embarrassing emails on a coworker’s phone, secret drinking parties, and more

It’s five answers to five questions. Here we go…

1. Should you alert a coworker that potentially embarrassing emails are visible on her phone?

Last week, a good friend of mine was in a meeting with a colleague who he gets on with very well with. She left the meeting briefly, leaving her phone on the table, and he saw an email come up from a business with an obvious BDSM-related name.

He’s thinking about alerting her to this so she can be more careful about phones at work, adding something along the lines of “Of course, more people are into kink than let on, including yours truly!” Outing himself as also into BDSM would lessen her embarrassment. And since they’re developing a friendship, perhaps it’d be good for them both to know they have this in common, rather than just him. Should he say anything? He’s NOT interested in her romantically, by the way. Both are in stable relationships and he’s met her partner.

I think he should just pretend he didn’t see it and not say anything. She’s an adult who can presumably figure out that she might want to take precautions with her phone, and any benefit of him tipping her off is outweighed by the potential awkwardness of saying something. (Plus, so many spam messages have questionable stuff in the header info that that gives her some plausible deniability if she wants it.)

But regardless of what he decides, he definitely should not make the “including yours truly” remark — most people do not want information about their colleagues’ sexual interests, whether they happen to share those interests or not, and the potential for making her uncomfortable is way too high.

2. Senior employee is inviting junior staff to her house for drinking parties

I have a problem: a senior staff person is going through a divorce. She’s been open about how she’s happy to be dating and even shares stories about her dates. This has started to cross the line of what is appropriate to share in the work place (lots of details and very long, drawn-out conversations are happening).

She has also been inviting lower level employees to her house to drink. She is not their supervisor, but she does assign them work at times and is senior staff, meaning she does has some authority.

I know I need to talk with her, about the oversharing and about the parties. My question is what do I say? I can’t control what my employees do during their free time, but I’m concerned this dynamic is unhealthy. I say secret parties because not everyone on staff is invited or even knows about the parties. I overheard a conversation, which is how I know.

Yeah, this is tricky. I don’t think you should tell her that she can’t socialize with her coworkers outside of work, but I do think you’re right to be worried about the dynamic when she’s senior staff and they’re much more junior. I’d think really hard about what it is that you’re worried will happen, so that you can figure out if it’s something it makes sense to talk to her about. I suspect a lot of this is that it just … feels unseemly. I can totally understand feeling that way — I would too — but ideally you’d make it more concrete than that.

However, you might be able to parse it out into something that truly does impact work. For example, if she’s blurring the lines with people who she has some authority over when it comes to evaluations, raises, and assignments — and raising questions about favoritism or objectivity or their ability to look to her as a leader — that’s potentially a legitimate issue (although the leader thing gets really fuzzy, and you’d want to get as concrete as you can there).

And you can definitely talk to her about the long, drawn-out dating stories with inappropriate details. She’s senior staff so you should be able to use a light touch there and expect her to respond appropriately. (If she doesn’t, that’s a bigger issue for someone in a senior role.) You can frame it as “I’ve noticed you’re spending a lot of time sharing dating stories. Can you keep an eye on that and make sure you’re not sharing details that could get us into inappropriate territory? Not everyone will be comfortable hearing things like what you shared yesterday about X, even if they don’t let on in the moment.”

Read an update to this letter here.

3. Should I send a “pre-thank-you” before I’ve even been invited to interview?

I am considering sending a pre-thank-you card. I have not yet been asked to an interview, but I’m feeling very positive about the company. I was thinking of something along the lines of, “I look forward to interviewing with you. I can’t wait to show you how my work skills relate to your job position. I would love to work for your company and hope to hear from you soon.”

I looked online and some sites made negative comments about doing this. What would you advise?

Don’t do that. You applied and so they already know that you’re interested. Now the ball is in their court to contact you if they’re interested too.

Sending a “pre-thank-you” card would come across as pushy and pretty strange.

4. Requiring people to come in on a company-wide day off

If my company gives all its employees a paid day off, can my department manager override that and require his direct reports to come in and work on that day?

Yes, although from a morale perspective it’s a bad idea to do that unless (a) it’s truly unavoidable and (b) he gives everyone a different day off to make up for losing that one.

5. Do people ever recognize themselves here?

I have been reading your site for years and I’ve always wanted to know if you’ve ever run into a situation where a reader recognized themselves as the person who was being written about in a submitted question and what the outcome was?

I can think of one time that I know that it’s happened: I removed a letter after getting multiple credible reports from others involved in the incident that the facts reported in the letter were incorrect (and that the letter was causing lots of drama in their small community). And sort of relatedly, years and years ago, I once got an email from the friend of a letter-writer, privately telling me that the real story was far different than what her friend had portrayed in the letter.

What I think happens much more often is that people think they recognize a company/manager/colleague because the situation sounds similar, but most of the time when I hear people say that, it’s about situations that are so common that it’s pretty unlikely that they’re identifying anyone. (I mean, if you think you know the liver boss, it’s probably him — because how many of those could there be? — but most situations aren’t quite so rare.)

{ 326 comments… read them below }

  1. seejay*

    LW#2: The previous CEO of my company would have a yearly staff party where he’d invite all the new people in the company (anyone who’d been with the company for under a year) to his house for a big bash and drinking party and what not. It was apparently a known celebration and not a raucous questionable event, but I heard “stories” from a few reputable people that made me do an eyebrow raise. These usually went on later in the evening after the early-birds would leave and others from the company (not from the original invite list) would show up. It was pretty well-known among certain circles about the types of parties that went on at his house (nothing *that* scandalous that it would wind up on front page news, but definitely not something that should be going on with the CEO and lower level employees and mixing up with management).

    I like my managers, I like hanging out with them and all after hours, but yeah, there’s got to be a pretty clear distinction with the partying in my opinion. >>

    1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      I think the most important thing for OP#2 is going to be figuring out the impact of your employee’s outside activities on specific business issues. Alison’s advice is bang on—you don’t want to frame this in personal terms.

      So don’t make it about the socializing—make it about the power inequality with junior staff and the impact of that power inequality on junior staff’s ability to raise important issues and feedback. And I think it might be worth obliquely talking about boundaries and “time and place” concerns, which apply both to the long stories and to the evening drinking times.

      Part of me also wonders if the senior employee may be struggling with substance abuse concerns. It’s fine to drink in the evenings, but inviting people over to drink (as opposed to socializing with alcohol around) with this frequency sounds somewhat alarming to me. I could be reading in too much into the letter, but it sounds like an EAP referral might not be a bad idea.

      The senior employee sounds like she’d benefit from talking to someone in the counseling/therapy sense just to handle her experiences going through her divorce, which may also create an opportunity for her to talk about the other things that seem to be riding along with the divorce.

      1. OP #2*

        I appreciate this input. I think the senior staff person is trying to adjust to being a senior staff person in addition to the divorce and navigating the dating world. This is her first role as senior staff and she just turned 30. The junior staff people she is hanging out with are in their early to mid 20’s.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Oh! That might actually make it easier because you could frame it as coaching her on some of the stuff that comes along with being in a more senior role. (I was picturing her as older and more experienced.)

          1. Casuan*

            PCBH’s about power inequality is an excellent way to frame this.
            And she needs to be told that her conversation is not workplace appropriate. To me, what you described is another version of the receptionist who uses every convo to talk about her family, except you didn’t say “every convo”…. & presumably your colleague doesn’t have a significant other who calls & yells at you.

          2. The IT Manager*

            The divorce might almost be a red herring too (maybe not about her change in lifestyle) rather than the inappropriate relationships. Until her recent promotion these people were her peers; she was them 5 years ago. A reminder that her new role requires her to cultivate a new relationships with people she now has some authority over and should have a professional relationship with is not out of order.

            * She is probably looking to rebuild her friend circle after going through her divorce, but work’s junior employee pool is the wrong place for a senior to be looking.

            1. Jessesgirl72*

              Not even so much she as them 5 years ago. In fact, I bet she’d be insulted at the insinuation that she’s not still them!

