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what to say when your boss is rude to a coworker in front of you

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A reader writes:

What can/should I do when my boss is rude to another coworker?

We’re a small, very early-stage start-up with no HR person. The coworker and I are both young, female, and new. My boss often puts her down (“God, you’re inattentive” or “if you can’t even do this task you should be fired”) in front of us in response to her simply asking for clarification or an email to be resent, or tells her curtly “louder” while she’s talking in a meeting. He doesn’t seem to be doing it to anyone else.

It bothers me to see this and I imagine she must feel uncomfortable as well. I want to say something, but I don’t know what I can say. Any advice would be appreciated.

Agh, this is really tough.

What most people do in this situation is stay silent, feel really uncomfortable, and maybe commiserate with their coworker afterward.

Sometimes that’s truly all you can do. If you’re in a very junior position or otherwise don’t have much standing to speak up, or if you don’t have great rapport with the boss yourself, you might not be in a position to do anything in the moment. That’s a pretty awful position to be in — it’s horrible to feel like you have to just sit there and watch someone be mistreated. If that’s your situation, I’d encourage you to talk with your coworker and see how she’s doing — let her know that you see what’s happening and that you think it’s unacceptable. That might make the situation she’s in easier for her, and if she’s starting to question whether she’s somehow causing his mistreatment of her, it can help to hear that someone else thinks it’s not okay. (That’s especially true since she’s young and may not have much frame of reference yet for how a manager should interact with people.)

That said, sometimes you’re in a position to do more. Sometimes simply looking visibly shocked will shame a boss like this. And if you’re in a senior role and/or particularly respected by the boss and/or have particularly good rapport with him, you’re often well positioned to say something to him afterwards — which, depending on the relationship, could be anything from “you came across pretty harshly with Jane in that meeting” to “it’s really uncomfortable when you talk to people that way” to “we are going to lose good people if you keep talking to them that way.”

If you’re new and junior, though, that’s probably not something you’d easily be able to do. (Although you could do the “look visibly shocked” part.)

But there might be opportunity to provide another perspective in a way that doesn’t directly take on your boss. For example, if your boss insults your coworker because she asks him to clarify something, you could say mildly, “I actually was wondering the same thing too.” Or if he’s berating her for not getting a task right, you could say, “To be honest, I wasn’t totally confident about my ability to do this either. For me, the problem was X.”

If you do that, there’s a chance that your boss will just widen his circle of wrath to include you too, so you’d have to decide if that’s a risk you’re willing to take. But you could try it once and see what happens — who knows, it’s possible that it’ll calm him down.

Ultimately, though, your boss is a jerk. (And to be clear, it doesn’t matter if your coworker truly is awful at her job — she still doesn’t deserve to be talked to that way.) And when you’re working for a jerk, it’s usually only a matter of time before their jerkiness starts seeping out in other ways too, so I’d keep an eye out for that.

what to say when your boss is rude to a coworker in front of you was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.

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1 day ago
Melbourne, Australia
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we give our interns free housing — and there are problems

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A reader writes:

I train and manage a team of young (22-25) paid interns who, as part of their compensation, have free housing in a shared living space owned by my organization. Recently, one of my female interns told me (in tears) that the male interns repeatedly use the word “bitch” in their shared living space, despite multiple requests from female staff to stop. This is not acceptable to me, and I am definitely going to address it.

How do I best approach these young men constructively without causing retaliation against my female interns? There’s no way for me to know about this unless I had been told, and I’m worried that it will become a bigger issue behind closed doors if I intervene. It also borders on controlling my employees’ behavior outside of work hours, so how do I make it clear that this is still a work-related issue even if they’re not “at work”?

You are bringing back terrible memories for me! Years and years ago, I worked for an organization that provided free housing for its interns — they purchased a huge old house, and had a staff member live there rent-free in exchange for making sure the house ran smoothly. For about a year, I was that staff member. (I was 25-ish and traveling all the time, so it seemed like a good deal! It was not.) I dealt with so much weirdness in that house, including having to talk to a guy who refused to flush the toilet for environmental reasons (not okay when you’re sharing a house with eight other people in it), food thieves, a woman who tried to insist on total silence after 8 p.m., interns who thought I was their mom and would drive them places, someone who liked to pee outside, and so much more. And for some reason, they could not be trained to lock the door when they left — which resulted in the house being robbed a few months after I left. (And when the robber came in, they made him tea! They assumed he was a new intern. Then they all headed out, and when they came back, the “new intern” and all their electronics were gone.)

