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According to merit?: Pornography and workplace culture

Every Issue

Cite as: (2004) 78(4) LIJ, p.85

Workplace culture can never be a justification for accessing or distributing pornography.

Would you confide in an harassment contact officer who was a frequent pornographic emailer?

The Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC)[1] recently upheld Centrelink’s decision to dismiss a customer service officer, Mr Williams, who became an harassment contact officer in November 2002 but who, despite having been given Centrelink’s policies and the relevant legislation, engaged in frequent circulation of offensive material through internal and external emailing.

Centrelink investigated 24 employees in its Ballarat office after receiving complaints about unsolicited emails – which resulted in two dismissals, two resignations and four reprimands.

Although Mr Williams admitted sending 23 pornographic emails, he contended that his dismissal was harsh, unjust or unreasonable. Centrelink, however, argued that his actions breached the Australian Public Service (APS) code of conduct and the Public Service Act 1999.

Centrelink’s dismissal was largely influenced by the nature of the materials Mr Williams was dealing with, the extent of his misuse and his position of responsibility in the organisation.

Commissioner Whelan found that Mr Williams ignored the myriad policy information Centrelink provided throughout his employment including screensavers relating to APS values, code of conduct and acceptable use policy. Commissioner Whelan was not impressed with Mr Williams’ arguments that he did not have time to read the relevant policies, that his employer should have done more to properly inform him about inappropriate email use, that the IT department should have blocked inappropriate emails and that the workplace culture allowed or condoned such behaviour, including management.

Commissioner Whelan noted that Mr Williams had plenty of time to regularly download and send pornographic material to his friends and colleagues and that only a minority of the workplace participated in such email correspondence.

Interestingly though, Commissioner Whelan did accept that a workplace culture might be a relevant factor in such dismissal proceedings, saying: “I accept that the culture in a workplace may be a relevant factor in considering whether termination of employment in a particular circumstance was harsh, unjust or unreasonable ... ”.[2]

Merit wonders whether the decision would have been different had the workplace culture been one where pornographic emailing was enjoyed by all and a majority participated in Mr Williams’ activities. Judging whether termination is harsh, unjust or unreasonable may be subjective but perhaps the focus should be shifted.

To Merit, workplace culture is irrelevant – office juniors, managers and, certainly, harassment contact officers should always be accountable for the inappropriate use of email, whether or not it complies with majority views of what is acceptable. Some of these views need to be eliminated from the workplace once and for all.

Work, family and role models ...
There’s nothing like an impending federal election to spark debate and place a spotlight directly on party policies. Work/family-life balance is one such recurring debate. (Merit often reports on work/family-life balance and will continue to do so until all workers in Australia and their families find that balance.)

Recently, a survey released by the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency (EOWA)[3] reported that the number of Australian employers offering paid maternity leave has increased.

Although Australia is still lagging behind other developed nations[4] both in the length of paid maternity leave offered and the total number of employers offering paid maternity leave, Merit is encouraged by this progress.

It indicates a commitment by a growing number of employers to address the work/family-life balance issues affecting their employees.

Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner Pru Goward has been a long-time lobbyist for paid maternity leave, recently[5] calling on the government to match the private sector’s increasing commitment to providing paid maternity leave. The Commissioner is continuously releasing information[6] arguing for paid maternity leave – challenging not only the private sector and government but also individuals.[7]

Merit believes that people as individuals have escaped attention in past debates about work/family-life balance – in particular men.

While much of this is linked to other issues – such as the pay equity gap between men’s and women’s salaries – it’s time men took on the debate as individuals, as fathers, husbands and partners. As Commissioner Goward has pointed out: “The challenge is to stop saying women work and look after the children and start saying all employees have work and family responsibilities they want to balance. Men must be able to adopt flexible working arrangements, without being seen as less ambitious, slack or ‘soft’”.[8]

Political debates on the issue have raised important concerns for young boys in our community – their need for positive male role models and support networks. (Merit would add that girls are also in need of such positive role models.)

What better male role model than a dad who takes on his share of housework or works part-time to take care of his three children?

Employers, governments and individuals need to start looking at the work/family-life balance issue as one affecting both men and women which includes time at work, time at home and equitable remuneration – something which is the responsibility of both men and women as individuals, as employers and as governments.

BARBARA WATROBA is an articled clerk with Phillips Fox. The views expressed in this article are entirely those of the author.

[1] Williams and Centrelink, AIRC PR942762, Whelan C, 15 January 2004.

[2] Note 1 above, at para 66.

[3] See

[4] The International Labour Organization’s minimum standard of paid maternity leave is 14 weeks:

[5] 12 December 2003 media release,

[6] See, in particular media releases for 15 October 2003, 31 October 2003 and 13 November 2003.

[7] See

[8] Note 7 above.


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