Instead of teaching a lesson on sex and appropriate behavior, the Montana health department recently learned one.

After an employee alerted supervisors to sexually explicit pictures and cartoons flying through its e-mail systems, the Montana Department of Public Health and Hu-man Services disciplined 31 individuals for forwarding the messages. Fourteen workers were suspended for up to five days without pay, and 17 others got written warnings.

Beth McLaughlin, chief personnel officer for the 3,100-person department, sees the problem as a warning for the rest of the country. "It's not just our department or our state," she says. "There are more and more places that are going to run into situations like this."

Health department officials also notified other departments where workers had received the e-mails. The state Justice Department then warned three of its employees for sending the messages along.

Afterward, the health department sent out a letter to employees reiterating its policy that personal e-mail use is allowed only before and after work and on breaks. The letter also included a reminder that e-mail may not be used for gambling, personal matters, business or political activities.

McLaughlin is quite eager to put the whole incident behind her. "It has not been a pleasant experience, to say the least," she says. "The people who were involved were very embarrassed, and I don't think they'll ever do it again. In some ways, it's been a good learning experience for the department.