Anyway, your question.

You’re providing living space and housing them with other interns; you absolutely have standing to insist that they not harass, degrade, or otherwise create a hostile environment for the other people in the house. You’re right, though, that you can’t address it without it becoming clear that someone reported it to you, but that’s okay — because as part of addressing it, you can make it clear that any kind of retaliation against people for talking to you will be even more of a problem than the original behavior.

Say something like this: “While you’re sharing living space with other interns, we expect you to be respectful. I’ve heard reports that you’ve been asked to stop calling people ‘bitches’ but you’ve continued. Can you tell me what’s going on?” Then you follow up with, “It does need to stop. We have an obligation to ensure that the living space we’re providing is livable for everyone in it, and we’d be legally liable as an organization if we heard people felt unsafe or harassed there and didn’t act. In general, if someone tells you your behavior in the house is unwelcome, assume you need to cut it out — or come talk to me if you think you shouldn’t need to.”

Then say, “I hope this goes unsaid, but part of treating the other interns in the house with respect means that there can’t be any retaliation against them for telling me what was going on. That’s something we would take very seriously, to the point of reconsidering your internship here. Do you feel like you’ll be be able to treat them normally and respectfully going forward?”

And then talk to the women who talked to you, let them know that you’ve addressed it and it shouldn’t be happening anymore, and that you want to know if there are any further problems. Tell them that you made it clear that it would unacceptable for anyone to retaliate against them for talking to you, and that they should let you know immediately if that happens.

You should also inquire more broadly about how things are going in the house — do they otherwise feel comfortable there and have there been any other problems? — and reiterate that if they feel unsafe or harassed in the future, they should come to you or another employee right away and you’ll help them, and it’s okay if they need to do that. In doing this, be open to hearing that they may not be super comfortable living with these dudes at all, and be prepared for the possibility that you may need to make changes there.

And then check in a few times with them in the weeks/months to come. People won’t always approach you when there are problems, so assume you’ll need to go out of your way to find out how things are going there and how comfortable people are feeling.

we give our interns free housing — and there are problems was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.

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3 days ago
The tea
Melbourne, Australia
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Heather Havrilesky interviews Daniel Mallory Ortberg on coming out as trans and his new book

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Ortberg continues to be an internet treasure; the book’s out today

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7 days ago
Melbourne, Australia
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interview with a nanny for a famous psychic

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Occasionally I do interviews here with people who have had particularly interesting jobs. Recently a commenter here mentioned that she used to be a nanny for a famous psychic, and I wanted to know more. She kindly agreed to be interviewed, and here’s our conversation.

Note: This interview contains references to the interviewee’s spiritual beliefs, which may be different from your own. Please be respectful of her beliefs in the comment section.

So tell us a little bit about the job.

I was a nanny for “Jane’s” kids (who are also psychic). She was gone quite a bit so I effectively lived with them part-time. I would go with her when she had readings for large audiences occasionally, and other instances where she needed help with the kids even though she was there. We also talked and hung out quite a bit ourselves.

I did all the regular nanny things—picking kids up from school, meals, bedtimes, getting ready for school, movies, swimming, cleaning up the house, and sometimes just brought them with me when I needed to run errands or be somewhere. I even took her daughter on an audition for a TV commercial once.

How was nannying for a psychic different than nannying for a non-psychic would be?

• I think that working with the FBI on missing child cases understandably made “Jane” super protective of the kids in a way that most people probably are not. I took her son into the women’s bathroom with me until he was nine (yes, I got lots of dirty looks) but I was under strict orders to never leave him alone in a public place, not even for a moment.

• Sensitivities to energy. If someone was having a bad day, everyone in the house would know about it because there’s something about being in her house that made me more sensitive to energy, and the kids and Jane herself are also.

