How Does Your Company Handle Offensive Email?

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By Robyn Hagan Cain on April 12, 2013 10:01 AM

If you've ever read PerezHilton.com, you may have seen the blog publish an email message with anti-gay slurs, complete with the sender's name and email address. The idea is simple and effective. The site's large fan base, enraged by the sender's offensive remarks, will flood the sender with responses.

The man behind the Perez persona -- Mario Lavandeira -- has been fighting a lawsuit over one of these posts for five years. This week, an arbitrator resolved the claim in favor of Perez, The Hollywood Reporter reports.

A tiff between a gossip blog reader and the "Queen of All Media" may not be the type of topic that usually concerns corporate counsel, but it's relevant in this case because the plaintiff, Diane Wargo, sent the email in question from her work email account at Menorah Park Center for Senior Living.

When Menorah Park learned about Wargo’s message, the HR director sent a follow-up message to PerezHilton.com, saying “It has come to our attention that an inappropriate email has been posted by an employee of Menorah Park using Menorah Park’s email system. This was done without the knowledge or consent of Menorah Park. Menorah Park renounces the unauthorized communication.” (Lavandeira published the message in an update to his original post.)

Menorah Park fired Wargo as a result of the incident.

This case offers valuable lessons for employers, employees and their lawyers.

Employees frequently waste time online during the workday, in violation of internal policy. Using Wargo’s case as an example, companies can explain how such violations negatively impact employees.

In ruling for Perez Hilton, the arbitrator noted that the root cause of Wargo’s termination was her “flagrant violation of her employer’s policy against personal use of the email and Internet access it furnished to distribute non-business related and offensive material.” Under the unclean hands doctrine, Wargo couldn’t recover for injuries based on her own violation of workplace policies.

For employers, Menorah Park sets an example for how to use company policies to handle a PR nightmare.

When the facility became aware of the email that Wargo had sent from her work account to Perez Hilton, the HR Director contacted the website to denounce the email. Menorah Park then dismissed Wargo for violating the computer policy.

Ideally, you’ll never have to deal with a similar situation, but it’s better to be proactive in planning for the worst in case such a problem arises.

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