Monday, August 24, 2015

So There’s Your Employee’s Name on the Ashley Madison Subscriber List

Even if your employee is not Josh Duggar, it can be disconcerting to say the least to find one of your employee’s names on the subscriber list for Ashley Madison (a website which advertises “life is short, have an affair”). It’s a real dilemma when the employee used his or her computer at work to browse or communicate on the site. 

It is estimated by some that thousands of those whose names appear on “the list” conducted their Ashley Madison activities while at work.  Sure, they probably thought that by doing the dirty deed at work that they were keeping their activities secret from their spouse. They just didn’t think about their employer, or the entire world,  finding out. The question is really what, if anything, should an employer do about this situation.

First of all, employers should remember that, although this is a very embarrassing situation, on one level this is just another example of an employee using  their work computer for personal business. The employer’s response is therefore guided by its internet use policy. Subject to a few exceptions, the fact alone that an employee has sought out an adulterous relationship at work or on an employer’s computer, is not necessarily an activity that calls for discipline. The right reaction is in the employer’s policy. 

For example, if the employer’s policy strictly prohibits personal use of the employer’s computers or internet, and this prohibition is uniformly enforced, then discipline may be appropriate.  By the same token, if it is revealed that an employee spent a good deal of time on the Ashley Madison website during the work day, then it likely evidences that he or she was not working during work time. Again, with a few exceptions, this should be treated the same as if the employee spent that same amount of time shoe shopping on the internet.

The exceptions of course are the “Josh Duggar” type of situations. As readers likely know, Josh Duggar is a member of the religiously conservative Duggar family which were the stars of the TLC show “19 Kids and Counting”, a television reality series which was based in no small part on the family’s faith based  activities and way of life. Josh Duggar also was the Executive Director of a non-profit religious organization which focused its work on advocating religiously conservative views. Some months back it was revealed that Josh Duggar had molested five girls as a youth (including two of his sisters). Now it appears that he sought out adulterous relationships as an adult on the Ashley Madison site. Josh Duggar no longer works for the organization.

If revelation that one or more of your employees also sought out adulterous activities on the Ashley Madison site causes damage to the employer’s reputation, then the employer may have the “Josh Duggar” exception, and discipline may be appropriate. Determining whether the employer’s reputation is damaged or at risk of damage depends on two things, what position the employee holds, and the general reputation of the employer. So, a religious organization that speaks against adultery is certainly at risk of a damaged reputation by the revelation that an employee was an Ashley Madison subscriber. 

Similarly, a good rule of thumb is that the higher up in the organizational chart an Ashley Madison subscriber is, the more likely it is that the “Josh Duggar” exception might apply. This is simply because most organizations rely, at least in part, on their reputation for trustworthiness. Executives or high profile employees, like police or fire chiefs, represent the organization both on and off duty, and revelation that they engaged or sought to engage in adultery can both damage the organization’s reputation for trustworthiness and distract the public from the organization’s message. Employers should be cautious though and examine whether their reputation is actually at risk of damage with this type of information in the public or whether they are knee jerk reacting to embarrassing information about an employee.

In any instance, the publication of Ashley Madison subscribers is an excellent opportunity for employers to review their internet use policies and reinforce those policies with employees. While Ashley Madison subscribers are probably more worried about the trouble they have caused in their marriages or relationships right now, it’s a good moment to focus with all employees that they have no expectation of privacy with their work computer activity and their personal business conducted at work can get them in double trouble at work and at home.