              It wouldn’t be unusual for someone coming off a divorce to try to go back to how their lifestyle was before the relationship (or how they imagined it would have been, if they married really young, and “missed out” on all the drinking and sleeping around). It’s more noticeable when the divorce comes when they are older (the mid-life crisis “cougar” stereotype) but it happens when divorces come at 30 too.

              Most people find their way out of it. The problem is that she is choosing her junior coworkers instead of new friends she makes at the club.

          3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            Strongly agree with Alison! I worked at an organization where someone had been recently promoted, and their peers were all within 3-4 years of their age (like your senior staff person, this person was young—28). What they didn’t realize was that they were no longer peers with the people they’d previously been working with, so they started doing kind of skeevy things like inviting junior/new employees out to events where it could look like they were hitting on them or trying to pick them up. (They weren’t, it just looked that way.)

            So this might be a great opportunity to talk about the shift in dynamic/relationships that has to happen when you are promoted to a more senior role.

        2. I Herd the Cats*

          OP2 – “I have a problem…. I know I need to talk with her…” Apologies, I can’t figure out what your relationship is to this Senior Person and/or the company (if it’s in the letter I’m missing it.) Are you her boss? The CEO? Are you HR?

          1. OP #2*

            I am the director of the organization and her boss. I do have access to HR, and our HR is great and very supportive but this doesn’t feel like something I should go to them with.

            1. I Herd the Cats*

              OK, thanks. I was trying to figure out why/how it was on you to deal with… that said, and having viewed some other comments, please give careful thought to what part of this you can address as specifically impacting work as opposed to something that seems distasteful. People overshare at work all the time. They drink with coworkers. Unless it’s carrying over into work, all of the speculation here (does she have a drinking problem? is she having a reaction to her divorce?) isn’t relevant.

        3. DataQueen*

          This can be REALLY hard. I am in the same situation as this woman – I am 30 and 4 or more positions higher than anyone else my age. Everyone else in my position is significantly older than me. I moved here for this job, so the only friends I have are through the workplace. But it’s a constant struggle to maintain those boundaries while still trying to have an active social life. It’s really hard to go to a bar with your friends and they’re complaining about the overtime policy or that we all have to work on Saturday – when you’re the one who made those decisions. So I had to cut down my friendships, and it really really stinks. And it’s really hard! So just consider than this woman might be going through something similar.

      2. seejay*

        Yeah I think that’s mainly what I was trying to get at in a roundabout way too but I’m wording badly this evening (too much homework made my brain numb and it’s not translating to typing properly). I don’t think there’s issues with socializing with senior staff, even partying or having drinks… just the levels and specifically *how*.

      3. Thinking*

        The counselling idea is excellent but I’d be very wary of suggesting substance abuse unless she’s routinely hungover or comes in smelling of vodka etc.

        I feel like it’s more likely she’s lost some mutual friends in the divorce and is trying to form new connections in the wrong way.

        The boundaries seem to be the key issue here.

      4. Lablizard*

        To me, leaping to a substance abuse issue, is a bit of a stretch. However, I have been too/gone on more than one wine or Scotch tasting event (i.e. drinking parties with a socially acceptable name) with a high ranking people and other junior staff. In some cases it was fine (e.g. we all knew each other prior to working together and their role and ours didn’t intersect) and some not so fine (e.g. why were only junior ranked, direct report women invited by a male senior employee?), but the fine/not fine had nothing to do with alcohol. It would have been as fine/not fine if it had been a tea tasting, Netflix binge, knitting party, etc.. The activity wasn’t the problem, it was the relationship.

        To me, the focus on alcohol is a distraction and the OP should reframe it by thinking how they would feel if it was alcohol free parties/activities. From the information given in the update, you have someone recently promoted socializing with some junior staff. This reads to me someone having the same relationship with work friends as senior staff that they had as junior staff. That would be a problem no matter what they were doing.

        1. OP #2*

          This is a good point. She was promoted but it was a year ago. When she was married she wasn’t socializing with any staff beyond normal workplace conversations and the occasional staff party. The alcohol aspecpt to me adds another layer because there is so much that could go wrong (someone drinks so much they get sick, DUI, a drunken hookup).

          1. Rat Racer*

            I don’t think that’s within your sphere to control though. People do stupid things outside of work all the time.

          2. Lablizard*

            Put aside the DUI, drunken hook-up, etc concerns. That could happen no matter who was drinking with whom, since all of these folks drink, and for all you know the junior staff have been doing this forever and the senior just joined a pre-existing group and offered to host.

            Sounds to me like she is trying to establish a post-divorce social circle, which can include work friends, but isn’t thinking through the implications. I would just being up the optics of socializing with staff who she occasionally assigns work and how it might reflect on her if an issue comes up with their work, but leave out what they are doing when they socialize.

            1. OP #2*

              You’re right, I need to get over my discomfort with the drinking. Alison hit the nail on the head when she called it unseemly. I was a manager at 25 (at a different organization) and now am a director at 35 (which is very young for my industry, half my reports are older than me and I’m the youngest director I know of in this industry) so it does make me sensitive to behaviors that carry a risk of being associated with being irresponsible. It can be hard to enforce boundaries with staff but I’ve always done it and it makes me uncomfortable with others don’t.

        2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          I agree about thinking how you would feel if drinking were not involved. I know if the employee has substance abuse issues—she probably doesn’t. I just think it can be helpful to have in the back of your head that there may be a wide variety of things going on in that person’s life. But having those thoughts in your head doesn’t mean you should articulate them when speaking to your direct report. I would focus on the issues regarding junior/senior people, not on socializing or drinking qua socializing/drinking.

      5. Mazzy*

        I reread the letter because I didn’t see signs of alcohol abuse. It doesn’t mention frequency of drinking at all. “Has been inviting” could mean 3 – 5, which is very far from a pattern of abuse.

        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          It was framing the issue as “inviting people drinking” as opposed to “inviting people for social outings.” Again, I’m not saying the employee has a substance abuse issue. I’m just saying it might be helpful to think broadly/forgivingly when speaking to someone who may need support.

          Based on OP’s follow-ups, that doesn’t sound like the situation here—it sounds like more of a boundaries issue, or more of an issue regarding OP’s feelings towards drinking.

    2. OP #2*

      I totally agree. I think occasionally it’s ok to get together as a staff to celebrate or bond but I don’t drink when I do.

      1. Flapjack*

        I also wondered if your workplace has any guidelines or policies around professional boundaries? Mine does. It says they understand people may form friendships at work but to be mindful of power differences etc.

        1. OP #2*

          Mine does, but only that a supervisor can’t date a member of their staff or hire a friend or relative.

      2. Emi.*

        To my mind, the drinking is less of an issue than the secret-/exclusive-ness of the parties, because that sends up all kinds of favoritism red flags. Even if she’s not actually playing favorites, this is prime rumor mill material. “I hear Jane’s been throwing parties, but I never got invited, and now I got a bad assignment but Wakeen got a good one. Dun dun dun…”

        1. OP #2*

          That’s a really good point I didn’t even consider. If I was able to figure out what is happening other people might have as well.

          The nature of my job is that I’m out of the office quite a bit at meetings.

        2. LBK*

          Yeah, that made my ears perk up more than the drinking – managers should be steering very clear of anything that might give the impression of them having an “inner circle” like this.

  2. all aboard the anon train*

    #1: I’m kind of curious why he was close enough to even see an email that showed up on her phone. Even when I’m sitting right next to someone, I often can’t make out what the texts or emails on their phones say. That said, I agree with Allison. Saying something about content on phones at work could run the risk of coming off as condescending or infantilizing. Most adults are probably aware they should leave their phones or personal emails open when they step away from their desks, but it happens.

    Also I don’t think outing his sexual kinks would lessen the embarrassment. It might cause things to be more awkward. As an example of a totally different nature, I hate when other people suspect I’m queer and out themselves as queer in an effort to get me to out myself. It’s usually pretty obvious that they’re trying to say, “hey, I’m queer and I think you’re queer, so let’s talk about it!”

    It doesn’t make me feel safer and I don’t care that we have something in common. I’m glad they feel comfortable enough to talk about their sexuality at work, but I don’t want to discuss it at work and it can be really, really embarrassing to have that situation unfurl.

    Things that are private in nature are things you should let the other person bring up first. It’s in poor taste to try and pry it out of them, even if you share that thing in common.

