two of my employees had a shouting match about PDA and social media

A reader writes:

I work in HR for an insurance firm and have been called in to deal with a dispute that erupted on the contact centre center floor between two agents over a social media incident where an agent looked at another person’s screen “without consent.”

Both are early 20-somethings a good 15 years younger than my children, so I’m feeling a little out of depth as this is the first time I’ve dealt with anything like this with the social media element. I’ve been briefed on the situation by the team leader of the two agents who pieced together what happened from talking to them, people who saw the incident and what he himself saw.

Two agents in a team have been involved in a relationship for a couple of years. We’ll call them Sophie and Matt. From what I have been informed, Sophie and Matt are generally not too gross, but often do things like handholding/kissing each others hands/foreheads when sitting next to each other.

This is what they were doing last week when another agent (we’ll call her Charlotte) was sitting next to Matt. Sophie was coming over to his desk constantly throughout the day.

While on her work computer, Charlotte went on Facebook and wrote something to the accord of “people who can’t go a couple of hours without being all over their boyfriend are pathetic and gross. I can’t wait for this day to be over so I no longer feel the need to vomit.” She also sent a message through our internal messaging program to two of her good friends (Aaron and Nathan) saying “Sophie and Matt are about two seconds away from banging right here, I’m going to be ill.” About six colleagues liked the status, and Aaron and Nathan replied to the chat with messages agreeing that Sophie and Matt’s PDA is gross. (Sophie/Matt and Charlotte are not friends and don’t have each other added on their accounts.)

Sophie saw this on Charlotte’s screen and got furious at Charlotte about it. Based on the way monitors are set up, Sophie would have had to intentionally made a point of looking at Charlotte’s screen to notice it.

Charlotte told Sophie that she shouldn’t have been looking at her screen and that if she chooses to invade someone else’s privacy by reading their screen, she can’t complain if she doesn’t like what she sees. Sophie said that in a workplace, that rule “doesn’t exist” and that what Charlotte wrote “wasn’t very nice and she should be ashamed.” Charlotte replied that “*you* should be ashamed….because honestly, what I said is what everyone is thinking” and then they ended up in a shouting match about it. Charlotte apparently was particularly irate with the yelling.

I honestly don’t know how to handle this.

Charlotte wasn’t doing anything wrong by being on Facebook as the company allows the “reasonable” use of Facebook provided it does not interfere with working duties. Charlotte was not on a call at the time she sent the message/wrote the status. I think regardless of what you think about Facebook use and work, if the company says it is okay, I can’t get mad at Charlotte for being on Facebook.

But the rest is where it gets murky. Generally speaking, I do agree with Charlotte in that if you read something that isn’t intended for you or look over someone’s shoulder, you don’t really have the right to be mad if you don’t like what you see, but this was also in a workplace where the computers are generally accepted to be for working use, and I don’t know if that complicates it. Sophie is also saying what Charlotte did is “bullying.” There is nothing in the company policy that really covers an issue like this. Charlotte’s post is a bit of a grey area because it didn’t call out Sophie and Matt by name, but it was clear who she was talking about … but it was also intended for Charlotte’s friends, not Sophie and Matt.

If Charlotte wrote the status at 9 p.m. that night, it wouldn’t really be a work issue. Sophie is also upset with Aaron and Nathan for agreeing with Charlotte … but I feel I don’t have much to go in on them for when they just agreed with Charlotte, unless, of course, something should be said about them using the internal chat to talk crap about a colleague. But at the same time, that feels a bit like elementary school and trying to force everyone to be friends. I don’t want to venture into the territory of forcing everyone to be friends and policing conversations and opinions among friendship groups.

I also can see where Charlotte is coming from in that I also detest PDA and agree the office is not really the place for it, so I’m worried I’m getting a little biased towards Charlotte’s annoyance at them.

So. What is your take on this one? I have no idea how to handle it.

Good lord, are you managing teenagers?

First of all, you don’t need to sort out all these complicated threads. You can just tell everyone involved that you expect them to act professionally and civilly toward colleagues and that anything else is unacceptable.

As part of that, tell Sophie and Matt that they need to stop the PDA — 100% cut it out. This is an office, not a social event, and it’s inappropriate for them to be kissing each other’s forehands or hands at work (eeewww, just writing about that happening in an office is grossing me out). It’s entirely reasonable for you to say to them that they need to stop the physical contact while they’re at work; it’s distracting to and uncomfortable for others and doesn’t belong in an office. The fact that they’re dating doesn’t give them leeway to engage in behavior that wouldn’t be appropriate for anyone else. Surely they can handle not touching while they’re at work, but if they can’t, have them sit separately and tell them to stop visiting with each other during the day. (And seriously, for the comfort of your other employees, you really need have this conversation.)

Also, tell Charlotte that if she has an issue with a coworker, you expect her to resolve it by talking to that person directly (or to you if it’s serious enough), not complain behind their backs. And tell her that she has no reasonable expectation of privacy regarding her computer screen at work, particularly when she works in a room full of other people.

Tell both Charlotte and Sophie that yelling at coworkers is unacceptable, can’t happen again, and they’re expected to deal with disagreements with colleagues like adults. You’re not going to referee this kind of thing, and you’re not going to get into the details. Their personal feelings toward each other are their business, but when they’re at work, you expect them to behave professionally. Period.

That’s it. Don’t get distracted by the fact that some of this involved social media, or who liked whose Facebook status. Spell out your expectations for professional behavior, hold them to it, and don’t get sucked into the adolescent details here.

And possibly hire more more mature people? Even if the role tends to attract young candidates, there are plenty of people in that age group who don’t behave this way.

{ 461 comments… read them below }

  1. Collie*

    As an early-20-something, I’m so grateful for your last line, Alison. You didn’t have to add that, but you did, and it’s so, so appreciated.

        1. MommaTRex*

          As a human being who interacts with other human beings (some who happen to be 20-something), I also agree! :)

        2. Older Than I look*

          As a late twenty something who people assume is an early twenty something, I also concur/appreciate this!

      1. S. B. Johnson*

        Glad it didn’t go that way either. This isn’t just about “Millinials” therse are what we called “Growing up issues” and, as a 40 something Gen Xer, the overt PDA’s and passive aggressive response that started the drama are nothing new. Social media adds a wrinkle, but these are 20-somethings transitioning from a school to a professional environment. I expect we’ll have them for as long as we have 20 somethings making these transitions!

    1. BRR*

      Me too. I would say I’m still learning office manner but in a way everybody is especially with new technologies, new jobs, and new coworkers. The things in this letter though are black and white in terms of acceptability.

    2. Ad Astra*

      I guess I’ve crossed over into the realm of late-20-somethings now, but I appreciated the line, too. Even teenagers are capable of minding their own business.

    3. Meg Murry*

      Yes, and FWIW, when I’ve been involved in a similar situation at work, the PDA/relationship couple were in their 40s/50s, and the gossip/complainers ranged from early 20s to late 50s – with the most annoying, most persistent gossip and complaining happening among a group of people in their late 30s to early 40s. So it can happen at all ages – don’t blame this entirely on a “Millennials these days!” situation.

      As the boss, I think it would also help if you took the PDA/relationship out of this for a moment. What if Charlotte had said “Ugh, if the person sitting next to me had one more visitor over to talk about Fantasy Football/their book club/where they are going for Happy Hour I’m going to scream!” instead? Make it about the visiting, annoying your cube neighbors, and how to politely deal with annoying cube neighbors, not so much about the relationship. After all, if Sophie and Matt cut out all PDA 100% but Sophie still stops by Matt’s cube every day, Charlotte might still be annoyed, and that could still be a problem.

      1. INFJ*

        The difference being there’s nothing inherently wrong with talking about fantasy football or book club as long as it doesn’t interfere with work. PDAs are unprofessional. Period.

        1. Vicki*

          Wait, what? Talking about Fantasy football or book club isn’t unprofessional… how? How do you draw the “doesn’t interfere with work” line?

          For some of us, ever overheard conversation interferes with work.

      2. Click*

        I feel like the relationship/PDA makes it harder to say “Hey can you take conversation in the breakroom.”

          1. Elizabeth the Ginger*

            I think what Click means is that if two coworkers were talking about their book club and it was distracting, it would be reasonable to say “Hey, can you go discuss literature in the break room?” – because it’s not unprofessional to talk about books at work if it’s not distracting. On the other hand, you wouldn’t say, “Hey, can you go canoodle in the break room instead of smooching here?” because canoodling does not belong in an office at all.

        1. TootsNYC*

          I agree that the relationship/PDA makes it harder for Charlotte to speak up (not that it’s that easy for some of us to complain directly to people about a loud conversation).

          Because people get touchy about it. And someone who feels entitled to get smoochy in front of everyone at work is already on the other side of the boundaries. Someone who’s just being a little chatty or a little too loud is far less likely to be touchy about it.

          So in this case, I wouldn’t bother talking about “disturbing” other employees, because they’re different things.
          And Sophie and Matt can try to argue, “I’m not talking to them, they don’t have to look, we’re not loud.”

          1. Not So NewReader*

            And we KNOW they will try to say something like this, that is why drawing a hard line is important. “No PDAs and it’s not up for discussion.” Cold, sudden, full stop.

      3. Artemesia*

        I think Alison was spot on here. Absolutely not to get dragged into all the fiddly facebook this and who said what that. The PDA should be stopped 100% And the two should not visit each other at their work stations. Period. If their workstations are near each other, then move them. Noone should be able to notice they are dating by their behavior at work, except perhaps that they meet each other for lunch. (and no PDA in the lunchroom or at the entry of the office or work room either.

        The social media crap? Charlotte should not expect screen privacy in an office and should not be posting things about workmates at work (if ever.)

        Neither should be shouting and making a scene. I would point out that middle school behavior is entirely inappropriate at the office. And of course don’t get drawn into the details of who said what. Alison really nailed it.

        The OP seems to feel somehow at a loss because she is older and not hip to what them Youngs are doing with their hip hop and their social media and their hashtags . Not the problem The OP is a grownup, knows what appropriate office behavior is and needs to make it clear that this nonsense is childish and inappropriate and if it continues will result in people finding new jobs.

        1. OP*

          Yeah, that was how I was feeling! I didn’t mean “ugh millennials”, more that I felt a bit out of my element with the social media aspect of it (I’m the type who only logs into Facebook when my daughter calls and says she uploaded new pics of my grandson) especially as our bullying policy doesn’t actually explicitly mention anything about social media bullying. I also wasn’t sure if PDA was something younger people see as more “acceptable” which was why Sophie and Matt were doing it.

          Sorry if it came across as “ugh, GenY”. It was 110% “is this grandma missing something? What is a “Twitter” anyway?” thing.

          1. Lindsay J*

            FWIW, I, personally, would not consider this to be social media bullying.

            As far as I know, social media bullying would be Charlotte going onto Sophie’s Facebook wall and writing “OMG you and your PDAs at work are so gross,” and posting things like that on a regular basis.

            Possibly if she regularly posted things about Sophie and Matt in her own status where they could see it that could also be construed as bullying.

            But as far as I know bullying (kind of like harassment) has to be an ongoing situation rather than a one-off comment. Not everything mean is bullying.

          2. Tyrannosaurus Regina*

            FWIW I didn’t get an “ugh, millennials” vibe at all. You sound like a good boss dealing with a weird situation.

            It might be worth talking to HR or whomever is in charge of the employee handbook and seeing if you can get social media use/bullying addressed in some official capacity. No policy will ever cover *everything* but it can’t hurt to get “behave yourselves on the social media” on folks’ radar.

          3. Saturn9*

            This isn’t bullying. Bullying is continued and pervasive harassment. It isn’t a one-time insult or when A makes a valid criticism that B doesn’t want to deal with or when Y doesn’t want to interact with Z any more than necessary.

            If your company has a policy against harassment, a bullying policy is redundant.

          4. AthenaC*

            I, for one, appreciate you trying to be sensitive to personal preferences and quirks, and giving everyone the benefit of the doubt as much as possible. I didn’t see your post as “ugh, young people” at all.

            But I think in trying to be sensitive to individual personalities you were overthinking the situation – I know I fall into the overthinking trap a lot. Hopefully Alison was able to pull you back out of the weeds and help you focus on the most relevant details.

      4. Doriana Gray*

        Yes, and FWIW, when I’ve been involved in a similar situation at work, the PDA/relationship couple were in their 40s/50s, and the gossip/complainers ranged from early 20s to late 50s – with the most annoying, most persistent gossip and complaining happening among a group of people in their late 30s to early 40s.

        I worked at a for-profit school in the Admissions Office when I was about 22-23. The biggest gossip in our office was a 50 something year old woman in Financial Aid. Our office was entirely staffed by women at one point (the lone male up and quit a week or two after I started), and when one of the male traveling admissions reps came down to our office and our interim director (a woman) took him on a tour of the location, office gossip got up from her desk, left the financial aid office, and started following them around the office. Then she hopped on the phone and called our former director (who was fired a couple of weeks after I started) to tell her all about it (her colleague who shared the office overheard the conversation and gave the interim director the heads up). Apparently she thought sexytimes was afoot on this five minute tour. And she regularly did stuff like this.

      5. Jeanne*

        People of any age can and do act this way. I agree. There’s no reason to blame this on the xoworkers being 20-something. It sounds like a very open work area with little privacy. I believe that makes it easier for personalities to clash and nerves to be frayed.

    4. Stranger than fiction*

      Shoot, as a forty-something I like that line. Just last week my twenty something daughter totally schooled my fifty something sister on manners, it was hilarious.

    5. Faith*

      Back when I was an early 20-something, my husband and I used to work for the same company. We worked for two different departments that occasionally had some overlapping projects, and we sat on the same floor. Despite the fact that we shared the same (fairly uncommon) last name, very few people in our departments were even aware of the fact that we were married. And those who were aware of it typically knew us outside of work. So, yeah, I agree – it’s not about the age of these guys. It’s about their common sense (or lack thereof).

      1. Fact & Fiction*

        I also worked at the same company as my husband for several years. We worked in different but neighboring departments (he in IT) and SOMEHOW we made it through the day without me ever visiting his desk unless I had an IT issue only he could handle and he only ever visited my desk when stopping to get me for the walk to the parking garage. We NEVER engaged in PDA on company property and only held hands once down in the lobby or outside, if even then. Even when newlyweds (and in our mid to late 20s). So it is entirely possible to handle maturely.

        1. Chinook*

          Add me to the voices saying that no PDA on company property is completely doable. I met, dated and got married to DH while he lived on and was confined to a local military base. Most of our “dates” consisted of me meeting up with him to work out in their gym with the rest of the guys/gals he worked with or movie night in the mess (where I was one of 3 civilians). He would have gotten into major trouble if we had shown any PDA in those circumstances and it even weirded me out to kiss him at our wedding banquet because it took place on base (it wasn’t the nicest hall in the area) surrounded by guys in uniform.

          On the plus side, our courteous behavior set him up well in the eyes of his sergeant because he would turn a blind eye to the number of times DH snuck off base to see me (that and DH always got back in time so no one was looking for him). Showing decorum in public really can help your reputation when you do want to bend the rules because it shows that you do take them seriously.

      2. Security SemiPro*

        My husband and I work in the same department. We commute with each other. On company property, we are coworkers, the end. In six years, we’ve needed to interrupt each other’s work for personal reasons less than 5 times – scheduling emergencies, personal emergencies, etc, all things that would have been an interruption regardless of where we worked.

        Its reasonable to expect that romantic partners keep their hands to themselves at work. Its been done before and will be done again.

      3. MJ (Aotearoa/New Zealand)*

        My (now)husband and I were working together for about a year before our wedding. I didn’t think it was any kind of secret — we came in/left together and he’d pick me up lunch every day (he could leave his desk; I usually couldn’t). But when we went on leave to get hitched, I sent an email around the office with the details of who was covering what, and a couple of people came up to me and said “Wow, isn’t it weird that you and Josh are getting married around the same time?”

        Not as weird as you’d think, folks…

        1. Rae*

          HAHAHA that happened in my office. I was close enough to my co-worker to know that he was engaged to another co-worker. They were the epitome of discreet. One of her co-workers wasn’t as close and we were in a large meeting. She had just worked with one of Billy’s clients and asked where he was. I told her that Billy was out for his wedding. She looked at me and was like, “Wow, everyone’s getting married, so is Carol.” She had no idea that Carol and Billy were getting married.

    6. NotAnotherManager!*


      I am well past my 20s, but about 1/3 of my employees are 20-somethings. NONE of them behave this way, and I’ve seen worse behavior out of people much older (I was commiserating with a colleague who had to mediate a dispute between 40-somethings over OFFICE SUPPLIES, which we provide for business use free of charge/hassle in a supply room on each floor).

      This is absolutely not an age issue but one of maturity.

  2. KR*

    I can’t believe these people think this is acceptable behavior in a workplace. Also, I know your workplace says Facebook is okay if it doesn’t interfere with work, but I feel the need to point out that in this case it has interfered with work, disrupted everyone in that office and caused a huge headache for you. If this continues to be problem, it might be worth it to tell the people in this office that using Facebook at work is no longer an option for them.

    1. Just Another Techie*

      Enh. The problem here wasn’t facebook. The disruption could have happened if they had used in-office Microsoft communicator, or even if they’d been overheard chatting face to face in the breakroom. The problem isn’t the medium, it’s that all three of them are immature and haven’t learned professional norms.

      1. INTP*

        Yes, exactly. This is an issue with the content of communications, not the medium. The employees should be made aware that they will be held responsible for work problems caused by their communications on Facebook just like they would be held responsible for confrontations resulting from things they said in the break room, but there’s no point to restricting Facebook. Just step up and manage.

        1. NotAnotherManager!*

          Eh, I don’t want to be policing people’s Facebook (or any other social media) behavior. I don’t really care who unfriended whom or who’s Vaguebooking about whom. They need to sort that out themselves and come in ready to work in a drama-free and professional manner. I have enough to do at work without mediating interpersonal issues outside the workplace. I would also not be interested in getting involved if someone made an unkind statement to a coworker at an off-site happy hour.

          1. OP*

            This wish how I’m feeling. I personally wasn’t wanting to go down the road of policing “but Charlotte bad mouthed me on Facebook/when she went with Aaron and Nathan for Friday night drinks!”. I just wasn’t sure if this could be considered a “bullying”‘issue with how we have really started addressing workplace bullying.

