Employee misuse of work computers could turn into your own problem. Should you become aware of employee misuse of a work computer, make sure to investigate and take quick action. Two recent cases illustrate how an employer might best protect against potential legal liability.

A federal district court in Delaware recently allowed a claim for sexual harassment to proceed against an employer for failure to take adequate steps to stop the offending conduct. Brandewie v. Delaware Dep’t of Corr. (Del. Dec. 11, 2006). Karen Brandewie worked as a correctional officer at a Delaware prison holding only male inmates. After receiving a sexually-explicit email from a fellow employee, Brandewie showed the email to the Deputy Warden of the prison. The parties disputed whether the warden ever reprimanded the employee. Other employees later told Brandewie they had seen a nude picture of her on an Internet website. The photograph was eventually printed and left in an employee common area. Brandewie once again reported the incidents to prison officials, who indicated they blocked the website from access by employee computers. Despite this claim, another employee later accessed the website, and the workplace rumors persisted. The District Court ruled that Brandewie had shown facts sufficient to show a “continuing violation” and allowed her complaint to proceed against her employer.

A California court, in contrast, ruled that an employer was not liable for an employee who used his work computer to make death threats. Delfino v. Agilent Techs. Inc. (Cal. Ct. App. Dec. 14, 2006). Agilent employed Cameron Moore, an employee who used his work computer to access a personal Internet account. From that personal account, Moore sent threatening emails to two persons unassociated with Agilent, and he made negative comments regarding these persons on a Yahoo! message board. The court emphasized Agilent had no knowledge of Moore’s conduct and Moore’s emails and postings were unrelated to his employment. The court ruled that Agilent was not liable under a state tort law for Moore’s threatening conduct.

Employers need not use extreme oversight of an employee’s electronic activities. However, upon discovering employee misuse of a work computer, take swift action to investigate and deal with the offending employee