    1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      Yes to all of this, but I really want to emphasize the part about outing himself. In 99% of workplaces (particularly the functional ones), no one wants to know this level of detail about their coworkers’ private lives, and talking about it will make it weirder, not less embarrassing.

      [Aside: Why should your friend’s coworker be embarrassed? He’s the one who was so close to her phone that he could “pry” by reading what popped up on the screen—it’s not like she broadcast this on a projector screen. She hasn’t done anything wrong, and OP’s friend should probably try to avoid reading people’s screens.]

      I want to be clear—I’m not saying that OP#1’s friend should be ashamed of his kink. But regardless of how platonic or “off the market” you think you are, telling someone you read an email that you think is about BDSM and then mentioning you’re into BDSM is going to look like a creepy come-on. And what if the email had nothing to do with her BDSM preference, but rather, a friend’s? Your friend should let this go, OP.

      1. Emilia Bedelia*

        Yes- that remark immediately sounded to me like he was sneakily trying to invite her to do kink stuff with him. With the uncomfortable subtext that he now knows something embarrassing about her….that she may not want others to know… so she may not want to get on his bad side…. even having that dynamic of one person who knows a secret about the other can ruin a friendship.

        There is no way that this will not be weird, OP #1- tell your friend to keep his mouth shut!

        1. OP 1's friend*

          I made that exact point to him about how in a worst-case scenario it could come across as blackmail! He knows I asked AAM so I am curious to know what he thinks of her reply.

          1. OP 1*

            Same person. I just realized that I am technically OP1 not OP1’s friend since I wrote in not him! I hope he will chime in at some point though.

          2. Lablizard*

            Maybe ask him what he would do if this was a male colleague? If his answer is “pretend I didn’t see it”, hopefully he can see the issue and will decide discretion is the best choice.

        2. Emi.*

          Even if it doesn’t sound like blackmail, it’s going to sound like a come-on. There’s no good way to bring this up, and no particularly good reason to try.

      2. snuck*

        ” But regardless of how platonic or “off the market” you think you are, telling someone you read an email that you think is about BDSM and then mentioning you’re into BDSM is going to look like a creepy come-on ”

        This. So many times this.

        Many, many women are subjected to many, many micro passes/sexualised communications a day, not necessarily from you or you or you, but from him or her or him or him here and there and everywhere. Even if the intent is to be cool, uninvolved but supportive, whatever.. WHATEVER… do not mention sex at work. Many of the micro sexualisations are presented in a way that is supposed to be complimentary or supportive, but are still sexualised or attractiveness comments. Smile more love. Why won’t you smile at me? That’s a nice skirt/shirt. I like those heels you are wearing. I’m just letting you know your emails about BDSM… I saw it… I’m not a creep but yeah, I’m into it too, so it’s ok to talk about it… and just say I can read your emails when you leave your phone near me…. not creepy at all.

        (When was the last time a guy was complimented on his shoes? Or the hem of his trousers? Or the style of shirt? Or his emails on his phone? We have complete double standards about women and men, and unfortunately this stuff feeds the wider assumptions people make about each other. If you don’t want to be seen as inappropriate NEVER touch inappropriate material.)

        1. xyz*

          Omg, yes. Even if he truly means well, I can almost picture the wink and smirk. What does he imagine the woman will say in response? It’s just gross. And I don’t mean that as a judgement about BDSM. If it had been a message from her husband saying “can’t wait to make love tonight”, would he say “you know, I also like to make love to my wife”???

          1. Mookie*

            “you know, I also like to make love to my wife”???

            Seriously. It sounds ridiculous until you’ve had it happen to you multiple times: lesbians, queer, pan- and bisexual women telling me they, too, like the ladies (Tommy Lee Jones voice: I DON’T CARE), and cis men either trying to engage me in a discussion about their shared love of teh sex with teh women or explaining that if it’s heterosexual, it doesn’t count (I STILL DON’T CARE ). So inappropriate it makes me queasy. I am not defined by my orientation and every casual conversation doesn’t have to involve my special brand of deviant sex, ya goobers.

            1. Lora*

              Yes, this. Just because we have a private life thing in common does not mean I won’t have to stare at pictures of puppies and kittens to scrub the horrible images from my mind. I don’t even want to imagine my colleagues undressed, much less actually see them or even have the potential to see them in situations like that. Like, can’t we just agree to discuss our yards​/movies/what was on sale at PetSmart over the weekend at work?

              1. Czhorat*

                What was on sale at Petsmart? You mean like collars and leashes?


                I one hundred percent agree; it’s not an appropriate topic for the office or, for that matter, most settings.

            2. all aboard the anon train*

              Sometimes I’m blown away by the lack of etiquette in the LGBTQA+ community. You’d think other queer identifying people would understand not everyone wants to be defined by their sexuality or talk about it with people they’re not close to. I’m pretty wary of other queer people who insist on outing people or asking about outright about someone’s sexuality. It’s none of their business and they don’t get a free pass on asking about my sexuality just because they’re also queer.

              1. Jadelyn*

                I think for a lot of us it’s excitement/craving for community. There are a lot of queer people who don’t have access to queer community for various reasons, so when they meet another person who reads as being “one of us” out “in the wild”, as it were, there’s a craving for connection with one’s own kind that can lead to getting careless or inappropriate with boundaries and questions.

                Which isn’t to excuse it – it’s still not okay – but I can understand the urge. I’ve never actually spoken up inappropriately because I’m too shy most of the time, but especially in my baby-queer days I definitely felt that impulse.

          2. General Ginger*

            There really is no non-creepy way to say, “hey, I saw something on your phone that made me believe you’re into kink X, I thought you should know. It’s OK, I’m also into kink X, and really, it’s OK, because that’s independently of you. Oh, and we still have to work together now that you know this.”

        2. Gadfly*

          OP, please, oh pretty please, for all of us: Ask him what he would do if she was a guy? Would he be thinking of having this conversation or not? And then report back.

          1. OP 1*

            Would it make a difference if I told you he is a bisexual who prefers men? I’ll see if I can get a direct answer though.

            1. snuck*

              Nope. Unless he is in an industry where talking about sex is the norm (adult films, fertility or geology as far as I can tell) why on earth is this relevant?

                1. snuck*

                  Also “It’s ok, I’m bisexual but prefer men” does not make this any better.

                  “It’s ok, I am into BDSM too, but not with you, I’m not attracted to you” is a fine way to get yourself an appointment with HR and Management.

                  This whole thing is completely weird, inappropriate and frankly… high schoolers reading each other’s diaries.

                2. hermit crab*

                  I was a geology major in college and, yeah, do you know how many inappropriate puns you can make with geology terms?? :)

                3. snuck*

                  I have rock licker friends… I know just how smutty some can be, good times, good times. Puts the electrical engineers firmly in their place.

                4. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

                  Aren’t geologists kind of infamous for their exploits when they’re in the field?

                  I’m just kidding. It’s hard not to joke when you get to talk about “bedrock,” though.

              1. OP 1*

                Well, you obviously thought he would react differently to a male coworker, or why ask the question?

                1. Myrin*

                  There seems to be a confusion on both sides in this thread: The person asking if your friend would do the same with a male coworker and the one answering your answer to that are two different commenters. Likewise, snuck, while I agree that it’s inappropriate no matter the genders and orientations involved, OP was simply answering Gadfly’s question.

            2. Gadfly*

              Nope, because it isn’t just about sex. It is like interrupting women: everybody does it. It is a perceived power issue.

              1. LBK*

                In the specific context of this situation, it definitely seems like a sex thing…if the problem is that it will look like a come-on, I’m pretty sure his sexuality is relevant.

          2. OP 1*

            I can report back! He said in general more likely to mention it if the colleague were male.

            He also thinks you all muat have bigger meeting rooms than his workplace with regard to: “how did he see her e-mail?”

            1. Lablizard*

              I have been in his shoes before and have inadvertently seen a private email on more than one person’s phone. The best choice is to pretend nothing happens the same way you do if you overhear part of a private conversation. For all he knows, it was a spam message that slipped through the filter, so it could get very awkward, very fast.

