the appropriate enforcement action if they discover a breach. The internet policy should also cross reference the disciplinary policy, that the employer is required to follow."