• My own abilities going through the roof when I was around the family was another surprise. We would play this game at dinner with the kids with a bunch of glitter shapes (little purple stars, yellow circles, blue squares, etc.) and she would put one in her hand and hold it out to me and the kids so we could try to guess which one she had. She could push the thought into my head and I would get it right. I have no other way to describe it except a mental shove into your thoughts.

• The spirits everywhere. Talkers, practical jokers, general visitors, the list goes on. It was a daily thing. But they like attention, as I suppose I would if I were invisible and wanted people to know I was there. I would say, “Listen, I see you and I am happy to chat and play later, but right now I really have to make dinner and get these kids to eat. Can you give me a break until after bedtime?” and they would.

• The biggest difference was psychic kids.

Psychic kids? How did that end up manifesting?

They are like Jane in the sense that they can see, hear, feel, sense the present as well as future. Not only people but also spirits. Most people don’t have the full range like that. I had to keep things from the kids that weren’t necessary for them to know, or just too adult for them. For example, I suffer from depression and would have some hard days but came to work anyway, and tried to hide it. They would be really concerned even though I was acting normal enough. They would come up and hug me, ask what’s wrong, draw me a picture, or whatever to try and make me feel better. I would just have to tell them that sometimes I get sad for no reason and it’s chemical in my brain doing it, but everything is okay and it’s just a feeling that will pass.

Once I was sick but Jane still needed me to watch the kids so I came over. It was very early, and one of the kids was just waking up. Jane and I had talked about me working that day while he was asleep, so he didn’t know I was sick yet. I was sitting at the kitchen table and he wakes up and wanders in. He looks at me and says, “Did you have your tonsils taken out? Our old babysitter had her tonsils taken out and that’s how her throat felt too.”

What was the most challenging part about working for a psychic?

It really wasn’t. It was fun! The only thing I didn’t like was when she would have people around her who were there just for the psychic stuff and not because they just wanted to be her friend. Some people would absolutely hound her. Her feelings would get hurt and even though she would try not to show it, I could tell.

I suppose it was also pretty hard to hear things about my life that were not going to go the way I wanted, even though that isn’t directly related to the job. I would try my best for something but no, it would turn exactly the way she said anyway. Every flipping time. Imagine getting an interview for your dream job in an amazing foreign country, in a city I always dreamed of visiting. I even got a minor in that language. I told her about it and she said, “You know, that’s not a safe city. It’s incredibly dangerous and I absolutely do not want you going … well, actually, it doesn’t matter. You won’t get the job. Go ahead and try to interview if you don’t want to listen to me but it’s not meant for you.” (Sounds a bit harsh typing it but she’s very cut-and-dry that way.)

Apologies if this is a silly question, but it must be asked: Did you ever feel like you couldn’t hide things from her that you normally might not want to share with a boss, because she would sense them/know them?

Well, we had a very unusual relationship since we were—and still are—so close. There are days with your coworkers or a friend / family member where you might be thinking, “You are driving me stone-cold nuts today and I am so frustrated with you” but you don’t say that. There’s no hiding it though, no matter how professional your behavior is. I know that there were days where Jane was annoyed with me too, and you just have to ignore it even though she knows and I know that she knows, etc. You just pretend and address what people are saying, not the vibe they are sending out.

There was one time where I dozed off on the couch and the kids were hanging out in the living room. One was watching TV, one was drawing. When my boss called, it jolted me awake and I felt guilty for napping, and also was startled by the phone ring. I answered it and Jane got really freaked out because my heart was pounding and she could tell. I had to explain and reassure her several times that I was not under duress and nobody was in the house scaring me / holding us hostage.

Are there things you learned from working with her that you’ve carried with you in your life since? 

So many things!

• I initially reached out to her because my (deceased) father’s spirit was following me around trying to get my attention. I asked him to stop but she told me that he was there trying to make it up to me for being a negligent father. He was trying to protect me now and wanted me to know that he’s there. That was very cathartic because I really carried some hurts about not feeling loved by him and feeling sort of rejected in life.

• It has helped me to tap into what I feel—not just what makes sense from a logical perspective.

