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Two former employees of technology giant Microsoft are suing the company on the grounds that they were not protected from the psychological effects of their daily responsibilities.

The two men, named as Henry Soto and Greg Blauert in court documents, worked in Microsoft’s Online Safety Team and were tasked with reviewing explicit and illegal material that had been flagged by Microsoft’s automated systems.

They claim that their job requirements at the company caused them to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Reviewing the case, Deana Bates – Employment Law Solicitor at Simpson Millar – explains that companies have a duty of care to ensure the wellbeing of staff.

Viewing sensitive material

Microsoft’s automated software automatically marks potentially illegal material sent using any of its services.

Once material has been marked it is up to human employees to check the content and verify whether the content breaks any laws and requires flagging to relevant authorities.

The employees in this case both handled sensitive, potentially illegal, images involving children as their responsibility was to uphold Microsoft’s legal obligation to pass any illegal images to the US National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

It is claimed that after spending an extended period of time in the job, Mr Soto and Mr Blauert had been subjected to thousands of sensitive images that had caused one of the men to have a mental breakdown in 2013.

When Mr Blauert expressed his discomfort it is alleged that he was simply told to go for a cigarette break or take some time away from his desk.

For Mr Soto, it is claimed that his work caused him to struggle to be around children, including his own son, as it would remind him of the disturbing material he reviewed at work.

Court papers claim:

“Many people simply cannot imagine what Mr Soto had to view on a daily basis as most people do not understand how horrible and inhumane the worst people in the world can be.”

“[His work resulted in] panic attacks, disassociation, depression, [and] visual hallucinations.”

Supporting staff

Microsoft refutes the claims, stating that they offer industry-leading support to its Online Safety Team.

In a statement, the company said:

“We disagree with the plaintiffs’ claims. Microsoft takes seriously its responsibility to remove and report imagery of child sexual exploitation and abuse being shared on its services, as well as the health and resiliency of the employees who do this important work.”

“Microsoft applies industry-leading technology to help detect and classify illegal imagery of child abuse and exploitation that are shared by users on Microsoft Services. Once verified by a specially trained employee, the company removes the imagery, reports it to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, and bans the users who shared the imagery from our services.”

“This work is difficult, but critically important to a safer and more trusted internet. The health and safety of our employees who do this difficult work is a top priority. Microsoft works with the input of our employees, mental health professionals, and the latest research on robust wellness and resilience programs to ensure those who handle this material have the resources and support they need, including an individual wellness plan. We view it as a process, always learning and applying the newest research about what we can do to help support our employees even more.”

It has also been claimed that if any employees in the Online Safety Team no longer wishes to do the work associated with this area of the business they can be assigned other responsibilities.

Staff that work on the Online Safety Team are also automatically enrolled onto a wellness program that Microsoft say includes mandatory monthly meetings with a counsellor to combat the effects of the role.

Spotting warning signs

Despite Microsoft claiming that they have a leading wellness program that supports employees, there are times when individuals may need special attention and can slip through the cracks of an organisation’s best efforts, as Deana explains:

“This is a complicated case that highlights some of the difficult jobs that have to be done to protect us online and stop explicit material from being shared across the web.”

“Looking at the wider implications of the case we have a dispute between an employer and its former employees, with the latter claiming that the taxing nature of their work was not considered in relation to their mental wellbeing by Microsoft.”

“Microsoft have responded by claiming that they have a number of measures in place to help staff in its Online Safety Team, which I do not doubt for a company of its size, but all employers need to be aware that every member of their team is different and company-wide policies that work for some staff may not work for others.”

“For employers who have to employ staff to partake in sensitive work that could have an adverse effect on an employee’s wellbeing, it is important to always be alert and to try and spot any warning signs that staff may be struggling.”

“If employees are complaining about their work or often seem distracted from their main role, then it may be beneficial to communicate with those employees and find out more about their behaviour; employers should be aware of the signs of PTSD and other forms of anxiety or stress.”

“It is important that employees know that where their role is having an adverse impact on their health in any way, employers can look to make changes to eliminate and reduce this negative impact. This can of course only be done if employers are aware either from their own risk assessments or via an employee communicating with them.”

“Employers making changes, taking into account the impact a role may have, or is having, on individuals can benefit both the employees impacted and the wider company.”

Written by Deana Bates.

For more information on employment law and the services offered by Simpson Millar, please call:

0808 129 3304

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