              1. Purest Green*

                Same. Our conference tables are small and the chairs are close together. Add the fact that the phone lights up and makes a movement, and my eye is going to catch it.

                1. copy run start*

                  This is why I keep mine face down during meetings. It still vibrates so I know there’s a message, but it’s less distracting if there’s a lot of messages flying around on a distro.

                  I also have a separate personal phone though that I don’t bring anywhere past my desk.

                2. Jessesgirl72*

                  Yes, my phone is either face down, or I use a wallet case now, so the case is closed. It’s less distracting to me in a meeting, too. If I have to reference something on it, I turn it back over/closed when I put the phone back down.

                3. Lablizard*

                  Come to think of it, I had a co-worker comment on one of my messages once. They saw I had a reservation at a restaurant and commented on how much they liked it and told me about their meal. I was a bit pissed off because it felt like they violated the unwritten rule that private things are private at work, even if you inadvertently become aware of them because of proximity. It wasn’t something I addressed with them, but I made sure to never have my phone visible to them when we met after the comment.

              2. paul*

                Been there, done that. If we’re all around a six foot folding table for a department meeting and you’ve got a large iPhone on the table…well, seeing your email isn’t hard and can and has happened entirely by accident.

            2. Thlayli*

              Yup! As I mentioned elsewhere if someone left the phone on the desk beside me and it pinged I would automatically glance at it and if I saw a small amount of text on the screen I would have read it in that glance. And the way the letter is written it seems that is exactly what happened – she left the phone beside him, it pinged, he glanced at it (because all mammals instinctively look to see what caused unexpected noises, because evolution), and while glancing he saw the subject line of the email on the screen and for many many people to see text is to have already read that text.

              People are acting as if he picked up her phone and opened the email but the letter actually says he just saw the subject or sender or something, not that he read the email. Lots of phones have that sort of info pop up on the screen without having to unlock it.

              1. Blue Anne*

                This was what I thought too, it’s pretty easy for that to happen. I’ve definitely read the start of colleagues’ texts from their spouses when we were all squeezed around a table in an audit room.

            3. k*

              I’ve seen parts of messages on other people’s phones if they’ve left them out. If you’re sitting next to them in the meeting the phone is likely less than a foot away from you on the table.

              A lesson we can all learn here…either put your phone away or find the setting on your phone to stop a preview of messages from coming up. You can usually set it so that it either just shows the name of who the message was from, or just a generic “New Message” with no details.

            4. The Final Pam*

              My office is cramped so I sit RIGHT next to someone daily. About two feet away, definitely closer than most meeting rooms would sit. I’ve never seen anything on her phone.

            5. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

              Naw, I’ve been in small workplaces and meeting rooms. I think this is a curiosity thing. For example, I am a terrible eavesdropper—I don’t do it on purpose, it’s my default to listen to EVERYTHING around me. So as an adult, I have to actively not listen. I think phone screens are kind of like that. I could see someone’s screen, but I go out of my way not to. :)

      3. Mookie*

        Why should your friend’s coworker be embarrassed.

        Exactly. And why does he automatically presume she would be, in the normal course of things (the normal course located outside a professional context where personal lives are more than usually guarded)? This interest in ‘coaching’ her to navigate a kink identity in public is, as all aboard the anon train says, condescending as all get out. I’m not liking the notion that he wants to share a secret with her, while also pressing her to stay invisible to avoid prejudice.

      4. Alton*

        Also, women in particular often receive creepy come-ons from men regarding kink. It’s an extremely common problem in the BDSM community, so I think it’s really best to avoid any sort of hinting that could be read that way.

    2. Anon for this answer*

      Exactly. Exactly.

      If this happened to me I would feel seriously harassed. Partly because I do not want to know what we both have in common in regards to sexual preferences (what next, shall we discuss whether we both like oral?) and partly because of issues of discretion, which I’ll get to in a minute.

      I’d also like to be clear about something: BDSM is not one kink, but a lot of different ones. The fact that two people in some way identify with the concept doesn’t mean they have one set thing in common. A lot comes under that monicker.

      Members of the BDSM community understand the concept of discretion and not ‘outing’ each other. If your friend being into BDSM means he likes some aspects of kinky sex, not that he’s in any way a member of this community (which is fine, I’m not trying to nitpick how he describes himself, just saying it can mean both these things) he may not realise a) how out of line it is to ‘out’ someone or make them feel like there’s a risk of this or b) why this is such a problem.

      Sure, lots of people think they’re kinky after watching Fifty Shades or whatever. But in reality BDSM is extremely stigmatised, misunderstood, spuriously reported to authorities, treated as unhealthy and pathological by mental health professionals and confused with abuse or self-harm (kindly do not debate this in response, this is my sexuality, please respect it) and may be sacked from certain types of jobs if outed.

      Maybe your friend actually thinks he needs to mansplain privacy. Or mansplain kink (the way he’s phrased this makes it sound like he thinks he knows more than her). Maybe he likes the idea of the frisson of sharing this. But he needs to STFU. Emphasising you have sexual preferences in common is never okay at work but particularly not okay in this case.

      1. Daisy*

        I was thinking it sounded the other way round- that the friend sounds like a person who makes their kink into a lifestyle, is part of a ‘community’. Those people sometimes don’t seem to understand that BDSM is also a thing people just do in their bedroom with their spouse, they think everyone must be thrilled to chat about it.

        1. Anon for this answer*

          True, but those people tend not to be part of a bona fide community as those will teach you norms and boundaries, and won’t tolerate this kind of BS.

        2. Anon for this answer*

          PS please don’t put community in quotes like that. It’s quite offensive.

        3. Alton*

          Plenty of people in the BDSM community recognize the need for discretion, though, and most do have some compartmentalization where they may be open about it in some circles but not, say, to their families. That’s why play parties and clubs have traditionally emphasized not outing people without their consent.

    3. Anon for this answer*

      PS I should clarify. I said expressing you have sexual preferences in common. I fudged that a bit. I didn’t mean your sexual orientation, I meant what you actually like to do in bed.

      Your friend phrases this in a way that suggests it’s the second one, not the first. And even if it’s the first, see above re discretion.

      1. Jeanne*

        I don’t think this can be said enough times since it seems to be an issue. Do not share what you like to do in bed while you are at work. Any specifics are just not appropriate. No kinks, positions, any of it. Also not ok to try to force someone to say they are gay or bi or into aliens or whatever.

        1. Mookie*

          Do not share what you like to do in bed while you are at work.

          Why are you in bed at work? I thought it was standing desks this season.

          1. Biff*

            Unless, in fact, you are discussing mattresses when everyone at work is suddenly in the market for a new mattress (it happened!) We had a rip-roaring debate about sleep quality on latex, wool, memory foam, and sleep number beds. Then it’s okay to talk about the fact that we all like to sleep in our beds.

        2. blackcat*

          Yeah, I’m happy to know *who* the people I work with are dating. One awesome colleague has two partners. Cool for her!

          I do not want to know what she does with these two partners. Not at all. And I have no idea! Yay for boundaries!

            1. NW Mossy*

              I prefer to maintain the polite fiction that all of my colleagues are actually built like Barbie and Ken under their clothes.

        3. Kyrielle*

          All of my coworkers use their beds only for sleeping, or perhaps failing to sleep in the case of the one person I know has insomnia.

          And so it shall forever be in my head…as long as none of them ever burst that bubble by telling me anything else. Which just – no, please no.

    4. New Bee*

      I have some coworkers with really huge screens (the kind that are advertised as being good for watching tv on when you’re out and about), and I have really good vision so I could imagine a scenario where I could read the screen, especially if the notification chimed and lit up. I would still pretend like I hadn’t seen anything though (and agree with Alison there’s plenty of plausoble deniability with something like that).

      1. JessaB*

        I think it’s not out of line to say “Your screen should not be on when you’re working, it’s distracting, and if you weren’t aware your screen is really visible cause it’s big. Which means if you’re working on something it’s not private.”

        Worker might not be aware at all that this is the case. Also personally I’d suggest setting it to A: turn off the screen when not in use and B: use a passcode, because seriously? I’m just a security wonk in general (Mr. B. was surprised when a friend asked him if our system had been gotten by some virus a few years back. He said “No, Mrs. B has our security set to raging paranoia.”)