• Live each day in the moment – life is hard for all of us so it is easy to sort of check out and ignore what is going on around you. Try to be present and not let your mind wander somewhere else when you should be here living your life.

• Don’t let anyone stonewall you or gaslight you. If you think something is happening, act accordingly because you are right way more often than most of us allow ourselves to believe. That’s how I have been in the past, anyway. Advocate for yourself and don’t let anyone push you around because ‘that’s not what’s happening’ or ‘that’s just the process’. Be appropriate, but take no crap.

Is this the most interesting job you’ve ever had? I feel like it has to be.

Oh yeah, definitely.

interview with a nanny for a famous psychic was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.

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7 days ago
Melbourne, Australia
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Be selfish: if it needs to be done someone else can do it

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In 2009, in “Girl stuff” in Free Software, I recounted a conversation with Brianna Laugher:

[Brianna] said — paraphrased — that she didn’t feel that she should have a problem or be criticised for doing what she is good at, or what’s so desperately needed in her communities, and have to be just another coder in order to be fully respected. And I said that while this was certainly true, women also need to have the opportunity, to give themselves the opportunity, to be selfish: if we want to code, or do something else we are currently either bad at or not notably good at, or for that matter which we are good at but in which we’d have competitors, we should consider doing that, rather than automatically looking for and filling the space that is most obviously empty

(See also Brianna’s response.)

Since then, I’ve seen this pattern recur, most recently in some of the discussion around Valerie Aurora’s Advice for women in tech who are tired of talking about women in tech: women who are doing things because, well, the thing needs to be done and no one is doing it, even if what drew them to the job or the project was something else entirely than the chores they’ve ended up with. This is particularly true when the chore has some benefit to others: writing documentation, welcoming newcomers, setting up the translation team, establishing the not for profit and such.

This not only can make women miserable as they find themselves doing a lot of things out of a vague sense of duty, it quite frequently leads to no rewards whatsoever. For others, it’s really nice when the documentation gets written or the notes get taken or the funds get raised without having to figure out how to give someone a promotion or a keynote slot for it, or how to build up a healthy chain of people moving through the task and onto other things! How fortunate for your boss or your project, and how unfortunate for you.

Quite often a good dollop of selfishness is what this situation deserves, and what you deserve too. There is of course a tight limit to which women can or should personally solve the problem of being handed or expected to quietly assume chores and hover around in the background making sure all the wheels are greased, but let’s explore how far you can get, when it’s time to be selfish.

Note throughout this entry that “chores” are very relative. You may not be a natural fit for translating conversations or documents just because you’re fluent in multiple languages! You might want to write some code or do the accounting or answer the phones instead! But this doesn’t mean that documentation or translation are worthless activities that no one should do, just that they’re something that, at this time, and for this project, you want to stop doing.

Figure out what you’re getting out of the chore, and keep doing it.

I’m very often the notetaker in meetings that I’m in. While this is quite gendered (and I’ve occasionally had senior male colleagues notice and call it out, which is appreciated), I do get something out of it. I have trouble paying attention to and understanding conversations I’m present in that I don’t also write up; and, while we’re talking about being selfish, one of the more effective ways to control the agenda is to write it, and one of the ways to control the findings is to write them too.

So, I keep taking notes quite often, but I’m clear on what I’m getting out of it. I don’t take the notes for their own sake, and if I find myself in a situation where I’m losing the ability to participate in or lead a meeting due to being its notetaker, I’m more likely to reconsider whether there need to be notes and if so, whether I need to take them.

But let’s say you’ve thought about it, and you’re not getting something out of the thing, and you want to be done. But the thing is important, it is in some way making the world a better place. If so…

Accept that the project could fail without the chore.

Something to work through is knowing that the chore might be important to the success of the project, and that you’re deciding not to do it anyway.

Maybe the conference will be better with a more diverse lineup and so will the careers of the speakers. If no one sees the notes of the meeting then some important decisions will be missing context. A major security flaw might be hiding in those untriaged bugs.