            1. NotAnotherManager!*

              Absent additional detail that might point to the love birds being picked on (as opposed to being inelegantly told that their PDA is off-putting), I wouldn’t be ready to call this bullying. Sometimes your coworkers say mean things about you. This happened before social media, it just wasn’t always as public or permanent. (I even had an indirect superior accidentally copy the subordinate about which she was complaining on an email. THAT was awkward.)

              In addition, EVERYONE behaved badly and needs a talking-to, so no one person is being singled out for management intervention.

              I really think Alison is dead-on with this one.

            2. Lindsay J*

              Yeah, I don’t think this comes to the level of cyber-bullying at all. In order for it to be bullying I think it would have to happen on a semi-regular basis, with the intention of Sophie or Matt seeing it and getting upset.

              One comment that was not meant for their eyes is not bullying.

            3. Not So NewReader*

              OP, I hope you see this. This is one I used and it worked. I told my group that they were being paid to get along with each other well enough to do the work in front of them. I said if you want to gripe about each other do it from home and off the clock. Not here on company property and not on the clock. You are expected to find ways to get along with each other. You do not have to like each other but you do have cooperate with each other. If you cannot do that, then that means you have an entire aspect of this job that you cannot do. (Yeah, I could get witchy, in that I could put my foot down on these things that really reduce productivity and morale.)

              The beauty of this is that griping can be talking, writing, or whatever. And I was not running in to their personal lives. I point blank said, what you do at home is none of my business. They used company property to entirely mishandle an on-going problem. Those PDAs should have been reported to you or the nearest supervisor, and they should not be using company property to undermine anyone in the company.

              The punchline here is to let them know that any behavior that interferes with the flow of work or work efforts of anyone is going to be challenged and corrected. I would even speak to the two that hit the like button. No one in this story has behaved appropriately.

    2. Mike C.*

      You don’t need to go this far – this is basically the kindergarten “someone broke a rule therefore we’re taking it away from everybody because reasons”.

      The problem here is twofold – the public PDA and the reaction to it. Employees are supposed to be professional and respectful of each other and neither actions met this standard.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        Yes, I agree.

        I do find it really really hard to believe that Charlotte DIDN’T know Sophie (or Matt) might see what was on her screen when they were both sitting right there. Pretty passive-aggressive.

        1. INTP*

          While I find that hard to believe, I also find it hard to believe that Sophie went out of her way to look at Charlotte’s screen without knowing that Charlotte was annoyed with them. Why bother doing that if someone appears to be quietly and happily working or having conversations that don’t involve you? So Sophie and Matt are certainly not victims here in any sense of the word. Charlotte just didn’t handle it maturely either.

        2. Ted Mosby*

          eh, the letter makes it sound possible. We have an open office but each of us have a three walled cube. I know a lot of people gossip via IM, and while I never, ever write about coworkers or managers, my work wife and I do talk about some very weird things I would NOT want to be seen. (But also… we minimize windows and delete conversations. )

          Point being, I wouldn’t expect my coworkers to see everything I’m posting on facebook, and they’d have to go pretty far out of the way to do so. I agree passive aggression sucks, but at a certain point I also feel like I can’t tell other people how to be adult humans. “Please don’t make out at work right next to me,” is something I just don’t think I could really say. It’s just too stupid.

        3. Not So NewReader*

          I think Charlotte is living in a dream world to think that people are not going to read her screen. I can scan really fast. I have read papers flashed in front of me and people were surprised that I could get that much info in such a short time. Charlotte needs to be told to just assume people WILL read what ever is on her desk. My papers are all face down on my desk. The only thing face is up is the document I am using at the moment. I have people walking up to my desk all day long. And yeah, they read every thing that is laying around.

          I think that Sophie was cruising for trouble. She was just looking around for something to argue about. If it had not been Charlotte’s screen it would have been something else. Sophie got called out on her actions and did not like it. Sophie’s expectations are also fantasy land stuff, if you hang all over your coworker then people are going to talk about that. It’s normal people-y stuff, it’s to be expected.

          1. Rana*

            Yeah, if I see text, it’s read. The only way I can not read a piece of writing when I see it is if I’m not wearing my glasses. I’ll look away as soon as I realize I’m not supposed to see something, but if my eye happens to land on something I shouldn’t have seen, there’s no unreading what I read.

            (One of many reasons I hate people who do an inadequate job of hiding spoilers…)

      2. KH*

        Yes. Also it’s worth pointing out that according to the OP, Charlotte: “… also sent a message through our internal messaging program to two of her good friends…”

        So is OP going to take away internal messaging as well? Not likely. It’s not a delivery device issue. It’s a content issue. Stick with that.

        1. Artemesia*

          And the biggest problem here is not Charlotte — although her behavior is inappropriate — it is Sofie and Matt and their egregious violation of office norms. Sofie and Matt should be told that the next incidence of making out in the office will mean dismissal. It ain’t about Charlotte ‘bullying them’, it is mostly about their ridiculous inappropriate behavior.

            1. Aly In*


              But the PDA couple and their lack of professionalism started the problem.

              I may be adding to the actual story. I have been in this position and every on had told the PDAers it was uncomfortable and not appropriate but our supervisor & boss would not put out a clear message that it needed to stop.

              We fell to gossip and back biting b/c no one supported our requests and reasonable expectation for them to behave professionally.

              1. Kapers*

                That’s a great point– if there were a clear no-PDA policy it would not have gotten to this point.

                Very surprised to read that anyone thinks there is a “non-gross” level of PDA in the office. I’m no prude but even the “non-gross” level of PDA described here would sicken me if it were a daily thing in my workplace.

                1. cncx*

                  this is exactly how i feel…PDA has no place in an office, and i would be really, really squicked out at forehead kisses, hand holding, hugs…keeping in mind i have six coworkers in my office who are relationships (there are three pairs). i have seen only one of the couples kiss each other goodbye ONCE. no hand holding, definitely no kisses on random other body parts, in almost five years. even in my office with rampant fraternization and couples, they just do not kiss here. my mind is blown here.

          1. swingbattabatta*

            Agreed. And, as a tangent, I personally feel like the term “bullying” is used far too frequently, especially in the professional world.

          2. Emmie*

            HR should also have a conversation with their manager. This has been going on a long time. Has the manager addressed the frequent visits, and PDAs with them? There may be other instances of inappropriate behavior, or the PDAs could be an accepted office norm. If that is the case, HR will have additional issues to address.

          3. Not So NewReader*

            I don’t see any bullying going on here. People talk about people who make out in the work place. That is what people do. No surprises going on here.

    3. LQ*

      Like others I don’t think this solves anything. In fact as a non-Facebook user I’d be crabby if the workplace said no using FB because some manager didn’t want to deal with the real issue. Deal with the real underlying problems. And let your staff who use FB perfectly reasonably continue to do so.

      No need to send the dress code reminder to everyone when it is just one person in cutoffs and flipflops. No need to cut off FB because of one dramatic situation. Deal with those.

      1. KR*

        I probably wasn’t clear enough. My point was that these specific employees were being distracted from their work by Facebook, so these specific employees should be told not to use it during work because they haven’t demonstrated they can use it and still continue to work professionally and be a reasonable person. But I also understand that the medium isn’t really the problem and that it isn’t really the focus here.

        1. Rabbit*

          I would ban Facebook and social media from work time after something like this. Yes, it’s a bummer that one bad apple spoiled the whole bunch, but I’m the ideal social media user (as far as age/gender/etc), and somehow I get through the workday just fine without using it on company time. I may check it on my phone during breaks/lunch, but otherwise I get along just fine.

          Agreed that the PDA has to stop (can I agree x100, because my boss hired his girlfriend at work to do nothing and their canoodling grosses me out, ech), but I wouldn’t find it unreasonable here for this manager/HR person reinforce that work time = work time.

          1. Xanadu*

            Yeah but that sort of thing is demoralizing for employees. Being treated like a second grader because some of your coworkers act like them says to me “Head for the hills! The managers can’t handle their end of business!”

            1. PsS*

              Lol however did people survive at work before facebook and the internet?

              They’ll live. Considering that demoralizing is…..not professional.

              1. Amy UK*

                It’s not demoralising to not be able to use facebook at work. It’s demoralising to be punished in any way for the actions of other people.

                It just screams of the teacher who can’t make 2 or 3 pupils behave, so she punishes the lot of them and lets their peers handle the discipline for her by social exclusion.

              2. SandrineSmiles (France)*

                Well, we didn’t use to have cars or whatnot either, so…

                The work world has evolved and yes I would find it demoralizing, but more than that: infantilizing. I’m sorry, but if I am told to stop doing something only because one person mishandled it, I’m not going to feel happy about it. If I can use it responsibly, so can others.

              3. TychaBrahe*

                Honestly? They sold books of humorous faxes that you were supposed to disassemble, and people spent time faxing them to friends in other offices. It was a rare desk (this was pre-cubicle) that didn’t have at least one taped to a nearby wall or filing cabinet. Go to Amazon and search for “fax humor.”

                Before that? Well when telephone companies first set up shop, they often hired as switchboard operators the teenaged boy telegraph runners their technology replaced. They quickly replaced them with women when the boys proved unable to resist being rude to customers or pulling pranks over the phone lines.

                Before then probably other crap. This stuff has been going on a long time.

  3. Rae*

    I feel like this is problem of the management’s making. A supervisor should of indicated no PDA as soon as it started. The immaturity level that this situation de-escolated to is just a byproduct of management not doing their job. My first approach would be find Sophie and Matt’s managers and see why this was allowed to go on for any amount of time.

    As far as Charolette, a nice chat about how yelling in the office is not a way to deal with things and that if something becomes an issue for her she needs to communicate like an adult would be good. That said, if she’d already brought this to management’s attention I think she-and everyone else who’s put up with this garbage-is owed an apology from the supervisor.

    1. fposte*

      I think you make a good point that a manager should have shut that down earlier, and it’s probably worth the OP’s talking to the managers on this as well. But I think that’s maybe being a bit excessive about the PDA–it’s not like it’s exposing the co-workers to poison, and I don’t think anybody’s owed an apology for watching somebody get their hands kissed. (It’s also not enough to make Charlotte’s passive-aggressive communications or Sophie’s and Charlotte’s yelling justifiable.)

      1. Rae*

        Maybe its the New Englander in me, but PDA just isn’t something that is put up with. I have several MARRIED co-workers and you’d never know it…their sharing of a last name could make them brother or sister if they are related at all. My office is pushing upwards of 1,500 people but you would never know who is dating/engaged/married even though a good portion of our workplace has a workplace SO.

        Part of my issue with PDA is it creates an awkward dynamic. You never know when someone is going to push the limits, especially if you have people wandering over to a desk that’s not theirs to show affection to someone. This is just uncomfortable and distracting.

        1. fposte*

          I would stomp it firmly in the workplace myself, but it’s not toxic; I’m not going to apologize to a staffer for being exposed to it any more than I am for the loud radio I just made somebody turn down.

          1. Rae*

            The issue is that it’s an uncomfortable situation that was allowed to go on for way too long. I see this as a case of mismanagement–say, letting someone listen to a loud radio for months before you corrected it. The apology is for not doing the job as a manager to correct errant employees as soon as a situation arises.

          2. INTP*

            I think it depends on the degree of it. If two people occasionally hold hands at lunch or kiss each other on the forehead before entering their cars in the parking lot, that’s unprofessional but not toxic. But seemingly minor acts of PDA can get EXTREMELY uncomfortable when people are sitting close to each other, staring lovingly in each other’s eyes, whispering and giggling, as they are holding hands or kissing each other’s hands, looking like they’re about to begin copulating at any second. Having been exposed to the latter, it’s easily just as uncomfortable as being next to people that are making out or groping each other, if not more so. It would be a toxic factor in the work environment if it persisted.

            1. Turtle Candle*

              Agreed. I knew a couple at work (and not a young couple) who would sit next to each other in meetings and hold hands, kiss knuckles, put heads close together, etc. If those things happened somewhere else, I would have been like, meh. But there was something about it happening during a meeting that made it feel squidgy–not because I find hand-holding inherently revolting but because it felt like they had brought their private romantic life into a professional sphere in a way that was boundary-bending if not boundary-breaking. It wasn’t the smooching that made me (and others) uncomfortable, it was the broken boundary.

              1. Tary*

                I do find some PDA excessive outside of work or school (because a lot of people made out in the hallways when I was in high school). Something about it sometimes just seems like it’s intentionally shoving it in other people’s faces; like saying “haha, I have a partner and you don’t!” or “I get to be with my boo at work/school and you don’t!” for my fellow coupled friends out there. But then, most people probably get so wrapped up in each other that they forget where they are and who might be watching.

                1. Turtle Candle*

                  Oh yes, I mean, it’s a spectrum, and it’s very context-dependent. So for instance, hand-holding or a forehead kiss would bother me in the workplace, but not from a couple in a restaurant (unless they were ignoring me to be cute with each other, in which case I’d be offended not by the PDA but the being-ignored). One member of a couple sitting on another’s lap would bother me in a restaurant, but not at a casual party at someone’s house. Full-on makeouts would strike me as inappropriate and strange at a casual dinner party, but not at a everybody’s-getting-drunk-and-friendly house party (…of the type which I haven’t attended in many years, but which were fairly common when I was in my early 20s). Full-on sex on the table is inappropriate unless you’re alone or at a sex club or something. And different people have slightly different boundaries even within a culture (I’m fine with a “perched on my partner’s knees” type of lap-sitting at a casual party, but some people aren’t).

                  Context makes a huge difference, which is why if I say that I think that hand-kissing is bizarre an inappropriate in a meeting, that doesn’t mean that I’m going to think it’s bizarre and inappropriate in every context everywhere. I don’t think the behavior is gross, it’s a question of situational appropriateness. (Which is, of course, culturally dependent. And it’s not a straight line from ‘more touch-happy’ to ‘less touch-happy,’ either; I have been in cultures where a hand or cheek kiss in the office would have been fine, but lap-sitting at a party would have been Definitely Not Okay. Culture is complicated, cultures differ, expectations differ, contexts differ…..)

                2. Mike B.*

                  Students (high schoolers, at least) understand that they have limited autonomy while outside school and little or no choice about whether/where to attend; under the circumstances many feel free to ignore any attempt to impose boundaries, and the others may resent it but tolerate it. Most working environments are thankfully not like that.

            2. Que Que*

              You (you as in Americans) seems to have a weird idea of bodies if you think there is just one second between holding hands, which can be a loving gesture, and full sex, where love is not a required ingredient.

              1. Artemesia*

                Loving gestures don’t belong in the workplace; even something as innocuous as holding a hand and stroking the balm is creepy at a workplace meeting.

              2. Turtle Candle*

                So… different cultures do have different norms around bodies and so on. I don’t think that anyone is contesting that Americans have a stronger boundary around casual physical contact, especially in the workplace, than some other countries (and weaker than in other countries–I worked briefly in an office in a non-US company where contact such as a friendly hand on the shoulder, which would be totally fine in offices that I’ve been in, would have been severely tabooed–indeed, I was warned about that before I went0).

                But is ‘y’all are super weird’ a terribly useful way to express that different cultures are different?

              3. INTP*

                Are you just being obtuse on purpose? “Like they’re about to begin copulating at any second” was clearly not a literal statement, and I clearly acknowledged that hand-holding and forehead-kissing can be done in a way that while maybe not professional according to our norms, are not discomfort-inducing. Hand-holding can also be done while staring into each other’s eyes with obvious sexual desire, kissing whatever parts of each other’s bodies you can kiss without being hauled off to HR immediately, and generally engaging in behaviors that make it clear to the entire room that you want to rip each other’s clothes off (out of love or emotionless horniness, it’s not really relevant which). And that is uncomfortable to be stuck next to. I seriously doubt that every other country is fine with this happening right next to them at work.

            3. Stranger than fiction*

              Yep, and not only that, if two coworkers can’t even get to lunchtime without visiting and touching each other, that’s just as unproductive as using Fb during the workday.

            4. Lindsay J*

              I think part of it, too, is that at work it is happening in a context that you don’t expect it to be in, and you can’t leave if it is making you uncomfortable.

              If a couple is sitting in each other’s lap in the mall I can get up and leave the food court or whatever if it makes me uncomfortable. If my coworkers are canoodling at the desk next to mine at work I probably cannot leave if I’m uncomfortable since I have work that I’m required to do.

              Also, I am probably the furthest thing from being a prude, but part of my sexual ethos is that you do not involve other, non-consenting people in your sex life. Whether that means not walking someone on a leash down main street in the middle of the day, or not forehead kissing at work, it’s kind a big thing. (And I think the work thing makes it a more fraught issue and therefore requires more boundaries than outside of work. If my couple-friends kiss eachother on the forehead when we’re hanging out and it makes me uncomfortable I can presumably say, “Geeze guys, can you cut it out,” with little consequences. While, if I say it to a coworker at work there a chance it will turn out, well, like in the OP, and presumably I need to maintain a good working relationship with these people.)

              Plus – and I’m pretty sure this is just a personal squick – I personally find forehead and hand kisses more irritating than a chaste peck on the lips. Not sure why.

          3. Preux*

            The issue in this case is that the manager DIDN’T intervene. So it would be more comparable to a loud radio that you left playing for days (weeks? Months? However long these two have been together) because you didn’t want to ask the employee to turn it down.

        1. fposte*

          Yes, it is, because I love that book and because it is just a fine way to appear to the world.

      2. Sadsack*

        I agree. At this point, a public apology is just going to drag this out further and make everyone uncomfortable yet again. Just deal with the parties directly involved and move on.

      3. Engineer Girl*

        It is their pervasiveness about this that is the problem. Like a dripping faucet it starts to drive you crazy.
        I wonder if Charlotte had made comments earlier and was ignored. HR should really investigate that part of it. If Charlotte had previously asked them to stop I could see her exploding later.

      4. Kate M*

        Uuuggghhh people kissing each others hands grosses me out so much. I mean I don’t really care if it’s at a social event late at night or something, but that just seems so intimate and out of place at an office. No PDA at work, please.

