While office romp may have been personally damaging, judgment should be directed at pub patrons

The corporate world is very po-faced these days. When images of some after-hours activity in the Christchurch offices of insurance brokers Marsh Ltd flashed around the globe this week, the firm was virtually speechless. Chief executive Grant Milne said the company was treating the incident "very seriously". An investigation was to be made, senior managers had been dispatched from Auckland and the rest of the staff were said to be "keeping their heads down".

The subject is probably no laughing matter for the participants, nor for the wife of one and the ex-boyfriend of the other. But that is nobody else's business, including Marsh Ltd. Unless it receives a more serious complaint, the company's only concern can be that it has staff so careless as to leave the lights on in a glass-fronted area. Insurance is about calculating risk. Perhaps the pair had never seen their workplace from the pub across the road.

Their superiors were probably as amused as most people by their unwitting exposure. Their colleagues may have been keeping their heads down but mainly to stop themselves bursting with mirth. On the scale of commercial embarrassment this one can be treated somewhat less than "very seriously".

The main issue it presents is one of decency with digital technology. When patrons of the pub noticed the action across the road, they could be forgiven for a glance. To ogle for much longer suggests lives sadly deprived. But to film it with their phones and transmit it to their friends was a step too far. A lawyer writing in yesterday's Herald suggests it could even be ruled illegal.

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"The courts have recognised that when someone is in public there may yet be a reasonable expectation of privacy," wrote Nick Russell. The case of reference involved a place as public as a motorway. If it is possible to have a reasonable expectation of privacy for personal distress on a street, how likely is such a ruling for a place that was private as far as the subjects knew?

Possibly those who filmed them intended to do no more than share the sight with friends but they know how these things spread through social media and into mass media. There at least faces can be blurred.

If the participants escape public identification their employer is less fortunate. When it has happened on its premises, even after hours, the firm has to say something. A response that carried a sense of proportion, if not a sense of humour, is a challenge for its communications experts. The pitfalls of levity are clear. Easier to err on the side of seriousness.

Which is what happened. Employment lawyers have pondered whether the pair could be dismissed if the firm believed their actions had brought it into disrepute. At the very least, it was said, they could not continue working in the same office, which is probably the least of their worries now.

Public discussion, if it takes a serious turn, has been more offended by the people in the pub. The reaction suggests that not everybody would reach for their phone camera in the same circumstances, or at least they might not if they saw something similar happening now. The digital age is still young and yet to agree on principles of privacy. Dim the lights.