        So to me leaving a phone where someone can read the screen, and it’s not Mr. B or my sister? Um just no. Not their business and sis and Mr B have the pin for the phone anyway.

        If for some reason my lock screen failed (phone had frozen in a working on something phase,) I’d wanna know.

        1. New Bee*

          It could’ve been locked, but the notification popped up with a revealing blurb. I know on my (Android) phone, I can customize by app whether I 1) want notifications and 2) whether they should show a preview or just “enter PIN to see contents.” All that to say it’s totally possible for her to have reasonably secure privacy settings and for coworker to still see something he thinks is scandalous.

        2. MegaMoose, Esq*

          Yeah, this comment would seem out of date to me. There’s nothing wrong if you want to set your phone not to display push notifications on the lock screen, but lots of people do and still have passcodes. And some working setups are close quarters enough and some phones big enough that I’ve absolutely been able to read glimpses of my coworkers’ notifications. I just do my best not to and pretend I never see anything.

          1. Ama*

            Also every time my phone’s system updates it changes my notification settings. The other day it started pushing notifications from the gmail account I use solely for signing up for sites I think might send a lot of spam — I’ve had gmail notifications disabled the entire time I’ve had that phone and it didn’t push my main gmail messages, just the weird ones.

        3. SimonTheGreyWarden*

          This is 100% why I have a passcode, and why if I DO leave my phone in a meeting, it is always lying face-down. I also have popup notifications disabled. No one needs to know that I read Fortean Times like a junkie, am on a Finding Bigfoot newsletter, or that I get email updates when people like my fanfiction.

    5. Cambridge Comma*

      Yes, OP1’s friend needs to learn to do the adult thing and avoid reading others’ phones or erasing accidentally seen tidbits from his mind. However good his intentions are, he also needs to realise that a phone can’t give him permission to talk about this with a co-worker. She still gets to decide that, whatever her phone settings are.

      1. all aboard the anon train*

        Yes, exactly. I feel like most of us have accidentally read someone’s private text or email at one point or another in our lives, but it goes unsaid that you pretend like it didn’t happen.

    6. Zip Silver*

      I have pretty good eyesight, and it’s pretty easy to read things from a distance on a screen. It’s nice and lit up for you.

      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        Oh, it’s not that I don’t think it’s possible. It’s that I think people should try to actively avoid doing it (even if they can, and even if they weren’t purposefully snooping). And if they can’t avoid it, they should still pretend they didn’t see whatever they saw on someone else’s phone screen.

    7. Sadsack*

      How does anyone know it’s not just a spam email? I get some pretty strange spam and I don’t visit any kink websites. Everyone should just mind their own business.

      1. k*

        I feel like that’s an underrated point. For a while I was getting a bunch of emails thanking me for signing up for gambling websites in a different country. I don’t know if someone was trying to use a fake email address, or miss-typed theirs, but either way they were not for me. It would have been super awkward if a co-worker saw my phone and then tried to bond with me over their love of online poker, and that’s a fairly tame subject matter.

      2. Kaybee*

        Related, I have one of those simple email addresses that everyone and their brother tries to use. I get signed up for so many sites and mailing lists, including those with adult themes. Periodically I’ll go through and unsubscribe and reclaim (and delete, when applicable) accounts made with my email address. (It’s such a problem that sometimes I think about changing my email address, but I’ve had it for so long now.) But you *really* can’t make any assumptions about me from what pops up on my phone. (Mostly, folks would think I was super athletic and outdoorsy, and I’m… not.)

        1. Turtle Candle*

          I was just coming here to say this! I have an email address that’s moderatelycommonfirstname.extremelycommonlastname@gmail.com. I get at least twenty mis-aimed emails every day. One day I got thirty ‘reset your Facebook password’ emails in ten minutes, because apparently whoever it was just kept having Facebook resend the reset email when she didn’t get it (because of course she didn’t get it, because she used the wrong email address!). But normally it’s a steady stream of “here’s the receipt lamp you ordered from CozyOklahoma.com” (I do not live in Oklahoma) or “the service appointment for your Honda is coming up!” (I don’t own a Honda).

          It is well within the realm of possibility that one of these confused individuals would sign up for something porny under my name.

    8. The IT Manager*

      Yes! There are few things about this letter that make me think it’s really about the guy who saw the email.

      1) There’s something disingenuous about “saving her from future embarrassment.” She’s not embarrassed now, but she might be to discover that her phone accidentally outed her to a colleague or that a colleague misinterpreted something and made false assumptions about her. It feels like he wants to discuss this for himself and not her.

      2) Why would his idea include informing her of his kinks? I think there’s an ulterior motive. It feels like he’s looking to male a friend at work to talk to about their common interest. Or much worse, he’s interested in a relationship with her. Unfortunately women get a lot of unwanted sexual interest despite being in relationships so this could be particularly uncomfortable for her. Discussion of sex lives and other private topics shouldn’t occur at work or with workfriends.

      1. Umvue*

        Yes, this. OP1, I could be wrong, but my gut tells me your friend is probably trying to creep on this woman.

        1. JB (not in Houston)*

          I don’t think there’s enough there to assume that’s what he’s trying to do–I agree with Always Anon below that he probably just wants to have someone at work he can be out to and talk to about it. But creepy is probably how it would come across, so it’s not a good idea.

      2. Always anon*

        Agreed. Since he gets on well with her, I’d be inclined to believe that he just wants to develop more of a friendship outside of work – but this isn’t the way to do it. It definitely reads like he wants to discuss kink with her, which I get, but that’s what Fetlife’s for. Don’t bring up any kind of “this is what I do in the bedroom” at work, certainly not while mentioning that you crossed a boundary (even accidentally seeing an email can come across as crossing boundaries). OP1, I’d tell your friend to find another outlet for kink discussion, and stay well away from bringing it up at work. There’s just too much potential for trouble, especially in a situation where she has to be nice and civil to him. As another commenter here said in another post, “there’s a certain value to pretending all your coworkers are Kens and Barbies under their clothes.”
        At the most, a quick “Hey, just to let you know it’s easy to see what comes up on your screen during meetings. Thought I’d mention it in case you didn’t know and wanted to change your settings.” might be okay, depending on their relationship, but I wouldn’t get any more specific than that.

    9. Falling Diphthong*

      We’re programmed to look at something that just changed in our environment, like sudden movement. (TV shows do this so ubiquitously by flipping the camera view that we stop noticing the constant “look; look; look; look” signal. Unless you watch very little TV, and then it’s jarring.) I would probably glance at any device near me that lights up with a message, just like I would look that way if a frog hopped over.

      1. JB (not in Houston)*

        You’re not the only person who has said something like this, and I agree that the OP’s friend almost certainly didn’t intend to snoop. But I want to push back against the idea that we as a species cannot help but respond to phone notifications, be it a sound or the phone lighting up. I’ve trained myself not to look at phones that light up that aren’t mine, or to react to notifications on a phone that isn’t mine, just so I can avoid seeing something that isn’t my business (or seeing something I really don’t want to know).

        It definitely is our natural instinct. I’m NOT saying the OP’s friend did anything wrong or that he could have helped looking at the screen–most people aren’t as weird about privacy as I am, so most people have never thought about how they don’t want to accidentally look at people’s phones and see private information. I’m just saying, let’s not put paying attention to people’s phones in the same category as breathing.

      2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        People keep saying this, so I’ll be brief: The issue is not that it’s “abnormal” to read a person’s screen or be distracted and want to look. The issue is that even with those triggers, one should try to avoid reading phone screens or should at least pretend that they didn’t read whatever was on the screen.

        OP#1’s friend isn’t being creepy or wrong, but I think modern politeness manners require that you pretend you don’t see the contents on phone screens, even if you can or do.

    10. RVA Cat*

      This whole situation is creepy on so many levels. The *only* correct response is to ignore it completely. Also it should be a reminder to OP’s friend to stop snooping on people’s phones.

      All Aboard, your example makes me think of that priceless Key & Peele skit with inappropriate gay co-worker. If only more people would make the realization he makes at the end.