    2. INTP*

      I do agree with this. I certainly don’t condone what Charlotte did, but I also see how it could happen when an employee feels that they can’t speak up about a situation making them extremely uncomfortable, like the PDA. Management might think “Well, if anyone complained, then we’d do something, so they can speak up,” but by doing nothing in response to such egregious office behavior that is bound to make everyone else uncomfortable, they’re silently condoning it, and the younger and less experienced employees might not realize that it’s okay to ask coworkers to stop doing things simply because it makes them uncomfortable, even if those things are officially “allowed.”

      I think management just needs to make it clear that A) PDA is not allowed, it makes other people highly uncomfortable even if it’s a PG act, B) please speak up to your coworkers that are doing things that make you uncomfortable and please be respectful when your coworkers speak up to you, and C) just because you are allowed to use facebook doesn’t mean that you’re allowed to say ANYTHING on facebook – you are responsible for not saying anything that might be overheard or passed along and cause major work issues regardless of the medium in which you say it (facebook, email, gossip in the bathroom, whatever).

      1. Elizabeth the Ginger*

        By her 20s, Charlotte should have the sense to know that there are people/places for venting about work issues (at home on the phone with your mom, at a bar with friends who don’t work with you) and people/places where you don’t vent about work (at work with people you work with). Either speak up directly to people involved or people in charge, or keep quiet and deal with it.

        1. INTP*

          She should, but sometimes when people feel powerless and drained by an uncomfortable situation they do things that they know are inappropriate. I don’t think she should have posted that on Facebook, but I don’t think it was more egregious than what Matt and Sophie were doing, or that in this situation it warrants anything more than a mention in the “Clearly we haven’t set adequate boundaries here, don’t do PDA at work and don’t gossip about your coworkers online at work” conversation.

      2. hbc*

        Yeah, I really don’t see how Charlotte was going to win speaking up. “Hey, boss, you’ve been letting something totally unprofessional go in the workplace. Start managing.” It’s not like she can cite a productivity loss or anything, it’s just distracting because it’s so obviously inappropriate. But if it’s *not* obviously inappropriate to management (and apparently it isn’t if it’s going on right in front of them), then they’re just going to see Charlotte as someone who is easily distracted.

        The more crazily out of line a behavior is, the more silence from management is tacit approval.

        1. Anna*

          I think she could have approached it as “This is making me very uncomfortable and it’s beginning to interfere with my work when Sophie comes over to Matt’s cube so often.”

          1. Stranger than fiction*

            Yes. But honestly I’d hesitate saying something too. I’d feel like it might come across as I’m just a prude or even that I’m jealous. Not saying it’s right, but I could see why she wanted backup from other coworkers and friends that she’s not blowing something out of proportion.

            1. Salome*

              I once tried to raise a similar issue in a workplace with a manager and was accused of jealousy. I can see why Charlotte might have been a little reluctant to say something, especially if her manager is not approachable.

          2. Julia*

            If I said that to my boss, I’d only get a “we’re not in school anymore, handle your own issues” comment. And the woman making me uncomfortable is 30 years my senior and sometimes acts like a child having a tantrum…

        2. LQ*

          I agree with this. I wouldn’t speak up, because if it is happening and management exists then how can they not know (especially in any kind of a contact/call center), and if they know and haven’t stopped it then they think it’s fine. Drawing these lines out for me sort of says really bad things about a business that lets it continue. They think this is appropriate work behavior, or they don’t bother to manage people until things get really bad. (Aka a screaming match).

          1. Stranger than fiction*

            I could see a situation where possibly managers aren’t around to see it. They’re offices are on the other side of the building, or they don’t go out in the “pen” very often or something.

            1. Stranger than fiction*

              Ugh! Wrong they’re, meant their sorry! Think I started to say something different.

            2. LQ*

              But if those managers aren’t ever around in a contact center and they aren’t regularly meeting with staff (which if no managers really ever walk through the “pen” then they have to be having regular meetings or they are bad management) where someone would mention it…then I can’t imagine that’s very good management. I haven’t worked around a lot of call centers but the couple I’ve been in had managers of some kind near every single group of people on the phones.

              And if Sophie and Matt were some how magically never doing it when supervisors were around then they knew it was wrong. No, “maybe they were young” or “didn’t know cultural norms”.

              1. Stranger than fiction*

                Totally agree it’s still bad Managmemt to not be engaged to the extent they don’t have a clue this is going on.

        3. Lindsay J*

          This. And especially since the OP says the employees involved are younger I think it would make it less likely for Charlotte to feel like she can speak up to either her coworkers or her bosses.

          At the age I am now I would have no problem saying something to either party. But when I was 18 or 19 I probably would have been uncomfortable saying something to Sophie or Matt as I had to work with them and I knew they wouldn’t be happy (or probably nice) about being told to knock it off. And I would figure that obviously management was seeing this, and since it was still going on then obviously management didn’t have a problem with it so speaking up wouldn’t do any good.

    3. TootsNYC*

      I agree–And the yelling, etc., is also part of that management failure as well.

      I think there’s just a general laxness going on here.

    4. OP*

      That’s actually a good point that came to my attention after I wrote the letter.

      A colleague who worked her way into HR after starting in the Call Centre told me just before that Sophie and Matt have been told “many a time” to keep the PDA on a minimum and that Charlotte’s snap was likely “the straw that broke the camels back”.

      While snapping and yelling on the floor might not be appropriate, it does suddenly make a little more sense to me.

      1. Rae*

        Oh my gosh, I really feel for Charolette. What a pressure cooker situation. Will you be able to get management involved on this? It really seems like a complete failure on their part.

      2. Engineer Girl*

        So complaints were made through the right channels but then ignored. HR knew about it. People start to use the wrong channels to fix the problem (or vent about it) because of management FAIL. HR FAIL. Charlotte sits closest to Matt so is the most affected by the PDA behavior. She finally blew in frustration. Is anyone surprised? What was her other option? Quit? It looks like the company created a hostile work environment.
        I think HR needs to talk to Charlotte and apologise. Let her know that it should have been handled differently. Also tell her that letting it get to the point where she is yelling is bad. HR needs to realize that they created this situation by not handling it appropriately.
        As for Sofie and Matt? It looks like they have been warned multiple times. They should be written up.

        1. Engineer Girl*

          To add on to this:
          * Charlotte was having a hard time doing her job. She stated that what she was witnessing made her ill and want to vomit. This demonstrates she was having a hard time on her job because of the environment.
          * Several people agreed with her via status message. So your company computers have evidence that support a “reasonable person” being upset by these behaviors.
          * Another HR person stated Sofie and Matt had been warned. This satisfies the pervasive part, and also that HR knew about it and did not stop it.
          If you punish Charlotte for complaining about it you could be setting yourself up for retaliation claims. You might want to talk to an EEOC lawyer.

        2. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I strongly doubt someone else’s hand holding and forehead kissing reaches the legal bar for hostile work environment. But it also doesn’t really matter in this case, because the company should put a stop to it regardless.

          Hostile work environment doesn’t just require pervasive behavior; it needs to be pervasive behavior based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information that creates a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive. It’s very unlikely that this would meet the test for “intimidating, hostile, or abusive.” The EEOC says: “Petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will not rise to the level of illegality.”

          1. Engineer Girl*

            Two people doing nookie is sex based. The OP stated it was several times a day. For many days. I don’t know if it reaches the level which is why I thought that a lawyer should be involved. The issue I see is Charlotte getting into trouble because management didn’t handle the situation.

            1. Lore*

              I think, in this context, sex = gender rather than sex = sexytimes. (So pervasive behavior directed hostilely toward female/male/transgender employees, not pervasive sexual behavior directed at everyone.)

    5. Not So NewReader*

      I don’t think it’s necessary to get into apologies. If Charlotte is owed an apology then there are a few apologies Charlotte should make also. For instance, Charlotte should apologize for yelling to everyone who was within ear shot. I say let’s skip this part. I think if everyone changes what they are doing that stands alone as enough. It’s more to the point, also.

      Personally, I don’t want to listen to a bunch of apologies over anything, I just want an adjustment to be made and then let’s get back to life. I have had too many times where an apology meant nothing or close to nothing.

      1. Rae*

        Should Charlotte apologize to her co-workers for yelling? Probably. But it’s not the same as a deep and systematic failure of management to do their job. The point of the apology from managements end is to re-open the dialogue with the workers who they have failed, not simply to be sorry for their actions. They need to acknowledge they made a mistake so in the future an employee can come to them with an issue and rightfully expect it to be taken care of.

        The OP stated that there had been several warnings to the cuddly couple to knock it off and acknowledges that this was several times throughout the day. This indicates to me that this failure to manage has eroded Charlotte’s and others feeling like management cared. Not acknowledging their failure in some form is way to “sweep it under the rug now we’re caught” to me.

  4. jhhj*

    Are we sure that Charlotte didn’t say anything to Sophie or Matt first?

    In any case, yes, what they are doing is super gross and should have been stopped ages ago (Sophie and Matt — who let that go on? talk to them too). Tell Charlotte that next time she should bring it up to her coworkers, or her manager, or HR. Tell both of them that shouting matches at work are forbidden. Honestly though I feel for Charlotte, who has been sitting next to someone and his girlfriend kept coming over all the time to kiss him, and no one in management ever thought to stop this.

    1. NK*

      Completely agree. And when you talk to them, the word you want to use is “inappropriate”, rather than “gross”. Gross is much more subjective, and the fact that they are doing this at work makes it clear that they don’t understand the difference between acceptable behavior off the clock versus in the office. Kissing on the forehead while walking down the street – perfectly OK. Kissing on the forehead at work – completely inappropriate. I can’t believe you have to explain that to them, but clearly you do. That behavior would make me (and most people) extremely uncomfortable at work.

      1. jhhj*

        Yes, I agree that “gross” isn’t the word to use to Sophie & Matt, it’s just the word the OP used (“not that gross” — I disagree vehemently).

      2. GreenTeaPot*

        Thank you. Use of that word – “gross” – really bothered me, for some reason.

        For me the bottom line is no PDAs at work. I’ve worked with many couples in the past and it was never an issue.

      3. Elizabeth the Ginger*

        Or “unprofessional.”

        Kissing on the forehead at work should be reserved for Take Your Child To Work Day.

    2. Rae*

      Me, too. If Charlotte ever brought this up to management, their inaction is obviously a catalyst for this blow up. To me, it seems like there is much more to Charlotte’s side of the story before she got to Facebook/Internal messaging this all over the office. While I never would follow through on them, as a manager who had to deal with mild PDA between employees in the break-room I was unaware of, I know how easy frustrations rise at this sort of situation. Had I not quelshed it as soon as I became aware, I’m sure it would of been all over the place, including social media. And this was between employees who were fairly secretive and never did anything in view of the general store…not even “cutesy” names.

      1. TootsNYC*

        I don’t think Charlotte should have had to bring this up. Management should have stepped in very, very early. Like, first thing.

    3. INTP*

      Good point – and for Sophie to go out of her way to look on Charlotte’s screen, I think it was probably obvious that Charlotte was unhappy with the situation, and Sophie’s reaction was to try to “catch” her writing something mean or torment her for not enjoying basking in the glow of their love rather than think “Hey, this is bothering a coworker, we should stop.” Why pause your PDA to investigate someone’s screen if they just appear to be happily and quietly working? While the most mature thing for Charlotte would have been to say something directly to them, I don’t buy that Sophie and Matt had no idea they were bothering her until Sophie saw the screen, and Sophie is certainly not a victim here if she did something that was annoying a coworker and purposely caught the coworker writing about it. (I do think that Charlotte’s Facebook use should be addressed because I don’t think it’s productive to allow employees to post gossip and complaints that cause conflicts in the office, I just don’t really think Sophie has a leg to stand on herself.)

  5. Lily in NYC*

    Holy cannoli! I do feel that PDA has NO place in the office, even holding hands. And Sophie should stop going over to her boyfriend’s desk all the time – it just looks bad and people notice. But Charlotte reacted in an extremely immature, “mean-girl” manner. Even if she is allowed to go on Facebook, her behavior was over the top and she should probably be reprimanded for gossiping about them on the internal messaging system. But to me, the main issue is the PDA. It’s distracting and unprofessional. We have a few couples here who are married to each other and you’d never know it if you were observing from outside.

    1. Anon Accountant*

      +1 to everything you just posted. I’ve worked with many married couples and they’ve never let their relationship get in the way of work. Nor have dating coworkers. It’s certainly never escalated to this level.

      This needs stopped all the way around.

    2. Melissa B*

      Agreed. We have two sets of married couples in our office. I was there a year and a half before I found out (someone told me) that one of the couples had been married for 15 years and had two kids. I even sit next to one of them and didn’t even know they were together, they’re that professional at work.

  6. the gold digger*

    Ick. When I made the stupid stupid decision to date a guy I worked with, we were very careful not to let anyone know we were dating, to the point that when we were out one evening after work and saw some work people at a restaurant, we turned around and left. (Unfortunately, they still saw us. No repercussions, but still, I felt like some major boundary had been crossed in a really inappropriate way.)

    1. Lily Rowan*

      I was just remembering a thing that happened in my early 20s — I was out at happy hour with a friend and a bunch of her coworkers, and when we left, I said to my friend, “Does your one coworker know how much that other one loves her??” They weren’t interacting much, but his eyes were full of hearts every time he looked at her. Come to find out, they were secretly dating! And are now married with two kids. But she kept that firmly out of the workplace!

      1. afiendishthingy*

        See, this made me go “AWWWWW.” Forehead kissing in the office? Made me shudder a little bit. Kids, be the cute ones with secret hearts in your eyes, not the ones acting like your grandma checking to see if you have a fever.

  7. Enginerd*

    Wait she has an expectation of privacy for what she does on social media using a company asset during work hours? Is she delusional? Social media isn’t private by definition, odds are it would have made its way back to them eventually in some round about way (it always does). Sounds like you need to give them a lecture in how to behave like an adult.

    1. Mike C.*

      Hold on for a minute here, you’re confusing several different issues here.

      Just because something is posted online doesn’t mean that the persons involved don’t have an expectation of privacy – Hulk Hogan comes to mind or that gross leak of nude photos a while back. Furthermore, you’re right in saying that there’s no expectation of privacy between the employer and the employee for using Facebook et al on a work computer. However, I think we can all agree that it’s not another employee’s place to look over the shoulder of someone else while they’re using the computer to do something that’s otherwise allowed. I would certainly be annoyed if a coworker decided to peek through my stuff at work, even though I know my employer can see it. My management wouldn’t be happy with their actions either.

      1. fposte*

        For me this is a wrong on both sides thing: don’t read other people’s screens at work, Sophie; don’t post mean things about your co-workers on your work computer, Charlotte.

          1. OhNo*

            Seriously. This whole scenario is a clusterfudge of inappropriate behavior. It sounds like a bunch of kindergartners pointing fingers at each other.

        1. Creag an Tuire*

          And both of you — When you’re feeling mad and you want to roar, Take a deep breath and count to four. :P

        2. TootsNYC*

          While it’s not WISE to expect privacy on your screen, it is also RUDE to deliberately read other people’s screens at work.

        3. Not So NewReader*


          “Charlotte, reality check, people can and do read anything sitting open on your desk. Expect it. That’s reality.”

          “Sophie, if you make out at work, people will talk about that. Expect it. That is reality.”

      2. Enginerd*

        You’re mixing apples and oranges. Social media post for all your friends to see, comment and share which then trickles to their friends to do the same. The photo leak was a hacked cloud server where you do have the expectation of privacy. Maybe I’m different but I’ve never had an issue with anyone looking over my shoulder at my screens. If it’s work related there’s nothing to hide. The only time I’m careful about it is looking at my personal information, payroll, benefits, etc.

        1. Anna*

          You’re still mixing things up. As far as I know, nobody likes having someone read over their shoulder. There are expectations not of privacy, per se, but of politely not noticing.

          1. Turtle Candle*

            Yeah, I feel like the term “expectation of privacy” brings things into a weirdly legalistic language, whereas what’s really going on is “it’s rude to read over someone’s shoulder.” Like, I don’t think I have any actual “expectation of privacy” with regards to what books I bring in to the office to read on my lunch hour–if my boss wants to monitor my reading and forbid certain books, they certainly can (although it’d be a bizarre overstep in most position–not all, but most)–but I can still feel like it’s rude and inappropriate for someone to hover over my shoulder and make disparaging comments about my reading choices, and I might very well ask them to back up and knock it off.

          2. chocolate lover*

            Agreed. It’s not just the content, it’s the act of standing over your shoulder. I will stop what I’m doing and ask them to move (assuming it’s not my boss, then I just have to deal.) I don’t want anyone standing over my shoulder. It’s a physical/personal space thing, not about the content on my screen.

      3. Mando Diao*

        Not for nothing, but on Friday, Hulk Hogan won a $100+ million suit against Gawker for posting that video.

  8. Mike C.*

    The issue for me really comes down to respect. Engaging in PDA at work is disrespectful of others, as is gossiping. Set a clear standard of “don’t do something that would make your coworkers hurt or otherwise feel unnecessarily uncomfortable?” In college, we referred to this as the “don’t be a jackass” rule. It’s not a cure for every ailment, but it’s amazing how many times an issue can be prevented by asking, “sure, this doesn’t explicitly break the rules, but am I being a jackass?”

    1. Mike C.*

      That being said, I think this is a perfectly salvageable situation. A stern talk, some explicit expectations (along with follow up to ensure those expectations are kept seriously) and things should mellow out in time.

    2. Sarianna*

      Also, in similar phrasing, “Don’t be a dick,” commonly known as “Wheaton’s Law” (after the former Star Trek actor). :)

  9. Bend & Snap*

    I think Sophie and Matt need a sterner talking to and possibly a reorganization so they don’t work together. That’s disruptive and ridiculous.

    1. The IT Manager*

      Yeah, but it sounds like Charlotte was particularly irate with the yelling and nobody bothered to tell Sophie and Matt to cut out the PDA. It’s time to tell them to stop now (way, way past time), but if they haven’t heard it before don’t treat it as if they’ve been purposefully violating policy. They’ve been getting away with it has been implicitly allowed by management up until now.

      Side note: I don’t find this “gross”. I find it awkward and uncomfortable to watch but am not grossed out or want to throw up. Is this hyperbole or are people literally feeling grossed out by PDA at work?

