It’s a trap! Employment documents that require you to violate company policy

One of my colleagues had a previous job involving tuning spam filters and removing objectionable content. Before he could start, he was told that he had to sign a special release. The form said basically, "I understand that my job may require me to see pornography or other objectionable material, and I promise not to sue."

He asked, "So where is the part that says I'm not going to be fired for doing that?"

"What do you mean?"

He explained, "This document protects the company from me. But where is the part that protects me from the company?"

"I don't know what you're talking about."

He spelled it out: "Company policy says that watching pornography at work is grounds for termination. This document does not actually say that it's okay for me to do so if it is done in the course of my job duties."

"Look, you can either sign the release form or not, but you can't work until you sign it."

My colleague sighed as he signed the form. "Whatever. Nevermind."

Comments (20)
  1. Jeff says:

    There is a subtle difference between "seeing" and "watching." If this ever came up in a court case that would be the key point of discussion.

    [But the job required him to watch. "Here are a bunch of suspicious videos. Watch them and classify them as pornographic or non-pornographic." -Raymond]
  2. 640k says:

    There is a subtle difference between "seeing", "watching" and "looking at".

  3. Joshua says:

    He's fine. Lawsuit for unlawful termination would be a slam-dunk win in this case. In general, an employee can't be fired for doing what he was told to do. In this case, the document that employees in this sector are required to sign would be trivial proof of the job requirements.

  4. Steve says:

    Merely offering a hypothetical "if" scenario could not be construed as a requirement. If the document explicitly contradicted itself, that would be another issue.

  5. Nick says:

    Coincidence you post this along with the iCloud hacking of celeb various photos? :P

  6. JamesNT says:

    Jeff, Joshua, and Steve.

    I get what you are saying, but it would be nice if the company would at least recognize it.  Signing something contradictory like that can be disturbing.  It's not a big deal if it's not your neck on the line, but when it is the idea of going to court, fighting for your job, spending all that time, and trying to keep personal cash flow going all along the way isn't any fun at all.  

    I find it surprising that so many people think going to court is trivial.  It is not.


  7. Moz says:

    Not to mention the ease with which the company can deny any specific incident of porn-watching was "as directed" should they decide to fire him.

  8. cheong00 says:

    Talking about instructions violating cooperate policies…

    I had worked as outsourced technical support a few years ago. There was cooperate policy that employees should only use the network resources for work, so we set up the firewall to block bittorrent among other things like video steaming.

    A few hours later, their boss's son demand us to remove the blocking so he can download a famous Korean movie… We told him to tell his father call back to us if he want us release the block.

    We never heard him back.

  9. Wombat says:

    If he sees enough to identify that it is porn, that's "seeing". If he enjoys it, that's "watching" :-)

  10. smf says:

    A manager tried to get me punished for insubordination when I refused to give him data from one of our customers, so that it could be used for a demo to a potential customer.

    On another occasion I had to obfuscate gigabytes of data because one of the big SQL players products was so unstable it died executing some marginally complex queries (more than select * from table, but not so bad that you'd puke). Generating random string text of the same length as the original and mapping all the foreign keys and queries was fun. I should have found some way to use Lorem Ipsum.

  11. dave says:

    > Signing something contradictory like that can be disturbing.

    You'd think that if you routinely employed programmers and IT people, you'd have figured out by now that they often take the written word literally.

  12. Engywuck says:

    @cheong00: bittorrent can be used nowadays to faster download some useful stuff except movies, like some linux DVDs, LibreOffice etc, so the equation "wants bittorrent" == "wants do DL pirate stuff/moviez" is nowadays not always true. But of course in this case, if he admits it…

    Some years ago I was asked by someone in sales department, if I could install flash on the (then new) terminal servers. He claimed he needed it for some websites of potential clients, even showed me one. But it also was just the day before a soccer championship started with publicised possibilities of web streaming. Surely a coincidence :-) "Unfortunately" the TS couldn't handle full-screen flash video ;-)

    @smf: I know that feeling well. Some data processing program always giving errors, but mostly with confidential data. On the one side a manager wanting this fixed, on the other side the developing company wanting example data… Fortunately once in a while it also barked on harmless data, but that took a while.

    Or having signed that one does not enter production while being sick (some products are sold for foodstuff) but being alone, having the flu, and then some important piece of IT, located deep in production, going (literally) up in smoke needing replacement.  

  13. The great thing about contracts is, you can change them to say whatever you want, as long as both parties agree. So add a note and get someone who can represent the company to initial it.

    But your friend probably has an at-will contract, so he can be fired (or quit) at any time for (almost) any reason anyway, so there's not much point.

  14. Anonymouse says:

    > The great thing about contracts is, you can change them to say whatever you want, as long as both parties agree. So add a note and get someone who can represent the company to initial it.

    Finding "someone who can represent the company" can be extremely hard.  In a previous job, that would have required the top manager at the site or the head of purchasing.  (It was a big multinational company).  And the head of purchasing was only allowed to enter into contracts to buy stuff.  So a HR contract change would have to be signed off by the top manager, and he would have insisted on getting a lawyers opinion before he signed.

    So the contract change would have taken about a week and wasted a lot of people's time.  They're not going to look kindly on you if you try to make them do that.

  15. SimonRev says:

    My company switched to electronic key cards for building access a few years ago.  When they handed out the cards, they made us sign an agreement which, among other items, stated that we would not grant access to employees who had not been given key card (the theory being that they should use the main entrance during normal business hours).  

    I wasn't going to try and keep track of who had been issued a key card and who hadn't, so I just crossed out that line, initialed it and gave it back to HR.  I was expecting someone to say something, but no one ever did.  I doubt they even looked at my paper.

  16. > Finding "someone who can represent the company" can be extremely hard

    If the company wants to create a byzantine internal responsibility mechanism, that's certainly their prerogative, but it comes with a cost.

  17. cheong00 says:

    @Engywuck: Sure. It's what he told us or I wouldn't have mentioned Korean movie. (Actually it's Korean TV series instead of movie, but this piece of detail is not important here.)

  18. steg says:

    My previous job was in an industry where visibility of data was strictly controlled by law and regulation. I asked a very simple question to my boss, "Is it legal for me to show this information to our offshore test team." The question made it to the CIO and CTO. I never heard an answer back (because it was obvious the answer was "no") and I simply refused to break the law and my employment contract. If I was asked to do something that would have required me to show a tester production data I simply asked what the answer to my question was — "I'm happy to do this if you can confirm it's not illegal. My interpretation of section XYZ of the FooBar Act is that it is not legal".

    Naturally all our dev and test data were copies of production data — the overseas testers shouldn't have had any data. Great place to work (cough).

  19. smf says:


    "The question made it to the CIO and CTO. I never heard an answer back (because it was obvious the answer was "no")"

    You never heard an answer back because your management didn't want to take responsibility, by ignoring you they were safe.

    The only reason for management is to take responsibility, think twice about working hard to pay for their lifestyle when they do nothing to earn it.

  20. rfk says:

    Well, you could always call your union rep… Oh, wait.

Comments are closed.

Skip to main content