      1. Anontoday*

        My wife experienced a similar situation at work- – coworker recognized a private life connection- not BDSM but still private – and in an attempt to connect, had an awkward conversation. My wife was more annoyed than anything else but a third coworker overheard and went to HR, who fired the coworker who talked to my wife. I don’t know what their specific reasons were but avoiding potential sexual harassment claims was the gist.

        So OP’s friend might consider that aspect as well.

    11. Jaydee*

      It sounds like this was a situation where a notification for a new message popped up on the phone (probably accompanied by a chirp or buzz and the dark screen suddenly lighting up). It’s totally fine to say “Hey Jane, you might want to adjust the notification settings on your phone. When you left the meeting the other day your phone was getting alerts for new emails or texts and it can be kind of distracting in a group setting – not to mention anyone can see what pops up on the phone if they’re close enough.” But with *absolutely no mention* of 1) actually reading the subject line of an email or 2) any assumptions regarding Jane’s sex life drawn from the email subject or 3) any disclosures about your friend’s sex life that he feels are relevant based on his assumptions about Jane’s sex life.

      1. RVA Cat*

        That’s a tactful response – emphasizing the work impact of distracting people, not anything to do with the email in question.

        Also note that the email content is kind of irrelevant to the boundary-crossing. Say it was an email from the co-worker’s church, and someone took it as an excuse to preach at them – still not okay, even if it wouldn’t be as salacious.

      2. SarahKay*

        Yes, this. A polite warning that your phone may be displaying more than you would wish, but *definitely* no mention that you actually saw anything.

      3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        Ooo, this is deft. I agree that if OP#1’s friend says anything, this should be the framework.

    12. Artemesia*

      Yeah this one was way creepy right down to the ‘friend’ needing this advice. It sounds like someone who is eager to share their kinky sex life with a co-worker and looking for an excuse to do so. What could possibly go wrong there?

    13. Bonky*

      Frankly, OP1’s snooping kinkster friend shouldn’t have been discussing what he saw with the OP, let alone with the person who owned the phone. It’s not high school: learn to compartmentalise. So he saw something lascivious: big deal. It’s not his information to spread around the office, and I’m really concerned about who else besides the OP he might be gossiping about it to.

    14. Betty*

      Maybe the email was SPAM?

      Outing yourself as BDSM will just create unnecessary awkwardness.

      Pretend you never saw it.

  3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

    OP#3, I’ve received emails like what you’re describing, and I have never read one that made me want to interview a candidate.

    They come across as pushy and presumptuous, and in the past, I’ve had to really strive to put aside my visceral negative reaction to those letters in order to give a candidate’s application a fair review. I think I’m pretty fair (I tend to review all apps), but I’ve also worked for employers who would deprioritize your application if they received a note like the one you’re describing.

    At bottom, you don’t want to annoy the reviewer, appear pushy, or give the employer a negative impression that they have to overcome. If you don’t send the letter, your application is, at worst, viewed neutrally based on its own merits. With a “pre-thank-you,” you put the reviewer in the position of judging whether you understand that employer’s norms and if not, whether it makes sense to interview someone who may not be a good personality “fit.”

    1. Casuan*

      OP3: Please, oh please do not do this.
      Also— I mean this sincerely— from where did you get the idea of sending a pre-thank you note?
      If the source is anywhere outside your own thoughts, please vet other suggestions from this source. Especially if the suggestions seem gimmicky. Don’t spend your interview prep time by thinking of what you can do to stand out. Instead, keep drilling yourself so you can stand out with good answers & questions during your interview.

      1. Flapjack*

        I did a Google search and found one blog suggesting this but there weren’t any comments. OP, we’d dearly love to know where you saw this so Alison can write to them and tell them to stop misleading jobseekers.

        This ‘technique’ is basically up there with saying you will call to schedule an interview. The problem is that the result is not simply neutral. It’s not that it might or might not help. It actively might – indeed almost certainly will – hurt your chances.

        1. Liane*

          It seems to be a version of the outdated advice to end your cover letter by asking for an interview (“Look forward to talking with you further about my qualifications.”) except you send it separately.

          It seemed to be good advice right after I got out of college, but that was a long time ago.

          1. Czhorat*

            How do you end a cover letter?

            I find “Thank you for your consideration” acceptable. “I look forward to meeting with you” might be a touch presumptuous in an “assume consent” kind of way but isn’t THAT far over the top.

            1. MegaMoose, Esq.*

              I’ve ended a lot of cover letters “I look forward to speaking with you further.” I guess I’ve never really thought it would be seen as anything other than a way to close the letter, and worlds away from “I’ll call you to set up an interview.”

              1. Anonymous Educator*

                Yeah, I really don’t view the two as on par with each other. “I look forward to speaking with you further” at the end of a cover letter is just kind of a hopeful sentiment… and it’s not in a separate follow-up communication.

                1. MegaMoose, Esq*

                  I suspect that the wording of the closing sentence in a cover letter is one of those “highly unlikely to matter” things. Any sort of separate communication is a different barrel of bees.

            2. Flapjack*

              I end with a summary of how I’m a good fit and etc and then “I hope to hear from you soon.”

            3. LBK*

              I usually go with “I look forward to hearing from you,” which I think is open-ended enough since they could theoretically contact me to reject me, and that would still could as “hearing from them”.

            4. Trout 'Waver*

              I’m not sure “I look forward to meeting with you” is presumptuous. We all look forward to lots of things that may or may not happen.

            5. Lablizard*

              I tend to say, “Thank you for your time and attention” because, presumably, if they read to the closing, they gave me both

          2. Artemesia*

            Most of what was written in the ‘thank you’ note could have been worked into the closing of the cover letter. A little flash of enthusiasm there will not seem amiss (not telling them you will call for an appointment of course).

    2. Czhorat*

      This feels to me like the kind of “gumption” interview advice about calling hiring managers directly, or showing up in person, or doing anything other than following the actual hiring procedure like a normal person.

      There’s no shortcut to an interview or to a job. Just send your resume per the hiring company’s instructions, write an appropriate cover letter, and hope for the best.

      1. Mazzy*

        Not even – at least those things take a little effort. Sending an email takes almost none

      2. Anonymous Educator*

        I’d add that in the few times this sort of “gumption” approach might work, that should be a red flag to the applicant: What kind of employer would reward that sort of behavior? Do I want to work for someone like that?

      3. Artemesia*

        The fact is of course that many jobs, perhaps most, come as a result of some sort of secondary personal contact. My own last major job after I lost a job in a merger, came from someone contacting the future employer to recommend me; my own cold letter got a pro forma response — the job interview and rejection arrived in the same mail in two different envelopes. I was hired and worked with the organization for 35 years. So I know personal connection can be vital and sympathize with people trying to do end runs. Networking is critical and it is hard for people just starting out to make this work. Thus we get all these clumsy attempts. But the truth is the playing field is not level and those with ins, are more likely to get in.

      4. Anonymous Educator*

        Nobody’s denying networking can be helpful. But sending a “pre-thank-you letter” isn’t networking.

    3. a big fish in a small pond*

      I totally agree, Princess! I even find it irksome when candidates write this in their cover letters!

  4. Elizabeth H.*

    I completely agree with not saying anything about the email. Honestly, if it were me I wouldn’t even care. There is no way to say anything in a way that doesn’t sound creepy regardless of whether or not he mentions he himself is a fan. I kind of doubt something like this would happen again.
    However I don’t think it’s that weird that he could see her screen and read the email subject line, I am kind of nosy and tend to compulsively read everything within my field of vision, but the correct thing to do is keep it to yourself.

    1. Flapjack*

      I’m nosy, but I try to respect people’s privacy because boundaries are a good thing to have.

    2. MegaMoose, Esq.*

      I’m pretty nosy too, and read fast enough that I can’t really avoid seeing stuff sometimes. I would never say anything about it, though.

    3. INTP*

      Same. If it’s just a few words like the name of the email sender, sometimes I process the words more quickly than I process where they’re coming from and whether I should read them. It’s just information in my visual field. I’d never say anything about it though. Not just because it’s creepy but you might not even be right about her being into it. My gmail app shows all incoming emails as notifications, even the ones that are immediately filtered as spam, and just because a BDSM site found someone’s email for their mailing list doesn’t mean the person actually practices BDSM.

