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What's safe for work?

Differing outcomes dealing with offensive messages

The messages local law enforcement personnel sent one another - more than 5,000 - were crude, referring to people as animals, using profane terms as labels - and, worst, containing some horrifying jokes implying violence.

They were fired.

That was in Camden County, where 11 white prison guards lost their jobs for racially insulting texts sent and received on personal cellphones, on and off the clock.

In Pennsylvania, dozens of prosecutors, judges, and investigators who exchanged hundreds of sexually demeaning emails on government computers are still working.

Two similar situations, two different outcomes.

Human resource experts say most large private-sector employers have lawyer-vetted policies such as one suggested by the Society for Human Resource Management, which prohibits using company computers to send and receive "any offensive, disruptive, or harassing messages or images," including those with sexual language and racial slurs.

What to do if policies are violated is murkier, even for the experts.

"Disciplinary action for violation of this policy may include termination, suspension or transfer of the offending employee," the society's suggested template reads.

"The measure of discipline will correspond to the gravity of the offense as weighed by its potential effect on [the firm] and fellow employees," the society template adds.

A bigger issue, experts say, is whether these behaviors affect the employees' abilities to do their jobs fairly and honorably, without bias or prejudice.

"You can't use this wildly inappropriate behavior in your role as a law enforcement officer," explained Camden County spokesman Dan Keashen, speaking about the officers who lost their jobs in February. Two retired. Nine have contested the discipline.

"How can you serve your community if you are extremely racist and biased?"

Last Tuesday, Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane made a similar point when she announced the appointment of a special prosecutor to look into the sexually charged emails exchanged among judges, prosecutors, and investigators, including three former state Attorney General's Office investigators who now work for the Philadelphia district attorney.

"No African American should walk into a courtroom where the judge or prosecutor or defense attorney mocks him or her," Kane said.

"No woman should go to work and be subjected to consistent treatment of disgusting indignity by women-haters because they were born with one less body part - which, the last I heard, does not contain any extra brain cells," she said.

Kane's critics say her handling of what has become known as Porngate smacks of retaliation stemming from a feud over the handling of a political-corruption investigation.

Even so, over the last year, the email scandal has forced more than half a dozen people to lose their positions, including a Supreme Court justice who retired. Last Monday, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams transferred the three investigators he hired from Kane's office to lower-profile positions, amid calls from City Council that they should be fired.

"I don't know any employer that would put up with it," said Mark Izzo, founder of Converge HR Solutions, a consulting company in Wayne.

Most employers, he said, would quickly fire employees who, on the job, exchanged emails involving photos of women's private parts and images of women having sex with each other.

Even people who receive emails are in danger: Their best strategy, he said, is to save a copy and report it immediately to supervisors, documenting everything.

But, Izzo said, it gets tricky if the behaviors are widespread or if they are tolerated by the organization's leaders.

"If they're allowing them, they're condoning them," he said, with the same idea applying to minor situations such as workers arriving late.

If leaders are involved, he said, it might be easier to fire them and have incoming management set a new tone.

In Camden County, prison officials initiated sensitivity sessions, hiring a retired Pennsylvania State Police major who now runs a human resource consulting firm.

"Once you have identified the situation, then you start to address those issues through training and awareness," said the major, Benjamin Brooks, of Collegeville.

"Oftentimes, people will do these things and they may not be conscious of the impact it has on other people," he said.

"When you deal with a culture, there is still that code of silence," he said. "A bunch of guys are exchanging jokes and everyone is laughing, but you don't know how everyone is receiving it. Someone may be upset, but because of peer pressure, they may not voice their concerns."

District Attorney Williams also ordered five hours of sensitivity training for the office.

"I do not think one session of training is a sufficient consequence," said Rutgers University-Camden assistant professor Oscar Holmes IV, who said he plans to use the two situations as a case study in a management class he teaches.

Particularly in a public situation, Holmes said, officials should provide a reasonable explanation for their disciplinary decisions to restore the public's faith in the office.

"People are able to accept outcomes they don't agree with, if they [receive] adequate justifications," he said.

People need to see that the consequences somehow match "the perceived injustice," he said.

So why two different outcomes for two sets of white men, both in law enforcement?

"People can influence the outcomes based on their status and their value to organization," Holmes said.

"A guard is lower down the organizational chain, so the power that person can generate is relatively minor," he said.

Managers making firing decisions are weighing the offense against the loss of talent, Holmes said. If managers feel employees are valuable, they may decide to keep them on and "deal with negative fallout from the press."