      1. Eat Allen*

        I think the milder PDA that you might see at a restaurant, movie theater, etc. even if fairly harmless doesn’t ‘gross me out’ in the literal sense, but I don’t appreciate it per se (hand-holding is fine, arms entwined it fine, but anything more and I’m like do that in privacy! despite having engaged in it actively as a teen). Of course, full on groping/making out actively ‘grosses me out.’
        However if the mild PDA that you see else elsewhere takes place in the workplace it DOES gross me out. The workplace isn’t somewhere that should be sexualized at all. For example, I met a new woman on my team and within a day or two of meeting her she told me she was ‘bi but married straight.’ I was like… cool? If you’re married and monogomous now why would it matter that you were ever bi before? I’m not going to tell you about my sexual history, and that basically was her telling me about hers. Like, I certainly appreciate that’s part of who she is – OUTSIDE OF WORK – but at work I really don’t need to know that because we never will talk about it at work because it doesn’t matter at all towards her ability to do her job.
        (disclaimer: apologies if I’m offending anyone, I know hands down that being bisexual is a defining point of who someone is personally, I just don’t think if you’re monogamously married that it matters that people know about your sexual preferences before you were married – and I know it’s still your ‘preferences’ but I’m into men technically, but I’m only ever going to be into my husband from now on, get what I mean?)

        1. Graciosa*

          I completely understand not wanting to know anything about a co-worker’s sex life – to the point where I mentally translate “married” (or partnered or living together or anything similar) as meaning “please invite the named person to the holiday party if held in the evening.”

          And I’m happy to do so as long as I don’t ever have to hear anything more explicit than that about why –

      2. afiendishthingy*

        There’s something about forehead kissing at your desk, next to your coworkers, that creeps me out. Not like I want to throw up, just unsettled. Moreover I would just be really irritated if this were happening at the desk next to me. It’s a needlessly intimate act in a very not intimate setting. Like, that would be adorable if I were watching a sweet romantic movie about two young people in lurv. But when you’re trying to work you don’t want to be forced to watch that movie starring your coworkers.

  10. Judy*

    Would the facebook post be protected speech about working conditions? Especially if other co-workers liked it.

    1. fposte*

      My non-lawyer guess would be no–it’s completely about her co-workers’ annoying behavior, not anything about management or the workplace.

      1. Mike C.*

        I would agree here, but a good try! If it were more about management playing favorites or enabling bad behavior it would be a different story I think.

        1. fposte*

          And my impression is the concerted activity rulings are so unpredictable right now that even lawyers don’t like to call them in advance.

          1. NotAnotherManager!*

            Yeah, and I just can’t imagine why an employer would want to open that can of worms when the real issue is not what was said in the social media post itself but rather everyone involved’s inability to act like grown adults. It’s the behaviors that Alison cited in her response, not the medium, not the post itself.

      2. INTP*

        It could be a workplace conditions situation, in that you could argue that being forced to watch coworkers’ intimate moments and constant, ongoing PDA is hostile workplace sexual harassment. (Kissing foreheads and holding hands sounds benign but it can be extremely uncomfortable when people are doing it in a very intimate way, which I suspect is happening here.) But it might be difficult to argue this if the situation was never brought up to management.

        1. Zillah*

          IANAL, but… That seems like a real stretch to me. Being uncomfortable doesn’t automatically make something sexual harassment, and while the behavior is clearly inappropriate, I just can’t see two people holding hands and kissing foreheads as falling under that umbrella, even if it was brought up to management in the past.

    2. Snarkus Aurelius*

      Freedom of speech aside, I can’t tell if the employer knew about the PDA problem. If they didn’t, no one should be openly complaining about a problem the employer doesn’t know about and therefore doesn’t have the chance to correct. It sounds like a couple of people knew but the issue wasn’t escalated. I can’t tell if the OP knew everything.

      Does anyone else remember in The Office when Michael and Holly got back together and they were caressing hands during a meeting with an employee? That’s the image I have now.

  11. themmases*

    I think the OP really has some misconceptions about this whole situation. The people involved may seem very young (and I can see why since they are so immature), but their ages are really not relevant. In particular their ages in relation to the OP’s children are not relevant. They aren’t children, and the OP isn’t in a parenting or even mentoring relationship with them. It sounds like she is, at a minimum, their boss’ boss.

    Social media is just a communication medium and you don’t need to understand anything about how it works to decide if the way it was used was acceptable. If it wouldn’t be OK to say to or about someone, or to email to or about them, then it isn’t OK to put on Facebook either. People familiar with it might want to parse what a “like” means, but it is almost never important enough to change the conclusion about whether something was OK to do at work.

    1. OhNo*

      I assumed that was just the OP’s way of framing the issue, not any kind of deliberate snub or an implication that she considers these people children. I read it as a more interesting way of saying, “I’m way out of my depth here, and there may be generational culture differences at play that I don’t see or understand.”

      1. NotAnotherManager!*

        Yes, this is how I read it as well. (Even though social media use is pervasive in my generation, it’s not really my thing, and I would take some time to research social media policy within my organization as well as norms for using it just to make sure I wasn’t missing the boat on something.)

        I definitely did not yet an “ugh, millennials” tone from OP at all.

    2. Rebecca*

      Yup, (to OhNo), I took it to mean that the OP hadn’t dealt with anyone so young in quite some time, and was looking for good communication strategies.

    3. Turtle Candle*

      I read it the same way OhNo did–not so much blaming their youth for the problem as… oh, almost self-deprecating, like, “Is this something I’m not getting because I’m too old?” (I don’t happen to think so–I think the problem is a whole big tangle of unprofessional behavior–but I don’t think it’s completely out of line for the LW to think that possibly different social norms for newer media platforms and so on are something that they aren’t aware of.)

      1. LQ*

        That was what I got out of it too. More of a “have I so radically lost touch with the world that this is normal” check than a “kids this days, my lawn and such” thing.

      2. aebhel*

        Yeah, that’s how I read it too: OP, you’re not missing anything, these people are just being incredibly unprofessional (all of them)!

    4. Not So NewReader*

      Being that 50 something person, myself, I read it as “I am out of my arena on this one- this is a setting I have never encountered before. I need some thoughts on this.”

      And I believe that by the very fact people ask, they are saying “I don’t know what it is that I don’t know. What have I missed here?”

      This question has a lot of aspects to it, I think that is why Alison chose it. And if I had not been reading here for so long I would have not had an idea of where to begin on this, either.

  12. boop*

    There are two employees who stop working to take social breaks in which they annoy other coworkers and affect morale, yet everyone is fighting about how to use facebook? Seems like they found a topic to divert attention away from the larger issue at play, and I’m a little surprised that it worked so well!

  13. Knitting Cat Lady*

    Okay, I think I’m missing something here. Probably a transatlantic culture issue.

    I get that PDA in the office is unprofessional.

    But why is it gross? Especially if they stick to hand holding and kisses on the forehead and hand.

    Anyone care to explain to this thoroughly confused German?

    1. Mike C.*

      For a glib answer, I would point to the Puritans. I can expand more later if you haven’t received other, more useful answers.

    2. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

      It’s a cultural thing, definitely — by and large, Americans are a lot less touchy-feely in public than Europeans, and intimate gestures in a decidedly non-intimate environment is… hm. Not taboo, exactly, but definitely frowned upon, and makes others uncomfortable. It’s like seeing your coworker in skimpy running shorts and a sports bra instead of a suit. While that may not be inappropriate in the correct situation, when out of place it’s definitely uneasy.

      1. Bookworm*

        Eh, the touchy-feely thing varies *hugely* depending on where you are in Europe and where you are in America. I think the only confusion here is that some people use ‘gross’ colloquially to mean ‘inappropriate’ whereas others are defining it more narrowly.

        The behavior OP describes certinaly wouldn’t be acceptable in any professional EU offices I’ve ever been to.

    3. ZSD*

      I think we generally find it gross to engage in intimate behavior (by which I don’t mean just sex – I would include things like using pet names as “intimate”) in public.
      That said, I personally wouldn’t find a kiss on the forehead gross. Unprofessional, yes, but not gross. On the other hand, kissing someone’s hand feels incredibly intimate (and outright sexual) to me, so that would indeed be gross. (There’s also the sanitary issue there, I guess, since once you’ve kissed someone’s palm, if they don’t go wash their hand, they’re now getting germs from your mouth all over their keyboard and so forth. But I wouldn’t really do this in-depth of an analysis at the time; I’d just think, “Ew, gross. Get a room.”

      1. Knitting Cat Lady*

        A kiss on the back of the hand* is an old fashioned and formal way of a man greeting a woman in Austria and parts of Germany.

        I have some elderly relatives that still do that.

        *The lips are not supposed to touch, though. Actual contact is considered vulgar and low class.

          1. Knitting Cat Lady*

            They used to. It’s really old fashioned! They’ve all been retired for a long time.

            1. sam*

              I will note that when I worked in Italy, it was completely normal to greet work colleagues with the double-cheek kiss. Of course, it’s an “air” kiss (i.e., you don’t actually let your lips touch the face), but that’s the cultural norm. It took a little while for me to get used to it. It took a LOT longer for my male colleagues to get used to it :)

              But that is completely different than PDA/canoodling, which would have been equally frowned on in the office there.

            2. Not So NewReader*

              I have seen entire articles coaching Americans to expect this stuff when working aboard.

              I think that there was a discussion about personal space here once and most people were saying to keep to 3 feet away from the other person. Which of course automatically excludes, hugs, air kisses, etc.

              But, yes, there is a personal space around each person. In order to walk into that personal space, there has to be a level of intimacy that is unusually high. And this is not something done in front of other people. The only exception might be shared tragedy or shared extraordinary event.

            3. KellyK*

              I think it’s neat that people still do that. I’m aware of it as a medieval custom because I’m in the SCA (a medieval/Renaissance history group), but I had no idea it was still a thing in Europe.

      2. Oh, I'll Answer The Phones.*

        I did not see the HandKisser as kissing palms..
        Visualizing someone going in for a high-five and receiving an intimate palm kiss.

    4. Snarkus Aurelius*

      Because it’s a workplace, and it should be treated as such. I get that a little hand holding or forehead kisses might not be a big deal, but depending on how often it occurs, it can get out of hand. I can see it being one of those things that might not be annoying at first but after awhile could get on everyone’s nerves.

    5. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I actually think hand holding and kisses on the forehead/hand are grosser in an office than some of their other PDA options. Ick, just thinking about it is squicking me out. It’s not puritanism, it’s that I don’t want to see other people’s tender, romantic gestures in a work context (and those actions score high on the “tender romance” scale — versus, like, a shoulder squeeze or even a quick peck on the mouth, neither of which I want to see either but which would hit me differently).

      1. Abigail*


        That’s the most Puritan thing I’ve ever heard! HAND HOLDING. FFS. I give up trying to understand people in the US.

        1. matcha123*

          Holding hands outside of work is fine. Hold hands all you like.
          Holding hands and kissing people at work is just not cool, not appropriate and kind of ick. We generally try to keep a certain amount of space between ourselves and the people we work with. It’s an unspoken rule and when that rule is broken, it’s a bit alarming.

          I really would be turned off my seeing my coworkers all over each other in the office.

          This isn’t just for the US either. I don’t know about Europe or, say, South America, but where I’m working in East Asia, I can’t imagine workers low on the totem pole holding hands and kissing in front of others in the office…

          1. Michelenyc*

            When I took my first work trip to Asia my old company actually had a class about social norms for the countries we visited. It included everything from how to hand your business card to someone to how to properly great someone. This can vary from country to country. It was actually really helpful to me as I had only travelled to Europe at that point in my career.

        2. Adam*

          We Americans are kind of notorious for being squidgy about anything remotely related to physical intimacy. The old joke is how you can put loads of violence in our movies and get a PG-13 rating but the moment you stick a full-front naked person you shoot right to R.

          I feel like I could write a whole essay on this, but in short I’m the sort where there’s a time and place for certain levels of affection. For me in an office I’d say the most I’d be comfortable seeing is a quick peck between a couple. After that it’s like “Really? You couldn’t wait? Or at least find an empty copy room?”

          1. fposte*

            Right, and there’s kind of a circularity–the more it’s not done because it’s not appropriate, the more inappropriate it is to breach the custom.

        3. aebhel*

          It’s not really Puritanical though? It’s not that the behavior is inappropriate, it’s that doing it in a work context is inappropriate. I know of almost no one in the U.S. who thinks that hand-holding is something that shouldn’t be done in public (unless it’s a gay couple, which is an entirely different can of worms), just that it isn’t appropriate behavior for work.

          1. Rusty Shackelford*

            Right. Puritanical means you can’t abide the idea of witnessing people doing it at all, even if you see them in a restaurant on a date. In this case, it’s simply inappropriate for the workplace.

        4. Macedon*

          Honestly, I’m European, and no where in Europe or the US that I’ve worked would this kind of PDA be acceptable. It’s not a “oh Golly, them US folks” issue – it’s a matter of boundaries and thresholds and where many thresholds draw the line. Let’s please not make this into Us VS Them Across the Pond.

        5. Chinook*

          “That’s the most Puritan thing I’ve ever heard! HAND HOLDING. FFS. I give up trying to understand people in the US.”

          Canadian here who is most definitely not from a Puritan background and I can tell you that hand holding in the work place is inappropriate because it designates the hand holders as being part of a subgroup that means others are not equal to them. In a workplace, all are supposed to colleagues and peers and you don’t hold hands with peers (unless you plan on dong it with everyone).

          Case I point – how would you feel if a cop in uniform was holding hands with someone (in a manner that made it obvious that this wasn’t about safety). Would you feel like the civilian was being treated differently? Would you feel that that cop had their mind totally on their job while doing so? Would you feel comfortable going up to the cop to ask them for assistance? The answers you give are the reason why the only time I am allowed to greet my husband while he is in uniform with a kiss or a hug or hold his hand is when he leaves for a long trip, comes back from a long trip or we attend a wedding or funeral (though at sister-in-law’s wedding, we both couldn’t help being in professional mode even on the dance floor, so no chance to grope the Mountie in red serge, darn it).

        6. Murphy*

          I’m Canadian and I’m with Alison on the ick factor of hand/forehead kisses at work. And hand-holding can be incredibly intimate. If I saw a colleague holding hands with a partner at work (especially the kind where you rib your thumb over someone’s knuckles, for example), that’s just not appropriate for the office.

        1. Augusta Sugarbean*

          I think people are using “gross” as shorthand. Someone above even said “inappropriate” is a more accurate word. It’s not actually revulsion, just wildly inappropriate to most people.

          1. Koko*

            There’s a reason people use “gross” as shorthand, though, instead of “purple” or “fluffy.” It’s because some people really consider inappropriate behavior “gross.”

            1. Augusta Sugarbean*

              Now I really want an opportunity to say “Eww. That’s totally fluffy behavior! Inappropes.” at my work today.

            2. Mike C.*

              Interestingly enough, calling someone “blue” in German is an idiom for calling them drunk.

            3. Turtle Candle*

              I think ‘gross’ is often used in the US to mean ‘breaking a boundary between one sphere and another,’ though, as odd as that might sound–it’s certainly not reserved for things that are revolting. I’m thinking of teenage me replying to my mom’s “did you remember money for lunch? do you have your homework? okay have a nice day sweetie, I love you!” in front of my friends with an embarrassed ‘oh, my mom is so gross.’ (I’m not the only one for whom the teenage social circle used the word that way, right?)

              It wasn’t that I actually found the behavior disgusting in any way–secretly it made me feel loved! and when I got a bit older and over myself I told my mom as much–but having the mom-and-kid affection happen in the teenage-friends-hanging-out zone felt like a breach of a boundary when I was sixteen, and yeah, the word we used for that feeling of breach was ‘gross.’ Which doesn’t seem that far off, to me, from ‘romantic interaction intruding into the professional sphere’ feeling gross, too.

              1. Rusty Shackelford*

                I actually have issues with the word “gross” as it’s used today, especially on AAM, and this is probably because of my age. Back in my day, “gross” was used to describe things that were so physically off-putting that they might make one ill. But now it’s commonly used to mean anything that’s just plain wrong. For example, I’ve seen discrimination described here as “gross,” and while it’s certainly wrong and bad and all that, it’s not something that one would generally witness and say “ew, that makes me sick to my stomach.”

                Now you kids get off my lawn.

                1. Turtle Candle*

                  Hah, I sympathize because there are words whose changing use makes me wince too. But ‘gross’ has been used to mean ’embarrassing or inappropriate’ rather than simply ‘disgusting’ since I can remember, and I’m thirty-three, so I suspect on this particular topic the ship has long since sailed…..

          2. TootsNYC*

            “gross” is shorthand for “it’s making me really uncomfortable.”

            A very flexible word, “gross.”

          3. Not So NewReader*

            I agree with the shorthand idea. Usually we think of gross as, blood and guts, or a dead rodent or anything that is very off-putting/unsettling.

            But we have a tendency to use extremes to indicate emphasis. These two were not lovey-dovey once in a great while, they were lovey-dovey so much that it was gross.

            Because of the variations in people, I believe that some folks could actually be sickened by it, they could get a queasy stomach in the process of seeing that behavior. But I have a friend who gets an upset stomach when the big bosses come around. We can manifest discomfort in endless ways for many types of situations. Not everyone gets an upset stomach. Not everyone would say this is gross, some would say awkward, uncomfortable, unprofessional, etc.

            Personally, I would have just told them, “HEY, not in front of the K-I-D-S!” meaning myself as “the kids”. Sometimes humor can get the point across, but probably not with these two in our current letter here.

        2. Kyrielle*

          It confuses me, too, and I am American. It would really bug me in the workplace – partly because it’s a declaration of togetherness and unprofessional, and partly because in this case it meant one of them was getting up and walking over to do it – repeatedly – which is a little distracting.

          It wouldn’t bother me twice if I saw people walking down the hall holding hands, though, or seated side-by-side at workstations holding hands. A quick peck on hands, forehead, or even lips wouldn’t trouble me; a lingering kiss there would, but it’s the lingering that makes it “too intimate to be comfortable” in my books.

          But it is all unprofessional and doesn’t need to be in the office. Wrong time and place.