    4. Taylor Swift*

      It sounds to me like the guy saw this and now wants to use it as an excuse to tell her about his kinks because it’s so unnecessary to bring it up.

      1. Taylor Swift*

        And I can believe he has no romantic or sexual interest in her. He might just want to do it because he likes to talk about himself or thinks they can bond over it, but it’s still inappropriate.

  5. Flapjack*

    #3 You already sent this. It was your job application. That was the one and only place in which you could convey the last two sentences. The first one not so much. People don’t react well to presumption. Good luck with your application.

  6. Flapjack*

    #5 I’m so glad you asked this as I’ve been wondering too!

    I can’t be the only person who sometimes starts reading a letter and briefly feels paranoid that it might be about them. I think a lot of people change details (teapots etc) which may help.

    Am dying to know which letter Alison got an email about, though it doesn’t necessarily mean the letter wasn’t true. Maybe the friend was wrong. I mean, what sort of friend even feels the need to do that?

    1. Jeanne*

      A lot of work situations are more common than I expected. I am surprised at the companies who want plane fare back, the significant others who get involved, and those continually contacted after leaving the company. The ones about interviewing and applying are all of us. We’ve all had a bad boss I suspect. Only some very specific people can be sure.

      1. Flapjack*

        There are some really specific ones too though. Chemo interrupter boss springs to mind.

      2. Antilles*

        Yeah, that’s sort of what I’ve realized – some situations that I’ve never encountered or imagined are apparently oddly (sadly) common.
        “My significant other called my boss and demanded an explanation” is a good example: I’ve never encountered it, I can’t imagine a situation where me/my spouse would do it, I’ve never even had anyone in real life mention such a thing. Honestly, I never even considered that as a thing that could occur until I started reading here. Yet every few months, a LW will ask about it.

      3. Artemesia*

        A bunch of the ridiculous ones have happened in my work life — like a spouse begging for her husband’s job after a firing. I think lots of these situations are common which is why a column like this is so helpful.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      When I first started writing this site and still had a regular job, I used to constantly be paranoid that the letters I was receiving were about me.

      1. Flapjack*

        I would so be the same.

        I was going to say the most specific one ever was actually the comment with the Wakeen story. But I bet that’s happened more than once, too!

      2. Doodle*

        It’s become a joke with a colleague of mine — he knows I read the site and occasionally pretends he will submit. “I wonder what Ask A Manager would think about that decision?”

      3. Grey*

        10 years, next month. Congratulations. It’s easy to see why it’s lasted this long.

        Preparing anything for the anniversary?

      4. anon anon anon*

        I constantly think the letters are about me. I’m mortified to type that, it seems really narcissistic and paranoid! But I’ve struggled so much at my job in the last year; every post about a negative complaining coworker, struggling coworker, employee not fulfilling potential, employee with too many personal problems, etc makes me wonder. There are always enough details that I can ultimately determine, “no – this is definitely NOT about me… but what can I learn from this?” One of the reasons I appreciate this site so much, I can see myself in some of the more negative posts and figure out how my colleagues might see me acting similarly in a difficult situation, and I’m learning how I can do better to improve my attitude/performance. (That was hard to write. I’ve been an overachiever and have excelled at nearly everything my entire life, and 15 years into my career I’m having a rough time – essentially being overworked to the point of not doing anything well, with a crappy boss and an unreasonable amount of personal problems hitting all at the same time – and it takes all I have not to let it destroy my self-worth.)

        1. Artemesia*

          Coming to grips with the reality of being a normal human and not the stereotype image we devise for ourselves when young is difficult. I do wish I had wised up about many things including unreasonable self image much sooner. I would have been happier and enjoyed my success a lot more.

        2. Elizabeth West*

          Me too. Although I’m pretty sure none of them were about me, I’ve recognized myself in some of them. Oof.

          Of course that doesn’t seem to stop me from being an idiot. But perhaps mindfulness training will help.

      5. Semi-Senior*

        Only reason I’m reading the comments is because I’m scared Letter #2 is about me! I’m recently divorced and hang out with junior staff who are in the dating world. We exchange stories. Rethinking my life choices as we speak! LOL.

    3. Sami*

      I’ve been reassured by how many people struggle AND cope with anxiety and/or depression while working. As someone with both, it’s nice to know I’m not alone- even on an anonymous forum.
      P. S. Thanks to Alison and many commenters for their compassion.

      1. Flapjack*

        Hey, me too. You’re definitely not alone. I’m glad you’ve found some comfort here.

        1. JaneB*

          Me three – working in academia where mental health issues are really stigmatised (after all it’s all about the brains here! And many of my colleagues are deeply socially inept), it’s so helpful to have advice other than “get over it”. And also very interesting to see how common problems are in the “business world” which we’re meant to be aspiring towards joining!

          I so often want to hear the other side of the story for letters…

      2. anon anon anon*

        me too. I posted anonymously about some things going on in my life last week and got responses that made me cry at my desk. I appreciate the support so much.

      3. SCAnonibrarian*

        Same here – it’s reassuring to know I’m not the only one fighting with my own mind. I’m truly sorry so many of us are in this boat, but I’m awfully glad for such good company.

    4. New Bee*

      I have imagined some being about old me, not current me, because I definitely didn’t know the taboo against microwaving fish until I got here! (Though the staff fridge smelled like death so I like to tell myself my leftovers were an improvement.)

    5. Grey*

      I’m sure this has happened more than we know about. How many of these bad bosses and coworkers would actually write AAM and say, “Hey, that’s me!”?

    6. fposte*

      Oh, yes, the moment I exhale in relief when I realize it couldn’t be about my workplace.

    7. Lore*

      Another commenter and I realized we worked at the same company once (I think in an open thread?). But it’s a big company and we were at different locations, so we were didn’t actually know each other.

    8. irritable vowel*

      I recognized one of my coworkers as a letter writer last year based on the details provided in the letter about our workplace, and a couple of personal details that she gave about herself. (I am 100% sure that it was her.) But I haven’t let on that I knew it was her, because I didn’t want her to feel embarrassed – even though her question was nothing to be embarrassed about! More because I’m senior to her in our workplace. Her question was nothing to do with the people who work here.

    9. LBK*

      Fortunately I don’t think I’ve ever run into a coworker here, either in a letter or the comments, but I am occasionally surprised to discover how many of my friends read AAM. One of my friends and I even text about letters here pretty regularly and it’s often a topic of dinner conversation.

    10. Anonymous Educator*

      I’m always curious to know whether someone else wrote Alison to say “I worked at the ‘quack, quack’ company, too!”

    11. Gene*

      Looking at the referenced letter and remembering the halcyon days when a really active post had 200 comments and AAM didn’t eat up all my free time at my desk…

    12. CrazyEngineerGirl*

      I have often had that same moment of panic. ‘Is this letter about me? A situation I’m involved in? A situation I’m witnessing in my office?’ But I think a kind of cool side effect of reading all of these letters and sometimes recognizing at least portions of them as having possibly come from someone else involved in your work situation or something going on at your job, is that it helps me to see the other ‘sides’ of these things. When dealing with work and coworkers and all the crazy, I find myself thinking about what the other person(s) might say if they were writing a letter to AMA about the situation. What might Alison’s advice be? What might people say in the comments? What would I think if I were reading it as an anonymous letter? I find myself doing this more and more and it has often helped me take a step back, see a bigger picture or details I might have overlooked, and really just be a bit more reasonable.

  7. Stellaaaaa*

    OP1: Yeah, your friend was snooping on someone else’s phone. Even if he just heard the vibration/ringtone and looked over, he’s the one who was inappropriate. What was he expecting to see? A text from the woman’s partner? A call from her doctor? Assuming that he deemed the content of her private communications “appropriate,” what was he planning on doing with the information? “I looked at your phone while you were out of the room. Your mom texted you.” Nope. Any inappropriate content on her personal phone is outweighed by the fact that your friend looked at it.

