What Happens When VERY Personal Photos Get Passed Around at Work?

An HR expert discusses nude pictures in the office; checking emails on vacation days; and what to do when your new boss sucks.


Most of us work more than we live, which is to say we spend considerably more time at the office and with our coworkers than we do with the human beings we actually want in our lives. It also means that the stressors and anxieties of work become a significant part of who we are — and can be a real drag even when we’re not at the office. We here at MEL, however, don’t want all that stress to get to you — or worse, kill you. That’s why we’ve enlisted Terry Petracca, the hippest HR expert we know, to help solve all your work-related woes.

There’s some really personal stuff making the rounds at our offices (emails, texts, Slacks and even dick pics) that’s dragging all of us into an ugly failed office romance. Not sure if our manager will get involved because it’s one of his closest friends. How do I stay out of it? — Andrew K., Charlotte
It sounds as though you’ve already been dragged into this mess, so sticking your head in the sand doesn’t seem like an option. As for the specific issues you’ve raised, let’s take them one at a time:

  1. Your Manager’s Lack of Involvement Because of a Personal Connection. This might be speculation on your part unless you or one of your colleagues has spoken with him and been told to mind your own business. If he’s pretending that nothing is happening, provide proof of these inappropriate emails, texts and photos (in a discreet folder, of course) and put him on notice that he’s allowing sexual harassment to take place and/or fostering a hostile work environment. It’s also likely a violation of company policy (especially if company email or phones are involved), and potentially, the law. In other words, he can’t stick his head in the sand anymore than you can.
  2. Interoffice Romance: The Good News. Surprisingly enough, one-third of office romances end in marriage, and they’re quite prevalent in certain industries (e.g., leisure and hospitality). Assuming the couple consists of consensual adults who aren’t already in a boss/employee relationship, the workplace is a natural environment where people of all ages can find romance. I’ve been the happy recipient of wedding invitations and baby announcements over the years from successful office romances, and most fondly, I remember how two divorced co-workers came together for a romance none of us saw coming — and ultimately got married and merged their families.
  3. Interoffice Romance: The Bad News. The flip side is that two-thirds of office romances go bust. Unfortunately, this means you’re still stuck in close proximity to your ex unless one of you leaves the company. Like with any breakup, there can be soft landings (“It’s better to just be friends”) or ugly scenes (“You’re married?!?!”). The situation you’ve described, though, might even cross the line into revenge porn, which is illegal in 34 states and the District of Columbia.

Regardless of the outcome of any romance, it’s important to note that the office is a professional environment. When salacious material comes across your desk or to your inbox, you have three options: ignore, confront or report. If you ignore and delete, your digital footprint will still indicate you had knowledge of inappropriate activities and didn’t act on it. That’s a potential problem depending on how things escalate. The same goes if you confront one or both of the individuals identified in the emails or pictures since you’re putting yourself right in the middle of all their drama. Your best solution, then, is to report the activity with the evidence that has come to you unsolicited. By doing so, you’re protecting yourself and possibly others from being party to what’s really a private matter.

Does my company get to charge me a sick day or vacation day if it’s expected that I will be checking/responding to emails while I’m off? — Ruben L., Milwaukee
First off, let’s talk about what you mean by “expected.” It’s up to you to manage your boss’s expectations as well as your own when you’re sick or on vacation.

Here are the facts: If you casually check emails and/or texts while you’re on vacation or sick and you’re a salaried, exempt employee, you should get charged your PTO, vacation or sick day. If you’re a non-exempt employee, you should be paid for the time you worked — however casual that work might be. This means the company still charges your eight hours of PTO, vacation or sick time, but you later claim the time you worked on your timesheet.

That said, self-imposed work expectations are different from honest conversations with your boss about working when you’re on company-paid time off. Did you talk to your boss and let him/her know that you were going to put in five or six hours every evening? (Maybe you want to avoid your in-laws or maybe you’re on a deadline that couldn’t wait but also ended up coinciding with a vacation to Hawaii that couldn’t be rescheduled.) What did s/he say? Did you ask to only have three days of vacation charged instead of four? How did s/he respond? Communicating about expectations and requirements will immediately answer your question and clarify how to fill in your time card or put in requests for time off.

When you’re sick, people want you to stay home and get better. If you’re working while fighting the flu, you’re probably not at full strength anyway. This is a real pet peeve of mine: No one works full-time while they’re sick, so please rest and recuperate!

I work for a family-owned company that’s going through a transition of founder to the founder’s kids. We all love the founder and her husband. The kids are dicks, however. They don’t know the business but think they’re gods and goddesses. We have to do everything they say, even if it’s stupid and/or counterproductive. Is the situation so hopeless that I should just quit? — Phillip B., Los Angeles
There are many reasons that contribute to the oft-quoted stat that 70 percent of family-owned businesses don’t survive into the second generation and only 10 percent make it to the third generation. You’re living one of them: the entitled next generation.

Founders put passion, drive and lots of sweat equity into building their businesses. It’s their baby, which they’ve nurtured into successful adulthood. Your “loving the founder” comment most likely reflects the respect, trust and competency you admire in the owners. Unfortunately, many second-generation owners enter the family business as a fallback from unsuccessful or nonexistent jobs or careers. As such, they don’t know or care about the employees, customers or vendors. Equally ugly are the kids who’ve been watching from the sidelines, think they know everything and aren’t interested in anything you say or do. I’ve seen both, and they’re equally destructive.

You need to figure out your tolerance for this kind of bullshit. If the kids are wearing you down with their ignorance and condescension, you can try talking to the founders. They’re usually acutely aware of their children’s failings, and they’ll typically respond by saying things like, “I’ve tried to teach them,” “Can you be patient?” and “I’ll talk to them.” Sadly, however, it rarely gets better.

That means it’s probably best to rev up your job search. Consider talking to vendors and clients about your own transition; your knowledge and expertise about their company may be an asset. Under no circumstances, though, should you bad-mouth the next generation; they control the future purse strings, and customers and vendors don’t want to get involved in family squabbles. Of course, you can always stick around and hope that with maturity comes wisdom. But my experience tells me that you shouldn’t count on it.

Don’t just complain to your coworkers about everyone else you work with — let Terry help. Email her all your office-related anxieties at askterry@melindustries.com. Or, if total anonymity isn’t required, leave a question in the comments below.