          1. Kate M*

            The thing that gets me about hand holding (outside of the workplace of course) isn’t necessarily that it’s inappropriate if you’re seated, but PLEASE let go of each others hands in the metro stations/walking downtown during rush hour or any busy time/anytime people are trying to get around you. It just reeks of not caring about other people when people slowly walk together with their hands stretched out between them and I’m trying my darndest to get to work.

            PDA? Generally outside of work I can ignore it. But do not cause me to miss my metro.

            1. anonanonanon*

              This is one of my biggest pet peeves! I live in neighborhood that’s very popular for tourists and city-folk for dining and sightseeing, but the streets are narrow and can sometimes rarely fit two people side by side, so people who hold hands mean no one else can walk around them or share the sidewalk with them. I find it so rude.

        3. Koko*

          I’m with you, but I’ve been confused about this my whole life. I understand why it’s unprofessional and can even make other people uncomfortable. I don’t understand the use of words like “ick” “gross” “disgusting” in relation to displays of affection/intimacy. For me those words are reserved for spoiled food, cockroaches, vomit, and other unsanitary/disease/pestilence type things. Not just things I find disagreeable or uncomfortable.

          1. matcha123*

            I would venture a guess that if an adult couple is making lovey-dovey faces at each other and freely feeling each other up, it’s not hard to guess that they are imagining themselves in a more intimate and less clothed situation. As a coworker, friend or random passer-by, I don’t want to be invited to imagine anyone naked in the throws of a private encounter.

            1. Koko*

              Sex is also something I don’t find gross. I would be extremely uncomfortable if I walked in on someone having it, but again, not disease/pestilence, not gross.

              1. Anna*

                I think you’re getting hung up on dictionary definitions and not usage. Is it gross to hold hands and kiss? No. But I still don’t want to see it at work, and I work with young people in an educational setting so I do see it frequently. And I still feel ugh about it.

                1. Koko*

                  I’m only “hung up on” the definition because that was what the OP of this thread was asking about. She doesn’t understand why people use the word “gross” this way. I was telling her she’s not alone in not understanding it.

            2. Koko*

              (I would also venture that I’m generally not thinking about sex or being naked when I’m being affectionate with my boyfriend (outside of work). I’m generally thinking about how much I love him and what a special person he is. So I’m not sure I really follow that line of thinking, either. It kind of reminds me of the complaint gay people have that their lifestyle is constantly reduced to a sex act instead of being about who they love.)

              1. Anonymouish*

                OK, but to extend the comparison, I don’t know your boyfriend, or how wonderful he is or how you feel. All I’m reacting to is what I see…even if it’s the most chaste forehead-kissing, I don’t have that other context you’re bringing to the situation.

                1. Koko*

                  I guess what surprised me was that the natural reaction to forehead-kissing is “wow, they must be thinking about banging right now!” To me it’s completely non-sexual.

                2. hbc*

                  But it is intimate, yes? Because you’re not going around kissing other people on the forehead.

                  It is something you reserve for the person you have romantic feelings for, and therefore it is romantic. Romantic expressions are pretty much out of place in an office setting.

                3. Koko*

                  Right, I’m not disagreeing that it’s inappropriate. I was just surprised to hear that little pet displays of affection would cause someone to “guess that they are imagining themselves in a more intimate and less clothed situation” and “imagine [them] naked in the throws of a private encounter.”

                  I have just never had that reaction to seeing PDA unless it was like, handsy tongue-kissing, so it surprised me to hear that without context, that’s where people’s minds go when they see a forehead kiss or hand-holding.

              2. Lindsay J*

                But those thoughts don’t need to be expressed to other people at work. They should be expressed to him at home, or on a date, or whatever, not at work.

                It’s kind of along the lines of the people that constantly post mushy love notes to their significant others on Facebook. That’s not really what Facebook is for. Facebook is for communicating with a group of people (namely, the people on your Friend’s list). Mushy gushy love notes are intended to be read by one person only (your SO) and thus are better suited to a private message or a text or a phone call.

                And, with both of those situations (PDA and Facebook love notes) I’m going to wonder what is amiss in your relationship that you can’t contain these expressions to the proper time and context.

            3. aebhel*

              I wouldn’t necessarily make that connection and that’s not why I find it uncomfortable (which is what I would mean by ‘gross’; it’s a colloquialism, not a literal description). It’s not ‘oh, you must be thinking about nakedtimes’, it’s ‘you are being ostentatiously mushy in a context where it’s not appropriate and people aren’t necessarily free to walk away if it makes them uncomfortable’. I find that uncomfortable for the same reason I would find very lovey-dovey pet names wildly inappropriate for work–it’s not that I think that’s what you call each other during sex, it’s that it’s very *emotionally* intimate and I don’t want to witness it. I’m from the northeast; we’re generally very reserved about things like that.

          2. Tacocat*

            I agree too. And for those saying that gross was short hand for inappropriate, that clearly wasn’t the case for Charlotte who wrote, “people who can’t go a couple of hours without being all over their boyfriend are pathetic and gross. I can’t wait for this day to be over so I no longer feel the need to vomit.” Clearly, she found the PDA to be physically revolting. This is not an uncommon reaction to PDA and to me, it feels very hyperbolic. If you find it unprofessional or otherwise inappropriate, then I think that is a much better way to state it (and you will be better received!)

            In regards to this situation, there are several related issues, but they all have the same root: acting inappropriately and unprofessionally. I would focus on that, rather than go into the weeds of creating rules/lines in the sand about all these types of situations. Repeated PDA in the middle of the work day while hanging out in the cubicles? Clearly unprofessional. Using social media at work to publicly display your visceral disgust (posting on your wall is definitely public)? Also unprofessional. Getting into a shouting match with insults thrown both ways? Way, way unprofessional. Instead of setting rules on each of these things, like PDA and social media, I would instead set the expectation of what it means to act professionally, i.e. treating your coworkers with respect and not disrupting others. Boom all these issues covered and no one gets called gross.

            1. Turtle Candle*

              Well, the word wasn’t just used by Charlotte (the LW said that others called the behavior ‘not too gross’ and Alison used the phrase ‘grossed out’), and given that the question that keeps being asked isn’t “why does Charlotte find PDAs disgusting?” but “why do Americans find PDAs disgusting?” I think the discussion of the various meanings of the word ‘gross’ is totally appropriate. I mean, I certainly don’t think that Alison is an unprofessional person, but she also used a variation of the word ‘gross’ in this context–and as I’ve said elsewhere, to me, it’s quite common to use the word ‘gross’ to mean things other than ‘physically disgusting.’

              But also, “makes me want to puke” is such a common hyperbolic statement that I’m not sure it’s useful to interpret it as “literally disgusts me to the point of nausea.” I mean, not in a professional context, but on Facebook to my friends have said “oh barf” about things that made me cringe but that I did not actually find literally physically revolting.

            2. Lindsay J*

              Honestly, seeing PDAs like that in contexts where I am not expecting them does give me a twinge in my stomach.

              Personally, I don’t think the people engaging in them are gross. I think the acts are gross. As defined in the Oxford Dictionary:

              3Very rude or coarse; vulgar:
              3.2 informal Very unpleasant; repulsive:

              If I were the OP I wouldn’t use the word gross when I was communicating with any of the involved employees, just because the word is informal and I think “unprofessional” is more appropriate in that context. But I see no problem with using the word gross when discussing it here, and I would probably use it if I were describing the situation to my friends.

            3. Not So NewReader*

              Yet, if some wrote in and said, “The CEO is coming from the home office and I think I am going to vomit.” We’d be okay with that and we’d nod knowingly.

              People have their own feelings on matters. Health-wise, I would encourage anyone not to let things go to their stomachs. Don’t let yourself become so upset that you are physically ill. My rule of thumb is that if you are having a physical reaction to a situation you have waited too long to try to do something to change the situation or to try to help yourself. The physical reaction could be tears, anger, nausea, chest pain, head ache and so on.

              I have a friend whose upsets routinely tear up her stomach. I would not be surprised at some future time to find out that she has stomach ulcers. Charlotte, here, had the reaction of anger. She could have either spoken to the bosses until something was done or she could have asked them to refrain from the PDAs around her. She waited too long to do something about her upset.

        4. Lily Rowan*

          I feel like this whole conversation would be a good opportunity to use the old media-fandom word “squick.” If something squicks you, you aren’t necessarily saying it’s objectively wrong, or bad, or gross, but it grosses *you* out and is generally Not Your Thing.

          I think Alison’s squick is separate from the office-setting inappropriateness.

          1. Julia*

            Really? On TV Tropes, Squick seems to consist of mostly things a majority of people would find inappropriate/uncomfortable/morally questionable.

            1. Elsajeni*

              That’s the nature of TV Tropes, though — personal, idiosyncratic examples won’t make it to the main page, although you might see them on a YMMV page. But in its typical fandom usage, it would be just as reasonable to say “Harry/Hermione squicks me out, they’re too much like brother and sister” as to identify a more commonly frowned-upon thing (like a pairing of actual siblings) as a squick.

        5. Anonymouish*

          To grossly oversimplify (heh), most intimate and romantic gestures are indicative of a romantic/sexual relationship. Sexual relationships and their particulars are utterly anathema to most workplaces (I stress ‘most’).

          So the revulsion people are expressing is about the cognitive dissonance in having evidence of romance/sex existing somewhere that it shouldn’t or doesn’t (again, MOST workplaces), and having to do the mental work of ‘removing’ that evidence, so to speak, to get back to a place where work is work.

          1. Katie the Fed*

            I would honestly rather walk in on people having sex than watching them shmoop all over each other like a couple of lovesick teenagers.

            1. Kate M*

              Yes – I think part of it is that people engaging in PDA are literally doing this publicly – i.e. they know people are watching. It just seems very attention seeking and in your face. They want to make a show of it and garner some reaction, whether they’re hoping it’s “aw they’re so cute” to “get a room.” It’s just very immature behavior.

              1. afiendishthingy*

                Yes. If you and your SO do are cuddling and nuzzling on your couch, watching a movie in the evening, that is sweet. Nice quiet COUPLE bonding time. But in front of your coworkers? No. That makes into a weird performance that nobody bought a ticket for. It’s not porn, it’s a sappy teenage romance, and you’re at work and can’t turn it off. Pass.

        6. Lily in NYC*

          People have already tried to explain to you that we use “gross” as a catch-all word for it, but no one really feels nauseated over it. Example: when a kid sees his mom and dad kiss and says “ewwww, gross” – it’s the same thing. He’s reacting to having to see their intimacy; he’s not reacting to the actual kiss. And enough with the stereotyping – my European grandparents were way more uptight than any of my american relatives.

      2. Lindsay J*

        I totally agree here. I thought it was just me that would be more uncomfortable with the forehead and hand kissing than an actual (closed mouth) kiss.

        FWIW I don’t think a shoulder squeeze would bother me at all. It’s unprofessional and I wouldn’t do it, but I think because it’s a gesture you might use with someone other than a romantic partner it doesn’t hit too high on my squick-o-meter

    6. Rae*

      Atleast in New England it stems from our Puritian roots. PDA–even among teenagers known for PDA is frowned upon. Kissing, hugging, etc, in public spaces are simply not done, or done very briefly in very serious circumstances (arriving from a airplane, funerals, etc). This goes doubly for places where one is told to act in a more respectable manner, such as places of worship, schools, or workplaces.

      1. anonanonanon*

        I don’t know what part of New England you’re from, but I regularly see people hugging and kissing and holding hands in public spaces.

          1. anonanonanon*

            Yeah, it’s a pretty standard work commute to see someone over-indulging in PDA on the T. Not to mention, once the nice weather hits, the Common is full of PDA.

            I’ve never seen any PDA at work, but it was rampant in middle/high school and college, so I really don’t buy the whole Puritan roots causing people to frown on PDA in public spaces. In my experience, people in New England tend to get more upset if someone’s PDA is causing them to take up the entire sidewalk or hallway, rather than it existing in the first place.

            1. Not So NewReader*

              I am having vague memories of a history class discussion that went something along the lines of Puritans were not that pure. At all.

              1. anonanonanon*

                Exactly. What I recall from early American history was that the Puritans as anti-sex was an idea brought about in the 19th century and that they were pretty pro-sex and physical affection as long as people were married.

                1. Rana*

                  Heck, as long as they were engaged! Look up “bundling” sometime. That’s not an activity that sex-negative people would have condoned.

    7. Erin*

      I wouldn’t get too caught up in the actual word “gross.” It’s probably an exaggeration – the jist is that it makes people uncomfortable. I would feel uncomfortable seeing coworkers hold hands – like I’m seeing a glimpse at their private life I shouldn’t be.

      1. Turtle Candle*

        Yes: in my experience “gross” is often used to mean “discomfort-making,” not necessarily “actively repulsive.”

      2. L McD*

        I agree that it’s just a different context of the word. Similarly, if someone says something offensive I’ll sometimes refer to it as “gross,” not because it’s comparable to the experience of smelling rotten food, but because it gives me the same full-body cringe.

    8. hbc*

      Honestly, I think “gross” is just short-hand for “inappropriate” or “not expected in this context.” Just like someone might say it’s gross to wear a bikini to the office while having absolutely no hangups about the human body. It’s a visceral reaction to something that isn’t right.

    9. Chickaletta*

      Having worked with exchange students for nearly twenty years, here’s my thoughts, Kitting Cat Lady:

      American culture is a very “surface-y” culture where real emotions and feelings are often smoothed over in order to make others around us more comfortable. When we are sad, most of us do not cry openly, even in front of friends or relatives. When we greet each other we ask “How are you?” and the normal reply is “Fine, how are you?” even if we’re not fine (or if we’re really really great). We tell each other that we’d “like to get together soon” and then never call. And in the South, one of the biggest insults you can give someone is to say “Bless your heart.”

      It can be very hard for foreigners to break into social circles because they get these mixed messages, and they can’t tell who their real friends are. So, even though there’s a lot of PDA on tv and in high schools, it makes a lot of American’s uncomfortable because OH MY GOD, people are showing real emotions with each other.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I honestly don’t think that’s why. Like jhhj and I both said below, it wouldn’t be an issue if they were doing it in some other public space. It’s the mix of that kind of physical intimacy with a work space. It’s not about “eeek, real emotions.”

        1. Umvue*

          I kind of liked this explanation, personally. I’ve always had the sense that 90% of “professionalism” is having the self-control not to show real emotions in the workplace. So I don’t see a conflict between the explanation and the fact that the rules are so much more stringent in work contexts.

        2. Chickaletta*

          Oh, I agree that it’s completely unprofessional to act this way at work, and I think Knitting Cat Lady thinks so too. I was just trying to explain why American’s think that kissing is “gross” or “revolting” (the word KCL uses, which is how I would define “gross” too). I guess for me, the combination of PDA and work isn’t different on a gross level than PDA and public spaces. Inappropriate yes, gross no. But I can see a discussion about “gross” vs. “inappropriate” has been had on this thread so I’ll try not to beat it to death.

      2. OhNo*

        That’s an excellent explanation. If Americans express emotion at all in public, we tend to do it in very subtle ways. As a comparison, a more appropriate way to express affection in the workplace might be a smile or (as Alison mentioned above) as squeeze of the shoulder if they are already in close contact.

        As another example, I remember finding it both work-appropriate and cute when my married coworker’s husband stopped by her desk once or twice a week to deliver an afternoon coffee from Starbucks. No words exchanged, no long loving looks, just a smile as he dropped it off for her. It was subtle enough that all of us coworkers could ignore it, but if you asked I’m sure they would have said that it meant something more to the two of them.

        1. Oh, I'll Answer The Phones.*

          ….except anger. Americans are super cool with public outrage. We try to mask it with words, but those words get us put up on the internet.
          Thinking of every undercover cell-video of angry fast-food customers.

            1. Oh, I'll Answer The Phones.*

              If you’re into those kinds of theories, I’d like to recommend “Sex, Time, and Power” by Leonard Shlain. Sorry, I never bothered to learn to correctly cite something – it is a(n amazing) book.

            1. LQ*

              I think it is more interesting to talk about the things on the edge. When something is clearly inappropriate (screaming match at work) then it is sort of like, well that’s that, next? Things with nuance and disagreement are much more interesting to me at least.

            2. aebhel*

              I find it interesting that so many people (not in this thread, necessarily, but generally) find yelling actually frightening, as opposed to unprofessional (which it definitely is). Absent some kind of actual threatening behavior, I just don’t see how it’s scary. But I’m a New Yorker, so…that could have something to do with it.

              1. fposte*

                This has come up before; I think there are gender components as well, but I think you’re right that it’s experience-dependent. If you’ve been involved in a sport or other group activity (chorus got me plenty of experience with yelling) you’re likelier to have been exposed to emphatic but non-hostile yelling and therefore don’t always find it alarming. It’s kind of like the first time you hear the tornado siren vs. the 100th.

              2. Turtle Candle*

                Yeah, I think it’s extremely context-dependent! Where I live and work, in the Pacific Northwest, it is an expected social norm that you will modulate your volume to within a fairly narrow band. So if someone doesn’t do that, it’s read as either losing control of yourself (which is potentially frightening because it’s hard to know what someone who has lost control will do next), or of deliberately flouting the norm (which is potentially frightening because shouting when the social norm is to not-shout is generally done to deliberately intimidate someone). So yeah, if someone started yelling, I’d see it as either that they had lost control or as that they were trying to intimidate me, and I’d find that at least potentially frightening. (It’s not that people here don’t express anger or displeasure through vocal tone, but it’s almost never by getting louder–you get sharper or

                But when I visited an office in another country, I was told ahead of time, “People here tend to be louder, and to use a wider range of tones of voice, than you’re used to.” And sure enough, they did. But because ‘moderated voice tone’ wasn’t a social norm there, I was able to see it as not-scary, because it didn’t necessarily imply loss of control and/or deliberate intimidation, but simply a variance that fell well within the local range of ‘normal.’

                1. Turtle Candle*

                  Er, that was supposed to be ‘sharper or more brusque. at the end of the first paragraph.

                2. Not So NewReader*

                  I agree that a loud voice indicates loss of control. I grew up in an area where controlling your voice was important and I moved to an area where controlling your voice is SUPER important. And it is very hard to get that across to some people who had different life experiences. If you talk loudly and/or too fast here you WILL discredit yourself. It results in comments such as “no one is listening to me.” or “no one believes me”. My advice is the same in each instance, match the volume and the pace of the person you are talking to. If you speak louder or faster you will have problems getting your problem solved.”