But if the project’s success seems to depend on you, a single person, quietly stepping in and doing what must be done while everyone else does fun things, the project is either so fragile that it’s at high risk of failure regardless of your exceptional bug triaging and speaker finding skills, or it’s somewhat quietly robust, and will actually carry on just fine.

A related failure mode — “I’m so valuable that my boss won’t let me take vacation” — is something of an Ask a Manager perennial. As she tends to advise: what if you quit? If you quit and your chores are super important, your boss will either find a way to get them done after you leave, or the project will fail, and if it fails in your absence, it probably wasn’t that likely to succeed in your presence either.

So. If you’re the only thing standing between success and failure, you’re not on a great project. It might have great aims or ambitions, but it’s not a great project. So now it’s time to…

Stop doing the thing.

Just don’t do it. Let the bugs go untriaged, the newcomers go unwelcomed, the documentation go untranslated, the meeting go unrecorded, the conference not schedule any unicorn talks, the conference not have any women speakers at all.

While you worked through thoughts about the project failing above, many times, you’ll find that the thing wasn’t that important in the first place. No one much read the notes of that meeting, so maybe there didn’t need to be notes, and in fact, on reflection holding the meeting wasn’t that important either. The conference copped a lot of justified heat on Twitter for their all-male all-white lineup and… probably they deserved it since they were using you to shield them from it before. Speakers of your other fluent language migrated to other software that had a translation team dedicated to their needs, and were better off for it. And so on.

How to just stop:

  • Unsubscribe from the project email list.
  • Block your browser from letting you look at the bug tracker.
  • Delete the request for help finding women for the panel.
  • Read back over your personal notes from the meeting, update your own todo list, but don’t type them up to send to the team.
  • Go on a long holiday.

Give some warning you’re going to stop doing the thing.

If you’re not truly silently labouring away alone, you might want to let people know you’re stopping. That’s fine; but be firm about it, give a date at which you’ll stop, and resist conditioning leaving on another volunteer stepping up. “I’d love someone to take over the server and I’m happy to train you” may work, but it also may not. In embracing selfishness per this post, you need to step down even if no one else is stepping up.

Some scripts:

  • “I’m not available as a volunteer sysadmin after the 1st. I’d love to hand off cleanly to a new sysadmin if possible. However if there’s no volunteers by the 1st, I will shut down the server and provide the data backups to [other person].”
  • “This is the last newsletter from me! If someone else wants to pick it up, here’s a one pager to get you started.”
  • “After some reflection, I’ve decided not to contest the next board election. I’m looking forward to seeing where a new president takes us.”

Ask if you can hand off the thing.

The above two strategies work less well in hierarchical situations like workplaces. If you’ve silently taken on chores or you’re volunteering for things outside your core position you can still use those strategies, but if your boss or another authority figure has told you to do the chore (especially if they told you to recently), probably you shouldn’t just stop and see what happens, let alone send an email unilaterally announcing you’ve decided to stop doing your job from the 1st.

But that doesn’t mean you need to silently do what you’re told at the expense of important work, or do unrewarded tasks while your peers get shiny things. There’s some alternatives you can explore with your workplace:

  • Ask if you can stop: make a case for the chore not being important at all, or not being as important as the other things you need to do
  • Rotate chores: set up a formal rotation of the chore between teams or members of the team
  • Pay someone: pay a bookkeeper for your organisation rather than relying on a series of burned out volunteer treasurers
  • Pay a specialist: hire a project manager or an office admin or a backend dev or a fundraising lead
  • Transition to a more junior staff member: maybe there’s someone who’d learn from writing those docs or triaging those bugs
  • Transition to a team: maybe there’s so many chores that there needs to be a project team addressing the chores and the source of them, and maaaaybe you could lead that team?

That said, in workplaces and other hierarchical organisations, ethical leadership should be avoiding disproportionately handing unrewarding tasks to women, younger people, and members underrepresented minorities, and should be actively considering these solutions themselves. If you’re in a situation where your leadership is happily reaping the rewards of you patiently picking up scutwork unrewarded…

Quit your entire position.

