A reader writes:
I am an IT worker, and in that position, I frequently come into contact with my coworkers’ email during the normal execution of my duties. I do not snoop and really have no interest in what my peers are sending to each other. Nonetheless, in my line of work it’s not possible to 100% eliminate seeing other people’s messages.
I noticed one of my male coworkers (we’ll call him Fred) frequently eats lunch with another female coworker (we’ll call her Ginger). This seemed innocent to me and nothing I took a particular interest in.
Recently Fred requested that I help him with a problem on his PC. He had left open an email message on his desktop from Ginger. The first two words of the message were “hey baby.” I did not read the rest of the message because I had no interest in it and it was not why I was there. I fixed his PC problem and left.
I did not know Fred or Ginger well. I noticed Fred wore a wedding ring, had seen him often with Ginger, and knew Ginger sent him an email starting with “hey baby.” I assumed Ginger was Fred’s wife. I made an offhand comment to that effect to one of my coworkers, believing this to be an innocent conversation and thinking nothing of it.
The comment got back to Fred, who, to my surprise, was not Ginger’s husband after all. Fred cornered me in my office while I was alone, and demanded in unambiguous terms that I stop spreading rumors which might threaten his marriage. This hit me as a complete shock; I had no idea Fred was not married to Ginger, and had never intended to start any rumors. I had simply made a logical (but incorrect) deduction from a few casual observations.
Fred’s manner and tone in this confrontation felt very threatening to me. I stammered an apology and quickly left the room to escape a very intimidating situation. In hindsight, I do not feel I did anything wrong, and more to the point, I feel Fred’s confrontation was both overly aggressive (bordering on bullying) and unfair.
In any case, I feel there must have been better ways for me to handle the situation. Offering apologies when I did not truly believe I had done anything wrong was just being a doormat. I would like to know if there are better strategies for dealing with this kind of confrontational coworker in the future.
Fred’s reaction was definitely over-the-top … but you also weren’t really warranted in thinking they were married on the sole basis of a “hey baby.”
I wouldn’t be surprised if Fred and Ginger are indeed inappropriately involved, which would also explain the overly aggressive nature of Fred’s confrontation with you. Otherwise, he’d presumably just correct you and move on.
In any case, you’re asking whether you could have handled the situation better. I actually think you handled it fine: You apologized for saying something about him that was incorrect, which is reasonable, and you didn’t do anything to inflame someone who was already worked up. Both of those are generally good moves.
Fred wasn’t wrong in telling you to cut this out — he was wrong in how he did it. And you could certainly address that with him later if you wanted to, but frankly, he sounds like a guy that it would be better to just steer clear of.
Anyone want to argue it differently?