                3. aebhel*

                  See, that’s funny to me because I tend to find those sort of vocal inflections absent a raised voice actually more upsetting–not frightening, but definitely upsetting. I guess because here it’s the sort of thing that someone would do only if they were either really furious with you, or if they perceived themselves to be of a much higher social class, neither of which is pleasant to be on the receiving end of.

                  I do find people frightening when they seem to be completely out of control, but yeah–I think one of the things about NY is that I don’t necessarily perceive a raised voice as ‘out of control’.

          1. Turtle Candle*

            You know, it’s interesting, because I am an American and I am not super cool with public anger. I would much rather see two people all up over each other in a fast food restaurant making out than someone in the same fast food restaurant screaming abuses at the staff.

            The difference for me is that I would feel fairly safe saying “hey yo not cool” to someone doing the former, if the situation arose (I probably wouldn’t, since I tend to be a mind-your-own-business type, but I wouldn’t feel unsafe doing it), but I would feel distinctly unsafe in the latter situation. It’s not that I’m not okay with PDA but perfectly chill with public rage. It’s that the worst response I’m likely to get from the PDA couple is an eyeroll or a “mind your own business,” but the purple-faced person screaming obscenities might punch me, follow me to my car, or shoot me.

            In both cases I suppose you could say that I am uncomfortable with the public display of extreme emotion, but in only one of the cases do I feel like I can do something about it without putting myself in physical jeopardy.

            1. I'm a Little Teapot*

              I suppose that makes sense….I wouldn’t be anywhere near as uncomfortable with the PDA as with the yelling (I once saw someone totally third-basing his girlfriend on the subway and it mostly just made me snicker at them a lot) but it would be safer to do something about it.

            2. Not So NewReader*

              I agree. Anger to me indicates a loss of control and I am concerned about what the person will do next.

            3. Rana*

              Agreed. PDAs are sort of uncomfortable to watch or be near, but they’re not threatening. Yelling and other displays of anger suggest to me that a fight might break out, and I really don’t want to be nearby if something violent happens.

          2. OhNo*

            That is an excellent point, and the more I think about it the more examples I come up with. Yikes, that says something unpleasant about our society’s values regarding emotions, doesn’t it?

            1. Oh, I'll Answer The Phones.*

              I guess the fast food example is a little different, as in that example it’s usually an angry customer being filmed making a scene at someone else’s workplace. Maybe that’s what makes PDA at work so weird, like “Ugh! Don’t you know where *not* to be inappropriate!”
              Like it all exists on a scale; we’ve all done something out of place in public – I once turned a corner in an IKEA underground parking lot to find my boyfriend going all Beckham on a cardboard box that wouldn’t fit in the trunk (we had not measured). The parking lot was more reasonable of a place for a quick breakdown (anger breakdown.. not box. pun NOT intended.) than inside the store, and inside the store yelling on a phone would have been more appropriate (though not terribly much) than yelling at an employee’s face that the box wouldn’t fit.
              Not saying it’s ok to be aggressively angry in public, just that it’s on a scale, where and what’s appropriate, and that in the heat of the moment, you might find yourself falling somewhere on it that you didn’t expect.

              I think another thing worth considering, in how our society views emotions, is that laughing off anger can be an appropriate way of handling a tense situation; however if you accidentally catch MarySue and Rich making out in the breakroom when they thought they were alone, it doesn’t really help dismiss the awkwardness by adding “Haha yeah, that sure was gross!” We just don’t handle inappropriate levels of anger and inappropriate levels of PDA the same, and that’s where the disconnect lies in wanting to look away from the relationship-work-drama, but not being able to look away from the train wreck of people in a standing shouting match at work.

              1. Oh, I'll Answer The Phones.*

                (gross – read: whatever word you like better than gross. I just meant it colloquially.)

      3. ZSD*

        Wait, “bless your heart” is an insult?! Please explain. I thought it was something affectionate to say to someone who’s maybe made a naive mistake.

        1. Turanga Leela*

          It can be either. There was a Jezebel column on the many uses of “Bless your heart.”

          1. Turtle Candle*

            Yes, one of the fascinating things to me about that phrase is that it actually doesn’t always mean ‘you’re an idiot.’ It’s quite a bit subtler than that, or at least it can be: it can also mean exactly what it appears to mean at face value, and you have to determine from intonation/context/etc. which one is meant. Sometimes the context is extremely clear. When my very Southern aunt said “oh bless your heart!” when I gave her a piece of artwork I’d made for her as a child, I’m quite confident that it wasn’t meant as a slam. OTOH a “bless your heart” in reply to an insult is pretty clearly meant in the insulting way. But the dual-edged nature of it means that it can be deployed in quite sophisticated ways that might not be immediately clear as one or the other.

            1. Kate M*

              Yeah, most of the time I hear people use it, it’s genuine. Like your example, or like, “her family has just been through so much, bless their hearts.” When it’s used in an insulting way, it’s usually used in a manner to…”passive agressify” the insult, I guess? Like instead of saying, “man, she’s so dumb” you say “we’ll she’s never been that smart, bless her heart.” It’s a way of creating a faux caring tone so that nobody actually calls you out on insulting someone.

        2. Rae*

          I’m not a southerner so maybe someone can explain it better than I can, but I’ve always heard that “bless your heart” is a euphasim for “you’re a complete idiot”

        3. Noah*

          “Bless your heart” can be a real insult from a Southerner. You almost need to fill in the rest as “bless your heart, you stupid idiot”.

          However, it is not always an insult. It can be used to express genuine concern. It is all about tone.

        4. Amadeo*

          It’s found mostly in the tone of voice when it’s said as to what, exactly, it means. I’ve used it both ways and it comes out different depending on what I mean, and it’s sometimes very subtle.

      4. RVA Cat*

        + on “Bless your heart” – it’s Southern for “F you!”

        (p.s. I’m guessing from your screen name that you have little ones. I wish my toddler would switch over to Paw Patrol from the Bubble Bubble Bubble Guppy Guppy Guppies – bless their little fishy hearts…. *sigh*)

      5. Kate M*

        Tangent: I’ve heard a lot of people say recently that “bless your heart” in the South is a huge insult. And it can be used passive aggressively, sure, and sometimes is. But it’s also used sincerely, when you feel bad for someone. It all depends on the context.

        1. Juli G.*

          Here’s my take – a majority of Northerners (including yours truly) see it overwhelmingly used as an insult where Southerners are likely more exposed to the nuanced versions of it.

          I get that it’s not always an insult but it will always instinctively rankle me.

      6. Lindsay J*

        I don’t think this is true at all.

        Yes, Americans are less demonstrative as a whole than some cultures. But we are more demonstrative than others. And even cultures that are seen to be physically demonstrative have aspects of them that mean that true emotions are not always seen (latino machismo for example).

        Also, I’m not sure where in the US where you’re from, but I don’t find your descriptions to be typical of people or families from either New Jersey or Texas. Especially in New Jersey, you know where you stand with people and there isn’t a lot of fakery. Texas is different – different enough that I had difficulty adjusting when I first moved down here – but a lot of that had to do with learning how to convey myself rather than people not showing real emotion at all.

    10. jhhj*

      It feels like, in the office, they are doing it in order to involve all their coworkers in their PDA, which is where I get the “gross” feeling. I would not feel this is gross on, say, an airplane.

        1. Chrissie*

          All of that sounds reasonable. But, to side with Knitting Cat Lady, the term “gross” as in, physically revolting and sick feels-inducing, still seems misplaced here.

      1. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*


        Yep, the whole display/show off part of it, because it is SO inappropriate in the office.

        If I caught co-workers having sex in the supply closet, that wouldn’t be as “gross” to me and lovey dove hand holding smoopy smoopy look at us PDA behavior.


      2. Anna*

        For me it’s also a weird thing with consent. I didn’t consent to being part of your intimate act, so please don’t assume I’m cool with it.

        1. Lindsay J*

          This. Totally.

          And work makes it all the worse because I can’t remove myself from the situation because presumably I have to sit there and do my job. And I might be more hesitant to speak up if I’m uncomfortable because I’m trying to maintain a good working relationship with you.

    11. Adam*

      I personally think there are certain levels of PDA depending on the context. At work I’d rather not see people kissing constantly. Holding hands I wouldn’t really care. I think everyone has their lines about what is considered too much.

      Location also makes a difference for me. In my current traditional office setting anything above holding hands might feel a little weird to me. Back when I worked in a bar and “PDA” was a polite way of saying “rounding second base” I didn’t think anything of it.

    12. Laurel Gray*

      For me, if I see teens at a bus stop bench heavy petting, or a couple in the park necking, or 2 people in a dark sketchy corner of a bar feeling each other up, it’s whatever. But in the workplace, it’s different. Am I grossed out? Well that may depend on the coworkers involved. Nose Digging Nick is gross just by existing but if he’s tongue kissing a colleague at work ewwww ewwww ewwww. It just look so unprofessional to see someone incapable of separating their professional life and the part of their personal life that involves tending to their loins. And if the people are in management and up? Even worse. Nothing says “holy shit I have to sleep with this guy to get promoted?!” than seeing a senior manager groping his report, and the report groping back. It is such a major indicator of unprofessional-ism if two colleagues- married, coupled, dating or post-karaoke night hook ups – are incapable of putting the kibosh on the physical parts of their relationship when in public – and at work!

    13. INTP*

      I think it’s the ongoing nature of the situation, and probably the obvious sexual tension surrounding it. Kissing your significant other’s hand when you pass in the hallway would be strange, but not gross. Two people sitting together, staring lovingly in each other’s eyes, kissing each other’s hands and forehead repeatedly because they obviously want to kiss but can’t because they’re at work, whispering and giggling, is extremely intimate and extremely uncomfortable to be next to. I’ve had friends that did that and I’m sure they thought that because they weren’t making out and groping each other that they were being respectful, but it’s just as awkward to witness.

      The letter isn’t clear but given that Sophie was apparently visiting Matt’s desk repeatedly during the day for these PDA sessions, I’m guessing it’s closer to that situation than a few benign pecks on the hand and forehead.

      1. KH*

        Yes yes yes yes! This.

        When your co-workers are constantly making goo-goo eyes at each other, smooching on each other, holding hands, whispering and talking, it creates a bubble of intimacy that makes it very awkward and uncomfortable to be present and observing. It’s an exclusionary behavior, and one that shouldn’t be engaged in, in the workplace.

        I don’t find PDAs gross. I don’t find sex gross. But that doesn’t mean I want to have to stand on the periphery, waiting for someone to finish snogging their significant other before I can ask a business question. And I shouldn’t have to apologize for interrupting a make-out session in order to interact with a co-worker.

        And being the person who engages in PDA, creating that intimate bubble, in a situation where other people are forced to observe it is thoughtless and inappropriate. If someone does it at the mall or at the airport, I can just walk away. If someone does it sitting in the cube next to me, I can’t help but overhear/oversee what’s going on and I don’t have the option of rolling my eyes and walking away.

        1. Student*

          I find other people’s sex lives gross! I don’t want to see it or think about it or hear about it.

          I expect co-workers to have a personal life. I just do not want to know anything about it! I don’t look for it, I walk away if I should encounter it by chance and pretend it never happened, I ask that people not discuss it with me, and I strive to make sure other people do not notice or think about my own personal life.

          I’m a Midwesterner. We are pretty heavy on the puritan thing. I’d prefer to pretend that sex doesn’t exist when in public, and that seems to be how most people approach this in the Midwest.

          1. Juli G.*

            Ha! This reminds of a heated forum argument once where a couple of people thought pregnant women should not wear 2 pieces at the beach because pregnancy is a reminder of sex. I had to be a smart ass and remind them that every single person alive is a reminder of sex.

    14. CaliCali*

      I think a lot of it is more about it being persistent. I doubt anyone would be thoroughly disgusted at one mild act of PDA at the office. But it seems like this has been happening repeatedly over the course of a couple of years.

      I also think a lot of it is about couples being over the top with their PDA as a show-offy kind of display that would be called “gross” — it’s more the ostentatious nature of the affection than the physical act. Kind of like couples who cannot stop posting on FB about their ~*~tru luv~*~ and commenting on each other’s statuses incessantly to show how “in love” they are. Most people have no issue with sincere, meaningful connection and affection between people, but making sure everyone! knows! it! rubs many people the wrong way.

      1. fposte*

        It’s also the finite vs. the ongoing. A quick goodbye kiss is different from holding hands as you work.

    15. The IT Manager*

      I’m an American, but I am with you. (And I asked a similar question in a sub comment just above yours.) It’s inappropriate, but I don’t find it gross at all. I mentioned finding it uncomfortable and awkward, but not “inspiring disgust or distaste” or “obscene or vulger”

      1. fposte*

        It’s an interesting point that I hadn’t thought about until this post. I’m definitely seeing people also use “gross” as kind of a synonym for “cringey”–like for obsequiousness or humblebragging or over-the-top parental bragging. I think it used to mean “things that disgust you physically” but it’s expanding to things that disgust you, period.

        1. Bookworm*

          You can add me to that chorus. I think “gross” can sometimes be used colloquially as a synonym for unacceptable.

          I had a coworker who used to have personal phone calls in which she discussed (in detail) her rather poor financial situation. That made everyone feel uncomfortable. We could certainly call some of her talks grossly inappropriate….but of course none of us found it actually physically distressing.

        2. Turtle Candle*

          And not even disgust you, but even just make you uncomfortable, I think. I mean, as I mentioned elsewhere, way back when I was a teenager (which was a while ago now!) people called their parents “gross” not because they found their parents disgusting in any way, but because their parents embarrassed them. (Kids who had really quite good relationships with their parents, like me, would say ‘oh gross’ about their mom drawing a heart on their lunch bag or whatever.)

          Interestingly, there is a thing on Tumblr where people will react to cute kitten pictures or gifsets of their favorite couples making out with “GROSS.” In that case it’s actually meant as a sign of approval/a compliment, because it’s shorthand for ‘this made me feel such strong emotional feels that I am embarrassed in public.’ That’s obviously a niche usage, but I think it derives quite obviously from the use of ‘gross’ to mean ‘uncomfortable or embarrassing.’

          1. fposte*

            Oh, that’s interesting. I’m still thinking about this newish shade of meaning–it seems like “gross” is used for situations of perceived excess, which is kind of taking it back to its roots.

    16. Andra*

      “People who can’t go a couple of hours without being all over their boyfriend are pathetic and gross. ”

      In high school (early 1990s), my girlfriends and I would use these exact words to describe girls who were infatuated with their boyfriends and had to be joined at the hip with them. Our mothers grew up in the Mad Men era and went to college/started working during the time of the Women’s Liberation Movement. We were raised to have careers, be able to support ourselves, and find value in ourselves beyond other peoples’ opinions of our looks. (Our mothers did not teach us how to look down on other girls–we figured that out on our own. Yes, I was a terrible judgmental teenager.)

      To us, a girl who could not go a couple of hours without seeking out attention from her boyfriend was weak, dependent, and needy. It went against everything we were taught to value. Excessive PDAs on top of that, especially in an inappropriate situation, would have caused us to label someone as “pathetic” and “gross”.

      I’m wondering if Charlotte had a similar feeling–a lot of her reaction was directed at Sophie, rather than Matt, and he was as much to blame. It would have been pretty simple to lean over and ask Matt (after Sophie had gone), “Hey, I’m trying to focus on this right now. Would you mind–?” (Head nod in Sophie’s direction.)

      As an irrelevant side note, I can’t help but speculate on Sophie’s motivations. As an adult, I’ve come to recognize that repeated attention-seeking has less to do with weakness and more to do with control. I wonder if Sophie felt threatened that Matt was sitting next to Charlotte and was marking her territory, so to speak?

      1. Doriana Gray*

        Or Sophie’s just insecure period and that’s why she feels the need to be up under him 24/7. Charlotte may not even register for her.

      2. Not So NewReader*

        I remember seeing guys and women pushed up against lockers in high school in a full blown make out session between classes. I wondered why they bothered to put on clothes that morning, when clearly, they had no intention of using the clothes.

        I thought it was a “fashion statement” of sorts. “I am wearing the latest style sweater/pants/bf/gf and you are so NOT.” It was tiring to have to walk around these coupled people all the time. There were a few times in a crowded hallway where I had a choice of crashing into the couple or the biggest guy on the football team. I was pretty certain both crashes would hurt in equal amounts of pain.

    17. Minerva in Munich*

      Just to add a counterpoint to Knitting Cat Lady: I’m German, and the behaviour described in the letter sounds SUPER gross to me.

      And also, why would anybody choose to kiss/hold hands at work, in front of co-workers, instead of just saving it until they get home? Seriously.

  14. EA*

    Yea this is insane and you should work on hiring better people.

    The “contact center floor” did make me wonder what type of job this is. If its a call center/customer service center, then this might be more expected. Not that it is okay, but when I temped in a call-center, unprofessional behavior was tolerated. We got paid nothing and had no growth opportunities- so I think management took who they could get.

  15. Snarkus Aurelius*

    “Generally speaking, I do agree with Charlotte in that if you read something that isn’t intended for you or look over someone’s shoulder, you don’t really have the right to be mad if you don’t like what you see, but this was also in a workplace where the computers  generally accepted to be for working use, and I don’t know if that complicates it.”

    Well no.

    I mean, yes, in a perfect world that would be true if people could divorce themselves from how they feel with how they conduct themselves at work.  But the “expectation of privacy” is a red herring here.  The FB content accurately reflects Charlotte’s feeling as evidenced by her reaction and subsequent argument.  Claiming that no one else but the desired audience was supposed to see it doesn’t matter because that’s literally how she feels and said as much.

    I doubt you’d be making the same argument if Charlotte had posted something derogatory toward one segment of the population.  Arguing that those feelings are for FB only is naive and manipulative.  

    A good example of this is the Mozilla CEO who got fired for making a political contribution for a group/candidate (I can’t remember which) that opposed gay marriage.  It wasn’t a stretch to guess that if this guy opposed gay marriage that he might not treat his employees with fairness.

    1. Mike C.*

      Political contributions are a matter of public record. You can look up your own bosses/owners if you’re curious. I makes for fascinating reading to be honest.