If your current position (paid or volunteer) is full of chores you aren’t rewarded for but that no one can be bothered sharing around or finding someone who’d be a better fit, and you’re fortunate enough to be able to find another position or you don’t need to, quitting is something to seriously consider. Head out the door and selfishly go find somewhere where what they need someone to do is the same thing that you want to be doing.

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7 days ago
I'm kind of amazed at how relevant this still is, 9 years on. Mary is great at articulating this stuff.
Melbourne, Australia
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our employee is taking nude photos in our office and posting them to Facebook


A reader writes:

I am the office manager of a small (two additional employees, two doctors, and one therapist) health practice. One employee, who I will call Jane, has worked there for over 10 years and handles billing, front desk, and bookkeeping.

Jane is recently divorced and seems to be going through a mid-life crisis of sorts with an obsession on finding new sex partners. She lists our company name as her place of employment on Facebook and some of our patients are her “friends.” We found out through our other employee (who I will call Mary) and our therapist (who I will call Sara) that Jane is now a member of several Facebook groups where people can post suggestive to explicit photos and videos. When we first learned of this, we let Jane know that we were aware and asked her to take anything that linked her Facebook account to us out of her profile or to create an alternate account for her extracurricular activities that we wanted to remain separate as her personal business. She became irate, saying that our awareness of it created a “hostile work environment” for her. She also threatened to sue Mary for informing us. But then some time passed and she seemed to calm down.

In the past few days, however, it was brought to my and the doctors’ attention that not only is Jane continuing to post these things, she is taking and posting the photos daily from our business. Our company bathroom is in the background of some of them as well as the office her and I share (I am in the office part-time). One of the photos described to me is a full photo of her standing in front of my desk with her pants around her ankles. The time stamps show that it is during work hours (there are times each day where she is the only employee in the office).

I am at a loss for how to handle this appropriately and what to do. She even invited a patient who works at a business in our center to be a member of one of the groups. Obviously her doing this from work and involving anything linked to the office has got to stop. Yesterday she went to use the bathroom (which is private) at least four times, staying in there for over 10 minutes each time with her phone in hand and all I could do was picture what she could be doing in there.

Given her experience and high degree of responsibility, it would be an enormous task to replace her, and believe it or not otherwise her job performance is very good. Any advice at all as to how to handle this would be greatly appreciated.

You get to draw the line at people taking nude photos in your office. That’s not okay, and you don’t need to tip-toe around that with her.

And you know, one day Jane will leave of her own volition, and then you will have the work of replacing her at that point anyway. So don’t be held hostage to your fear of having to do that now, to the point that you tolerate totally unacceptable behavior in your office.

Sometimes you need to be willing to let someone go. An employee taking nude photos of herself in your office — in front of your desk! — and posting them to Facebook, where she’s connected with some of your clients, is one of those times.

This would be bizarrely bad judgment under any circumstances, but it’s even odder because Jane knows that you know about her involvement with the explicit-photo groups. You’ve already told her that your business can’t be associated with it. And after that conversation, she seems to have escalated the behavior by posing for the photos in your office. Frankly, it almost seems like a compulsion or an act of hostility toward your office, or both.

It would be 100% reasonable to tell Jane that this needs to stop immediately and all photos taken in your office need to be removed, and that this will be her last warning on the topic and you’ll part ways with her if it continues.

It would also be entirely reasonable to decide that Jane has already demonstrated such terrible judgment that you’re not going to go through a warning process and instead will part ways now. You don’t owe someone a warning and a second chance when something is this egregious (or at least you don’t as long as your own internal policies don’t require it).

To be clear, the issue isn’t that Jane is sharing nude photos of herself in her personal life. That’s her business. The issue originally was that she was connected to clients while doing it, and the issue now is that she’s doing it at work. Keep the focus there.

But before you can do any of that, you need to convince yourself that the fact that it’ll be a pain to replace her isn’t a reason not to take action on something like this. You can’t let your organization be held hostage to that. (And really, how far does that go? What if she starts slapping your logo on these nude photos? ) There’s a point where someone’s behavior just isn’t okay, and this is at that point.

And in case you need it — hostile workplace: it’s not what you think.

our employee is taking nude photos in our office and posting them to Facebook was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.

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8 days ago
Melbourne, Australia
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