    2. Naomi*

      Maybe Sophie shouldn’t have been looking over Charlotte’s shoulder, but Charlotte is being very shortsighted if she thinks she can post about her coworkers without the risk of them finding out about it. (Though as others have pointed out, it’s possible that Charlotte was being passive-aggressive and always intended Sophie to see the post.)

      Of course, none of this changes anything from the OP’s point of view. It’s not the OP’s job to enlighten Charlotte about how saying the wrong thing on social media can come back to bite her; OP is only concerned with this to the extent that they need to enforce professional behavior among their employees.

    3. TootsNYC*

      People get really annoyed at apparently “nosy” behavior at work, even when it’s just work stuff.

      It is the equivalent of eavesdropping, and I think it’s covered by all the same rules: It’s rude to be obvious, and it’s rude to act in a way that makes it clear you were eavesdropping.

    1. Laura*

      According to LW, Charlotte isn’t Facebook friends with Sophie or Matt, which means they couldn’t have seen her status on their own Facebooks.

      1. Hlyssande*

        Only if she had it locked down to Friends only. If she posts on Public, it’s fair game to anyone, friend or not.

      2. Observer*

        That assumed that Charlotte has her setting nicely tied down AND that none of her facebook friends, nor the two guys she messaged on the work system, re-post.

        So, yeah the “privacy” bit is definitely a red herring.

  16. LiveAndLetDie*

    Sophie and Matt having any kind of romantic interaction at work is 100% inappropriate and needs to be stopped immediately. They can be together all they like outside of work, but when they’re at work they should be working, not spending their time finding every possible moment to touch each other. Whoever is letting them sit side by side needs to change that.

    As for Charlotte, she needs to stop trashing her coworkers to other coworkers, immediately. Gossip isn’t something that should be encouraged, and causes all kinds of negativity at the office that has no need to be there. And she needs to be told to manage her expectations about privacy. That is a work computer at the end of the day, she cannot expect complete privacy.

    Everyone involved needs a lesson in acting like a mature adult, that’s for sure. Holy moly.

  17. Marzipan*

    I would also tell Charlotte that the instant messaging system is not to be used for talking about other employees behind their backs – it’s a workplace tool, not social media.

    1. Rachel*

      This! I’m surprised this wasn’t mentioned in the answer. This would never be an acceptable use of company messaging systems in any company where I’ve worked that had one.

      1. Bookworm*

        Yup. Plus those records can be easily looked up by IT, and occasionally by other employees depending on the settings of the system.

        (Not to mention that time I messaged my friend/coworker that I was so hungry in a meeting I was starting to hallucinate sandwiches….and it popped up on the screen share in the meeting she was giving.)

  18. Allison*

    THIS is why I hate when people don’t use their words when something is bothering them. I get that these conversations are tough and maybe you don’t feel like it’s your place to say anything, but if you refuse to have a calm, polite conversation about the problem when it’s new, eventually the anger will build up so much that you’ll end up exploding, and that just causes more problems. Your options are 1) address the issue directly or 2) make like Elsa and let it go.

    In this case, someone should have addressed the PDA when those two started dating. I know, I know, it’s commonly known that office PDA is annoying and inappropriate and people should just know not to do it, but we don’t live in a perfect world, and clearly they didn’t “just know,” so someone (a manager, ideally) should have told them to knock it off.

    It’s an issue I’ve encountered so many times in my life, with friends, coworkers, parents, etc. where I find myself asking “why didn’t you just tell me that bothered you?” or “why didn’t you ask me to stop?” I’m not a jerk, but I’m also not a mind reader. I’m willing to not stop doing stuff that bothers people, but I can’t know it’s bothering people unless they tell me and I hate when people resort to passive aggressive garbage instead of just talking to me.

    1. Wren*

      The OP updated to say she has learned that Matt and Sophie have actually been told multiple times to cut back on the PDA. At this point, it’s not totally fair to Charlotte to simply say she should let it go. It might have been her who spoke up.

  19. AMG*

    Am I the only one who finds the whole thing kind of funny? I’m sure I wouldn’t be as amused if I had to deal with it personally but since I don’t…

    1. Youth Services Librarian*

      Yes, I am going to be snickering all morning – not least b/c it reminds me of dealing with middle schoolers! “But we’re just FRIENDS, I can’t hug my friend??” “But she was was MEAN to me!” “But we’re just JOKING”

    2. Jinx*

      I’ve been reading E (one of the books recommended by Alison last year, the one written in emails), and this reminded me of the scene where the two female employees have a fight in the middle of the day and have to be escorted out. Obviously this wasn’t that bad, but the mental image made me giggle.

    3. Andra*

      Oh yeah, letters like this are the reason I come to this blog. I love workplace drama, just not in my workplace.

    4. Not So NewReader*

      Maybe that is one thing that OP is getting at, all of the sudden she is running a kindergarten it seems. There is no one in this story that walks away blameless.

  20. Ruthie*

    I have to say that I believe the ages of the employees, especially in comparison to HR’s own kids, is completely irrelevant. It’s a workplace, not a daycare. This also seems to me like a byproduct of a unwilling to manage its employees. PDA in the office should be unacceptable. Period. It’s obviously making others at the agency uncomfortable, and should have been stopped long ago. And unprofessional social media behavior is unprofessional regardless of whether or not that specific behavior or action is addressed in office policy.

    1. Erin*

      Oh, come on. She specified ages in part to emphasize how out of her element she is, and also to provide context for the situation. Her writing in here in the first place speaks to her desire to manage properly; asking for help does not equate with an unwillingness to manage. Also, she’s HR, not their manager. Etc., etc.

      1. lulu*

        + 1. OPs get chided if they don’t provide any context, but if they provide some they get in trouble because it’s not relevant. Those details allow us to picture the incident, and make the reading less dry and more interesting. It would be a shame if people were afraid of including any background in their questions to AAM.

    2. Salome*

      I’m a twenty-something Facebook loving millennial who’d cackle if she saw this as a scene on a reality TV show…..and I had no problem with the OP mentioning it. It sounded more like she was unsure about the social media aspect and how it changes the way young people interact with each other. My mother is a high school teacher and said social media has become a very quick and sudden learning curve as it has completely thrown a spanner into the works that older generation never dealt with themselves.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Oh my, yes. I have friends that substitute teach and they have absolutely HAD to learn about social media in order to go about their jobs everyday. Similarly, I have a friend who claims to be very non-techy, yet, she has gotten into texting and internet simply because this is what her kids and grands are talking about and doing. (Her grammar school aged grandchildren teach her….. lol.)

  21. Erin*

    So you work at the Young and the Restless, eh?

    Okay, I agree with you that Sophie is more in the wrong than Charlotte. She was the one engaging in seriously inappropriate PDA, and she should not have been looking at Charlotte’s computer, in the context you described – that she’d have to really be looking, it wasn’t accidental, AND it sounds like she wouldn’t have even been in their area at all if she hadn’t been visiting Matt, instead of, you know, working. AND I agree with the point that if you’re looking where you shouldn’t be, you can’t really complain about what you’re seeing. I mean, clearly, engaging in a shouting match is obviously inappropriate as well, but while they are both at fault, I’m on Team Charlotte.

    That said, Charlotte should not have talked s*** about coworkers on Facebook, especially when she was friends with other coworkers. I mean, that’s basic social media 101. But as you indicated, you really can’t police what people are putting on Facebook and who liked what, so I think that’s a bit of a moot point here. Especially since your workplace allows social media at work in moderation.

    I’d forget about the social media aspect of it. I’d concentrate on A) Shouting matches between coworkers and B) PDA in the office. Make it clear neither of those will be tolerated, and if they can’t adhere to that, lay out what the consequences will be. Then stick to it.

    1. Allison*

      “That said, Charlotte should not have talked s*** about coworkers on Facebook, especially when she was friends with other coworkers. I mean, that’s basic social media 101”

      I do agree with this. I’m a big-time Facebooker but I don’t talk garbage about anyone via Facebook statuses or comments. If I need to vent to a friend about something someone is doing, or figure out how to talk to someone making me grumpy, I try to do it as privately and discreetly as possible.

    2. Michelle*

      I’m totally Team Charlotte as well. If Sophie and Matt were acting appropriately at work, Sophie would not have been over at Matt’s workstation making out and the post, instant message and shouting match would not have happened.

      I think Matt & Sophie should be told the PDA has to stop, immediately, and if it happens again, both of them will be fired.

        1. NotAnotherManager!*


          No one has covered themselves in glory here, so I’m totally Team Innocent Bystander.

          This a big part of why these situations have to be addressed swiftly and directly, too. If those watching think that you’re okay with their being subjected to this type of behavior, it’s going to kill morale. The message needs to be quick and clear — this behavior is not okay and will not be tolerated.

  22. Laurel Gray*

    Just commenting to say I think your company is pretty reasonable, OP. Management at companies use the issue you currently have on your hands for why they have blanket “no social media or personal internet use” rules. There is a such thing as “reasonable” internet usage throughout the day, some of these employees are just too immature to realize and enjoy it properly.

  23. Alanna*

    You know, I think of myself as a pretty good manager. Sometimes I feel like I could give advice just like AAM does. And then I see a question like this and I am so grateful that Alison exists.

    1. motherofdragons*

      +1. I could barely get through the email without rolling my eyes so hard they nearly popped out of my skull.

  24. Anonymouish*

    Just to play devil’s advocate here…I don’t see Charlotte as looking for privacy in this situation. She disliked something, and wrote about it. She obviously understands Facebook is public…or public-ish. Her saying that Sophie shouldn’t look at her screen, to me, is much closer to ‘If you don’t want to know how people feel about you, don’t ask’.

    Not that she should be complaining on FB or Messenger rather than to Sophie & Matt, nor should the intricacies of them be taking up this much time in a workplace. But if you do something potentially offensive (such as PDA), you don’t then get to control their reaction to it. Charlotte’s method of expression is immature and trouble-fraught, but Sophie’s argument is full of holes.

    Shades of passed notes in the garbage can…

    1. Manders*

      While I think Sophie and Matt are still behaving unprofessionally, I’ve also known the kind of person who takes their workplace complaints straight to social media, and that kind of behavior can be a symptom of a larger lack of understanding about how to resolve workplace conflicts without stewing or getting passive-aggressive.

      I also agree with EA above who pointed out that this sounds like a call center environment, and sometimes in call centers you have to accept that your employees may need extra help understanding what is and isn’t ok in the workplace.

      1. TootsNYC*

        I agree. I think Charlotte could use from non-scolding, sincere coaching on how to deal with that sort of thing.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      The two women did something and then were both surprised to be called out on it. Granted, it was two different things but they were both equally surprised by the other one calling them out on their behavior.

  25. grasshopper*

    Management should have nipped the PDA in the bud. Adults should know that romantic PDA between co-workers has no place in an office.

    I used to work in a small office and it took me months to realize that two of my co-workers were married to each other. Most of the staff were friendly and socialized together, but the couple kept the boundaries between professional and personal very clear. The office wasn’t puritanical (in reference to the comments above), it was very multicultural, and often there were French/European influences where greeting people involved air cheek kisses. There weren’t any rules about avoiding work PDA between couples, but both of them were grown-ups who realized what is appropriate and what is not.

    1. Erin*

      This. If coworkers are married you shouldn’t even be able to tell, other than maybe catching them commuting together or eating lunch together.

      1. Newbie*

        There have been several comments similar to this – that you shouldn’t be able to tell that coworkers are married. I do want to point out that mature, professional adults have absolutely no reason to hide their marital status or the fact that they are married to a co-worker. My spouse and I work for the same employer (different departments) and are very open about the fact that we’re married. We are extremely careful to keep any personal issues and all PDAs out of the workplace. But it feels wrong to think it should be kept secret and that coworkers might “catch” us commuting together or spending break/lunch time together.

        This may not be at all how the commentors mean this to come across, but I wanted to take a stand for married coworkers that behave appropriately for the workplace, which I assume would be the majority.

        1. MaggiePi*

          Thanks for this. I also work in the same office as my spouse. While yes, we rightly are expected to treat each other professionally, the fact that we’re married is not something we are trying to hide. It would be very uncomfortable to treat it as a secret. (It is a small office, so that probably factors in too.)

        2. Oryx*

          I don’t think Erin means catch like “gotcha!” but more, I’m walking through the parking lot or the lunch room and happen to glance over and see them together.

          There’s a difference between keeping something secret and just not talking about something. My SO and I work in the same industry and often attend industry events together. We’d been dating for a couple months when we attended one such event, and because of work schedules arrived separately. We also pretty much kept away from each other — not because we were trying to hide anything but because he was talking to his people and I was talking to mine. Other than someone possibly overhearing him put my drink on his tab, it wasn’t until we left together that anyone realized we actually were together. We weren’t trying to keep it secret or hide it, it just wasn’t something that needed to be talked about in a professional setting.

        3. Lindsay J*

          I don’t think anyone is saying it should be a big secret. I think people are saying that an outsider who didn’t know that they were married shouldn’t be able to tell by looking in.

          I’ve worked with two of my live-in boyfriends at different points. We never tried to hide that we were married. If we were talking about our weekends, it would be perfectly in character for us to say “John and I went to the rodeo.”

          However we never did anything while interacting with each other to show that we were in a relationship at work. No PDAs. No discussions about the relationship. If we were fighting at home, it didn’t get brought to work. Etc. I was also careful to not engage in any types of discussions with my coworkers or employees that might make them uncomfortable given that they worked with my boyfriend too (so no joining in with coworkers complaining about how their SOs never put their clothes in the hamper, etc).

  26. Juli G.*

    I kind of want to defend Charlotte here for not going to the couple directly. It sounds like management and HR were aware of this PDA and no one did anything about it. I can definitely see someone (especially less experienced in the workplace) assuming that if no one in management cares, I’m just going to complain to my friends about it.

    No one handled this appropriately and I think when you sit down to talk with Charlotte about her poor behavior, there should also be an apology for no one in management addressing the PDA.

    1. Anonymouish*

      While I’m not sure that HR and Management knew, I will say that Charlotte was, in her way, trying to advocate for a more professional workplace…somewhat unprofessionally.

      1. Juli G.*

        You’re right. I was assuming from the supervisor filling in HR that at least the supervisor knew.

        Probably also some personal experience leaking in. We had PDA and the managers made little jokes about it behind their backs(also bad) but no one said “Hey, it’s inappropriate.” At that age (early 20s), it signaled to me that if the managers didn’t care, they wouldn’t care if it bothered me. An assumption on my part for sure but not a wild one to make when you have little experience.

    2. INTP*

      Yeah, I don’t think it’s uncommon for people inexperienced in office environments to think you can’t ask people to discontinue behavior if it’s officially “allowed” by management (which management doing nothing to stop this implies). We see many letters on this site where people seem to be in disbelief that they can be asked to stop doing things that aren’t forbidden.

    3. LQ*

      I agree with this. If I saw this happening and no one stopped it, it is such a …wait what?…behavior that I would assume it was condoned by management and figure if I wanted it to stop I’d have to leave. There’s no way that I’m the first person to notice this (me personally, I’m oblivious to everything) so by the time I noticed, other people must have, and if management didn’t want this happening they’d have already dealt with it. So looking for jobs it is.

      It would be like if there was a keg in the fridge every day. I’d just assume that management was on board with it because why else would it be there. If that’s my kind of work place great, if not, moving on.

      1. AW*

        Yeah, it’s how blatant the activity is as well. The fact that she could vauge-book about what was happening and still get likes from co-workers strongly implies that this was an ‘everybody knew’ situation.

        Personally, I’d also be worried that *I’d* be seen as the weird one for complaining.

  27. insert witty name here*

    I must be old: I saw PDA and immediately assumed “Personal Data Assistant.”

    1. Kelly L.*

      Actually, I think the “canoodling” meaning is older! I know people talked about “ew, PDA” when I was a teen, before personal data assistants were really a common thing.

      1. Koko*

        Yes, to this day I still can’t help but feel slightly ridiculous using the acronym because it’s so strongly associated with “middle school teacher”/”adolescent code of conduct handbook.” Like somehow a part of me thinks it’s a word for children, not adults.

      1. afiendishthingy*

        I think “YOLO”‘s already over. I’m over 30, though, so I’m not the best source.

  28. Katie the Fed*

    Yep to everything Alison said on how to handle this.

    But especially with Sophie and Matt – it needs to be clear there is zero tolerance for any more PDA. And frankly I’d have a word with their manager – how has she been letting this go on???

  29. Youth Services Librarian*

    I have been managing actual teenagers for almost 8 years and they have NEVER behaved like this! However, they sound an awful lot like the middle schoolers I run herd on every afternoon…. So I will offer how I deal with the after school crowd – It’s called Save your A.S.S. (after school sanity) and sticks to firm repetition, not getting involved in petty disputes and arguments, etc.

  30. Katie the Fed*

    Also – this is not bullying. It’s childish, but it’s not bullying. If anyone’s being bullied it’s Charlotte who could reasonably argue that she’ s being subjected to a hypersexualized hostile environment.

    Also, gross.

    1. Engineer Girl*

      Thank you!!! I’m tired of hearing one-offs categorized as bullying when they are at this low level. It is also not bullying when you call someone out in their inappropriate behavior.

      1. Noah*

        Yes! I hate that everything is bullying. Charlotte wasn’t being a bully, she was calling two people out on their shit, albeit in a an unprofessional way.

    2. Adam*

      Yeah. My brain ticked a bit when she called it that. Charlotte could definitely be said to be rude and unprofessional, probably even mean, but to jump from that to bullying is a bit much, especially when Sophie was at least just as much in the wrong to begin with.

      Labeling something like this “bullying” cheapens the word and concept much the same way as has happened to the word “epic” when I use it to describe my last haircut.

      1. Katie the Fed*

        Yeah, seriously. People are going to be mean in life. It happens. Learn to cope. When it’s true bullying – repeated harassment, threats, etc, that’s a different matter. But being mean? Yep, totally sucks and it’s happened to me. But it’s allowed.

    3. swingbattabatta*

      Agree so much. Every negative emotion/reaction is not “bullying”. The overuse of that term drives me nuts.

    4. Charlotte_DID_bully*

      While I agree the PDA was inappropriate, Charlotte’s behavior is considered bullying by my company’s policy. We have a zero tolerance bullying policy. The fact that Charlotte called the other two “Pathetic” is enough for her to be reprimanded for bullying. Add in the fact that she raised her voice and she has 2 bullying violations right there – which doesn’t include whatever group grip fest she tried to get going on FB.
      Bullying isn’t like the legal definition of harassment; it doesn’t have to be repeated. Name calling, excluding others, yelling, threatening, or physically harming co-workers are all considered bullying in my workplace and can get you fired on the spot.

      1. fposte*

        Huh. I can see fired on the spot, but that’s a definition of bullying that’s pretty different from what I’m used to. I don’t get classifying physically harming somebody as bullying, either; physically harming somebody is bad because it’s physically harming somebody, not because it falls into the category of bullying.

        You’ve only mentioned Charlotte–would Sophie be off the hook for yelling if Charlotte did it first? Or would they both be in trouble for bullying?

        1. afiendishthingy*

          Yeah, when I worked in a middle school calling someone “pathetic” one time wouldn’t have qualified as bullying. I’ve never heard a definition of bullying that included one-time incidents.

      2. AW*

        Except the OP said that their workplace doesn’t have a policy for this.

        I can see this going either way, depending on if they decide that things like repetition or intent matter.

        which doesn’t include whatever group grip fest she tried to get going on FB

        The “pathetic” bit was what happened on Facebook. The OP didn’t say she said it to her face.

      3. KH*

        Ugh. That annoys me. Bullying is a very specific thing involving both an imbalance of power (not necessarily related to job power, but one person is intimidating in some way or another) and either repetition or potential for repetition.

      4. Katie the Fed*

        “Name calling, excluding others, yelling, threatening, or physically harming co-workers are all considered bullying”

        Wow! That’s a really strict definition and really kind of infantalizing. I’m pretty PC and sensitive too, but people have bad days. And really on the “excluding others.” This isn’t 2nd grade. I can sit with who I want at lunch without the school counselor getting involved.

        1. Charlotte_DID_bully*

          I think the idea is purposefully making others feel unwelcome. I would agree the policy is far stretching, but I thought it would be useful to point out that Charlotte’s behavior could constitute bullying in some workplaces.

          My understanding is that bullying in schools is also very far reaching. With students being suspended in some U.S. schools for name-calling or teasing. It

          1. Katie the Fed*

            Yeah, and this is how you end up with people writing into AAM with questions like “My coworker did something I don’t like – what do I do??” and the answer is so obviously “TALK TO THEM.” Working out your problems is an important step in learning to be an adult.

        2. OP*

          Excluding others? Yikes.

          This is the sort of thing I didn’t want to venture into…..forcing everyone to be friends at work. I definitely think things such as ongoing harassment need to be addressed, but I really feel like this “everyone has to be invited of a few people go to drinks off site after work” thing issue is a bit “you have to invite everyone in the class to a 7th birthday party”.

          1. Observer*

            I agree with you.

            Charlotte misbehaved, and needs to be called on it. Trashing coworkers at while at work and using a work computer is a no-no. So is getting into a screaming match. She needs to be polite and cooperative. She does NOT need to be buddies, however.

          2. Not So NewReader*

            Longer comment upthread but I am hoping you can move away from the concept of forcing them to be friends. What you need them to know is that they must have a working relationship with each other- they have to be civil enough to get the job done. This has nothing to do with liking or disliking anyone.

            I would say, “This is not about liking or disliking anyone. If you want to dislike people, there is no ‘law’ against that. However, either way you must work in a cooperative manner with everyone here. Failure to do so means that you have failed to do an aspect of your job.”

            Take that like/dislike stuff right off the discussion table. Emphasize cooperative manner and work focus. I think if you can move beyond the whole idea that you are forcing them to be friends, you will find the situation less weighty. I used to say things like “Coworkers are like in-laws. You can’t pick your coworkers and you can’t pick your in-laws. You want the spouse you get the family; likewise you want the job you get the coworkers.”
            Sometimes I would have to go as far as saying, “If nothing else, remember both of you have to eat and have a roof over your heads. These are basic human needs that you both have in common. When an annoyance occurs, remind yourselves that the other person has to work and earn a living also. Then take a step back and think about what you are doing.”

            1. Not So NewReader*

              PS. I have walked in between two people that were going to slug each other. I was counting on the fact that they would remember hitting the boss is never a good plan. They remembered.
              I do not recommend this to anyone, although I have done it. What I do recommend is the attitude that you are the boss and you will not tolerate certain behaviors ever. Be specific and be consistent about what you will not tolerate.

          3. KellyK*

            Yeah, I agree. I wonder if what they were going for was more along the lines of *ostracism* than not being friends with everyone. Because I think it’s reasonable to include things like “Joe sits down in the lunch room and everyone else instantly gets up and leaves” as bullying without policing who chats at the water cooler or goes out for happy hour.

      5. Rusty Shackelford*

        Name calling, excluding others, yelling, threatening, or physically harming co-workers are all considered bullying in my workplace and can get you fired on the spot.

        That’s interesting. The general definition of “bullying” is that involves some kind of power imbalance, i.e., if I go to lunch with my buddies and don’t invite the boss, it’s not bullying. If I call the boss a jerk to his face because I don’t do well on my review, that’s not bullying. (It’s very inappropriate, but not bullying.)

      6. Observer*

        To be very honest, your company’s policy stretches the definition of the word so much that it’s really not a very useful point of comparison.

        I agree that the OP’s company needs to come down on Charlotte’s behavior. But I hope that they don’t take that as a reason to broaden the meaning of words to the point that they become meaningless.

        1. NotAnotherManager!*

          Yeah, that is an insanely broad definition of “bullying” that doesn’t really comport with the actual definition of the word. Until there is a pattern of behavior or a power imbalance, I’d stop at “unprofessional” as what happened here. Overbroad use of the terms like “bullying” in this manner really dilute them and you end up with people calling simple, sometimes even out-of-character lapses in professional judgment “bullying” when they’re not and should not at all be dealt with in the same manner as actual bullying.

          There are some things that are so egregious they need to be stopped in their tracks, and zero tolerance may be appropriate for those things (like racist comments in the work place). For most other things, people need to be grown-ass adults and, as several people have noted in this thread, use their words.

          1. Observer*

            Well, they need to use their words in their “indoor voices”. Yelling is also using words.

  31. TigreFJ*

    That’s why you don’t add coworkers to social media…its best to keep all of that seperate.

    1. Noah*

      Probably a better idea to not gripe about work on social media. It is way to easy for things that were intended to be private to be made public.

  32. L McD*

    Yeah, everyone’s being childish here. Look, people gossip, people complain about co-workers, and often, co-workers find out what’s being said about them behind their backs. Imho this is kind of run of the mill workplace drama, wouldn’t exist in a perfect world, but it happens. Where this goes off the rails is the whole thing escalating into a shouting match, and the fact that it stems from inappropriate workplace behavior that hasn’t been properly dealt with in the first place.

    If this were about Sophie slurping her soup too loudly it would be one thing, but this is something management should have already handled. Even professional adults can act out like angry teenagers if they’re in an environment that only deals with squeaky wheels. I have a strong sense that management might be teaching people that they only get involved when things explode in a massive drama bomb. If that’s the case, while it’s not an excuse per se, it does go a long way in explaining why everyone is acting like they’re on an episode of Maury. Make sure the root issues here get dealt with, too.

  33. Chinook*

    “Charlotte told Sophie that she shouldn’t have been looking at her screen and that if she chooses to invade someone else’s privacy by reading their screen, she can’t complain if she doesn’t like what she sees.”

    “And tell her that she has no reasonable expectation of privacy regarding her computer screen at work, particularly when she works in a room full of other people.”

    I have been a victim of this type of thing and was very curious about what AAM’s response would be. My case was the person covering my desk as receptionist while I went to lunch went through my filed emails (it wasn’t just sitting in my inbox or sent items) and then complained to my boss about the email I sent to said boss about Ms. Snoops poor behavior covering reception (i.e. responding via my email to say something will be done but not telling me and then it looks like I messed up) and asking for advice on how to deal with it. When it was brought to my attention, I quit on the spot because I was the only employee who was unable to have private email conversations (even with HR or my supervisor) because I had to share my login with anyone who covered for me and this complaint was the last straw (in what was a very toxic environment that my boss was trying hard to change). I stayed on the job only after they convinced IT to have a separate login for reception coverage AND promised Ms. Snoop was never allowed to cover for me again.

    So, AAM, would your advice still stand if it was a case of Ms. Snoop looking for the email conversation instead of just glancing it on the screen. Is there anytime when an employee should be able to expect privacy from her coworkers (but not her supervisors) when it comes to her email?

    1. Bookworm*

      That seems totally different though. For one thing, you weren’t posting to Facebook or gossiping with coworkers about the issue….you were e-mailing your boss in a (presumably) professional manner about an issue that was effecting your work.

      That said – it’s weird that your computer didn’t allow you to lock down your own e-mail session. I feel like that would be the ideal scenario.

      If it was a public inbox, like, then I would argue that it’s inappropriate to handle that for personal matters…the company should have given you your own private e-mail (for sensitive communication) in addition to the public e-mail you’re managing.

  34. Observer*

    I agree that the Facebook stuff is a red herring. Charlotte was inappropriate, and she needs to understand very clearly that she really has not grounds to complain that someone looked at her computer. Once the tempest calms down, you may want to remind everyone that nothing they do on their work computers is truly private.

    Having said that, this canoodling pair was totally out of line. I probably wouldn’t use the word gross, but that doesn’t make their behavior close to appropriate. And, please shut down the nonsense about bullying. It’s stupid, childish, and a good way to divert attention from the fact that she and her BF are acting like something out of a comic strip. (Quite literally – I’ll post a link to the strip in a reply if I can remember what it was called.)

    I think that Allison’s advice it excellent. I would just add that you need to have a chat with the manager who allowed the PDA to go on so long. It may have been at a lower level till this incident, but it should have been shut down as soon as it started.

    Going forward, I would say you need to do three things:

    1. Hire people who know how to behave themselves.
    2. M

    1. Observer*

      Ack! I hit post too quickly.

      1. Hire people who know how to be have. As Alison says, even young people can behave reasonably.
      2. Manage! When people act inappropriately, shut it down. Make sure that people can come to you with reasonable issues, and expect results.
      3. Make sure that people understand standards of reasonable behavior, and reasonable responses. Also, what level of privacy they (don’t) have.

  35. PammieJR*

    This reminds my of a place I worked at in the early 90s…There was a husband and wife couple I worked with and I can tell you, the opposite of PDA can be just as bad. These two fought ALL the time and not about work stuff! We all worked in a large warehouse like situation in a corrugated metal building. The room we were all in was at least 1/3 of the entire building. So not only did their arguing echo throughout the entire area, but there were at least 10 other people trying to work in that area. They would ALWAYS fight about personal and non-work related stuff. It made it all pretty awkward for everyone else in the area and hard to get your work done. Why they weren’t embarrassed about fighting in front of half their coworkers I will never understand. I also don’t know why they didn’t take it outside…

  36. I'm Not Phyllis*

    Yah, PDAs are a serious no-no at work, and I’m surprised that nobody has mentioned this to them before now (like, I don’t know, their managers!).

    However, posting passive aggressive comments about your coworkers on social media, while at work no less, isn’t cool either.

    Alison is right – they both need to be told to act more professionally, no excuses.

  37. animaniactoo*

    Alright, here’s what I want to know:

    Is Sophie going over to Matt’s desk for work related reasons, or just to visit?

    If Sophie is only going over to visit (even mostly), then the constant visits are out of line and completely unprofessional, and would be regardless of whether or not any PDA is involved or even whether they were dating or not.

    If she’s going for work reasons, but there’s PDA every time, that’s also out of line and completely unprofessional. Even for a fairly relaxed and loose environment. You’re there *primarily* to work, not work with a heavy side of hanging out. PDA is about hanging out in a casual, friendly environment. Not a casual, business environment.

    A little here and there of either situation, fine. A constant stream?

    No. If they can’t understand that, they’re unlikely to actually be very professional about their work in general, and you need to address it as a matter of professional behavior in a business environment.

    Charlotte – she didn’t mention them by name, but she was clearly transparent enough that other colleagues knew what she was talking about. Again, professional behavior. Bad enough to be whispering it in the corner or talking about it at afterwork happy hour, worse to be leaving it written anywhere that your colleagues can easily see. You want to blow off your frustration, fine. This is not a professional way to do it. What Charlotte did made a potentially bad situation worse.

    As for how Sophie knew enough to look over Charlotte’s shoulder (and whether Charlotte had any right to expect privacy) – well that’s why you don’t write where your colleagues can see it. 6 people liked it. That doesn’t mean that only 6 people saw it. I have $5 that says somebody more friendly to Sophie said “OMG, you have to see what Charlotte is writing!” (okay, maybe they were a tad more professional “Hey, just a head’s up, you might want to cool the PDA some. Charlotte’s on FB posting about how annoying it is.”) Charlotte already gave away her expectation of privacy when she complained where co-workers could hear, and left evidence behind to boot.

  38. Susan*

    I’m 30. I started using social media sites with Friendster in 2003. I bring this up because I was 18 then, and I used it to whine and complain and moan — certainly about both school and work — but I literally had 19 friends so there was only so far it could go.

    I think part of growing up in this day and age is that somewhere along the line, you learn that it’s just not appropriate to complain about work on the Internet because who can view your content keeps getting broader and broader. It’s not against any rule to trash talk a coworker, but it’s just a generally bad idea. I think I learned this lesson in my first job after college when one of my colleagues read a FB status by one of our freelancers complaining about how boring the work she was doing. It left a poor taste in her mouth, and she kind of questioned if she wanted to keep sending her work. That was my wake-up call that little off-the-cuff rants can have a really big impact and just aren’t worth it. Pick one bestie or your spouse to complain to; don’t do it in print.

    I guess my point is, I kind of empathize with Charlotte in this story, but I hope she learned that lesson — that whether Sophie should be reading other people’s screens is irrelevant. It’s just bad for your personal brand to be flippant about your job or your co-workers on-line. It could come back in unexpected ways. Maybe in 6 months, there’s a shift leader position open and someone who isn’t even Sophie but is Facebook friends with Charlotte is doing the hiring and although she generally likes Charlotte, also has gotten the picture that she is impatient with people. Just don’t be negative about work-related stuff on Facebook.

  39. De Minimis*

    I’m dating myself, but my first reaction when I saw title was that people were fighting about Palm Pilots….

  40. Sales Geek*

    A couple of random points:

    I find the use of the word “gross” a bit irritating and at best inaccurate. The best description of unwanted workplace behavior is “inappropriate.” This is the difference between personal judgement (gross!) and managerial technique (inappropriate).

    Facebook — or any social media — isn’t the issue. Posting personal information about other people at your workplace is inappropriate (see above) regardless of whether it’s Facebook, company sponsored email or a chat client. The answer you gave remains the same; it’s best handled either directly or through company management.

    Side note on the social media point: my employer doesn’t have any problem with reasonable use of social media on company time/equipment. It’s not to say that you cannot discuss the company publicly with impunity — many of us participate in personal, technical and professional social media — but posting any specific personal information about your coworkers is grounds for disciplinary action. This holds reasonably well for several hundred thousand employees. We’ve managed a very large collection (hundreds) of internal discussion groups for decades. The policy for what we call social media today is grounded in that experience. It’s simple and very easy to understand so it hasn’t taken more than an occasional light touch from management.

  41. OP*

    Just finished handling things today.

    It turns out that Sophie and Matt had been asked numerous times to knock it off with the PDA and didn’t and the managers weren’t really doing anything about it, so they will be getting a reminder to nip that sort of inappropriateness in the bud and I gave Sophie and Matt an informal warning (ie: told them I’m drawing the line in the sand now and saying no more and next time will be a formal warning with consequences). Matt was fine with it all and seemed quite embarrassed by it all. Sophie was a bit defensive so I reminded her that no one is saying she can’t date Matt but that their private life should be kept out of the office and that she shouldn’t be at anyone’s desk if they are working even if she is on a break. I also told Sophie that while there is less expectation of privacy on a work computer, people still don’t take too kindly to others readings their screens without permission and reminded her she’d no doubt like the same curtosy from others.

    Charlotte actually handed me her resignation. Nothing to do with the incident but she is a law graduate who found work in her field. It appears her snapping at Sophie had an element of “whatever, I’m quitting next week” as she’d been verbally offered the job and just waited for written confirmation and the contract to resign here. I wished her well as the Call Centre was something she was just doing to make ends meet while she tried for a better job in the law field. She chose to use her holiday leave instead of working her notice which is fine. I did give her a gentle reminder that perhaps going forward, it is not the best way to handle things by snapping or venting on Facebook. She said “managers never do anything and they just act annoyed if you go to them with a problem, part of why I’m so glad to be leaving”. So that is something that will also be followed up. She very much seemed like someone at her wits end with everything and relieved to be leaving.

    Also going to get managers to give informal reminders about being careful about what thy write on Facebook and that it is best not to write about work on social media, but that is about all that we can do on that front as we don’t want to get into the business of policing personal opinions especially non specific “vague”‘ posts like Charlottes which could just as easily be written about a couple making out on the bus or comments made between friends. I think we’re all adults and while we will obviously stamp out relentless bullying and incidents of harassment, people won’t always like each other and that’s OK as long as they are respectful when working with each other.

    1. jhhj*

      That sounds like a really positive update. I’m glad you will be following up on the managers who ignored the problem until it exploded, too.

    2. Observer*

      This is a really nice example of HR working the way it is supposed to.

      It does sound to me that you have a bit of a broader problem than the PDA. Charlotte’s comment and bearing indicate that perhaps the PDA was not the only thing that was allowed to slip and that your managers were not managing as they should. It’s always hard to know if a resigning employee is just zinging the management or not. But, in this case you already know that your managers allowed a fairly significant issue to slide, even though they clearly knew about it. That lends a good deal of credence to her complaint.

      I am very glad that you are following up on that. It really does have the potential to create worse problems than this, down the line.

    3. Observer*

      think we’re all adults and while we will obviously stamp out relentless bullying and incidents of harassment, people won’t always like each other and that’s OK as long as they are respectful when working with each other.

      I think this is a very sound point of view. I would just say that real bullying should be stopped long before it becomes “relentless”.

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