    1. Casuan*

      This seems a bit harsh. Just as one hears various conversations by dint of being within earshot, often one can see what’s in one’s field of vision without even trying & mobile screens just get larger.
      OP1, for your friend, the appropriate thing is for him to ignore what he saw. For me the problem is that she just left her mobile when she stepped out. She took the risk of someone being able to see the screen, not to mention the risk of theft.
      All that said, if you know that your friend did purposefully look at his colleague’s mobile, please ask him to resist the impulse in the future.

      1. Stellaaaaa*

        Overhearing a conversation is one thing. I stand by my feeling that it’s rude and inappropriate to actively look at and read whatever is on someone’s phone. If you somehow can’t avoid turning your head and focusing on the words on someone else’s phone, you still don’t come off well for admitting that you’ve done that.

        The coworker isn’t to blame at all for leaving her phone out at work, and it wouldn’t have been her fault if someone else broke both her trust (this is her workplace, not a public space) and the law by stealing it. Don’t look at other people’s personal phone screens. It’s snooping.

        1. Apollo Warbucks*

          No one seems to be blaming the co-worker for leaving her phone on the desk. The way I read the letter was the person who saw the e-mail wanted to give her a heads up that other people might see messages about BDSM and not want them to be embarrassed.

          1. Artemesia*

            And see the way I read the letter was that the co-worker was excited about the idea of sharing his kink with her and hoped they could get together over it later. All the ‘prevent embarrassment’ stuff didn’t convince me.

            1. Casuan*

              Apollo & Artemesia: I didn’t mean the colleague should be blamed. What you both described is how I read the letter as well. My original comment definitely didn’t make that clear!

        2. TL -*

          Okay, but I’m a really fast reader and if you put words in front of me, I read them. I try really hard not to but it takes more effort for me to not read something than to read it. So I have read half of an email or texts a lot without even realizing I’m doing it. I just pretend I haven’t.

          1. Lissa*

            Yup, I’m the same way. I think “pretend you didn’t see it” is great advice, but there are a *lot* of people here who’ve said that they read stuff automatically and have done so without being snoopy, so I think it would be good to believe it’s a thing that can happen.

        3. LBK*

          The human reaction to stimuli is reeeeally hard to control, and I’m a very fast reader so by the time I instinctively glance over at something lighting up/buzzing, realize it’s someone’s phone and look away, it’s completely possible I could’ve caught sight of a word or two that in this case would probably give you enough info to draw a conclusion about the topic of the email.

        4. Casuan*

          If you somehow can’t avoid turning your head and focusing on the words on someone else’s phone, you still don’t come off well for admitting that you’ve done that.

          Yes, I agree with this.
          My gist was that one can read something without actively intending to & my comment omitted the qualifier, which is that if one sees [or hears] something & knows they aren’t the intended recipient, then absolutely one should avert their eyes. If a mobile beeps & one sees there’s some message yet can’t read it, it is *absolutely not okay* to read it.
          One of my pet peeves is when someone brings in the post & comments on individual letters: “This looks like a bill & here is some junk mail & the postcard is inviting you to…”
          Whether it’s on a screen or document, absolutely one should never comment on what they’ve seen. And for the post, unless you’re my assistant who is authorised to sort & trash junk mail, then stop rifling through my correspondance. Ditto with my mobile.

          As for potential theft, I didn’t clarify this too well, either. The security-inclined me is always amazed that people leave certain items on tables or in common areas. Offices are tricky because one should have a certain trust in one’s colleagues & this can also depend on the environment, eg: the receptionist might need to be more vigilant than the colleague in a back office, or if the conference room is off of a public area then one should be careful with their belongings.

      2. Al Lo*

        I had a class assignment in college (for a “creativity and spirituality” (I think) class associated with my theatre degree) that asked us to not read anything for a week. It was an interesting week, and there were a lot of takeaways — things like honesty and integrity (the assignment was self-reported, so who would ever know if I read at night), teamwork and asking for help (working with classmates who weren’t doing the assignment to read out loud to us or share notes — especially if they were classmates we’d helped with their assignment the year before), compromise and prioritization (when it really wasn’t feasible to not read, like for classes that weren’t for this particular professor), etc.

        One of the things that stuck with me was how impossible it was to not read. I mean, it was basically possible for me to avoid reading a book or to change up my leisure activities to avoid reading, but it was literally impossible to not read stop signs, TV crawls, store signage, etc. For most people, reading something in their line of sight isn’t actually a choice — it’s like perceiving colour. I see a pink dumbbell beside me; I also see the label on my hand lotion. Both of things things are instantly perceived by my brain at this point in my life.

        I think it’s totally feasible to see something pop up on a screen without looking for it, and to read and comprehend it before looking away. That’s completely normal, but doing anything but pretending that you didn’t see/read it is inappropriate.

        1. Thlayli*

          Exactly. It’s just the title he saw ie what popped up on the screen. It’s not like he picked up the phone and opened the email! I really don’t see how someone could glance at a phone close by and NOT read what was on the screen. Are there people capable of seeing a small amount of text and not reading it? The only way I could do that is if it were in Russian, Greek or Chinese or some other language with letters I don’t know.

          And for those who say he shouldn’t have looked at her phone in the first place – she left it on the table where he could see the screen and it made a noise and he glanced at it. Those noises (a ping or buzz or whatever) are DESIGNED to catch your attention. I don’t think I could stop myself from glancing in the direction of a buzzing phone unless I was actively trying to block it out before it went off.

          1. Hrovitnir*

            I think a lot of people must not automatically absorb words, simply because of the sheer number of people who will ignore 5 brightly coloured signs saying a checkout is eftpos-only or suchlike. I don’t think that can be 100% just actively ignoring everything around you.

            Also I do know some people for whom reading is something they choose to do, and they have to consciously *read* the words. This was quite a revelation to me, as someone who also just sort of absorbs what I’m looking at without feeling like I’m doing anything active (for short signs etc.)

            1. Thlayli*

              Wow that’s bizarre. Isn’t the mind a many varied thing. I can’t imagine that. It would be like looking at a picture and having to concentrate to see the colours.

            2. MegaMoose, Esq.*

              It was very odd for me when I realized that some people have to decide to read something in their line of sight. It was a pain as a child, because I got motion sick when I read in a car, and once I started getting queasy even street signs would do it.

              In any case, I’m not trying to make this a fault thing. I think both people acted totally normally here. Saying something about what he saw, however, would be a bad idea.

              1. Artemesia*

                I do it so automatically, I have been known to get distracted by the articles in the newspaper under the cat dish or at the bottom of the bird cage. I once was called on casually reading the material on a co-worker’s desk in a shared space; I wasn’t ‘snooping’ consciously, but I was inappropriate reading stuff in someone else’s personal space. The person who called me on it was right and I really tried to consciously be aware of it and rein that tendency in. It is pretty annoying to have people read your stuff just because it is on your desk. It is an automatic response for lots of us.

            1. Thlayli*

              Was that to me or Hrovitner?

              Thlayli is one of the characters I identified most with as a child. I still cry every time the book gets to where he finally acknowledges Hazel as Chief Rabbit.

        2. Gazebo Slayer*

          I would nope out of that (and if possible that class) so fast.

          It boggles my mind that a professor would expect students – who usually have other classes, which usually require a lot of reading – to do that. It reeks of “my class is the only important one and the only important thing in your life” arrogance. Not to mention a lot of students also have jobs. (Also, I have the “look at words and automatically take them in” problem.)

    2. Jen RO*

      I don’t think that’s really fair. I’ve seen things on my coworkers’ phones just because I was at their desks, talking, and they happened to receive a text on the phone that was 2 inches from me. It’s human nature to look down if something suddenly starts making noise.

      1. Willis*

        Yeah, I understand how this could easily happen without OP’s friend trying to snoop. And I believe he has good intentions in trying to warn his co-worker against the situation happening again. But ultimately I think the potential for that warning to come off as weird or intrusive (for a bunch of reasons Alison and others mentioned) outweighs the chance that she would be appreciative of it.

      2. Purest Green*

        Exactly. They’re called “notifications” for a reason, and are designed to literally make you pay attention to them. Depending on settings, they light up and move and vibrate and make noise. An eye being drawn to that isn’t a snooping one, but one less likely to end up torn to shreds by a wildebeest in the wild.

    3. INTP*

      Some people, myself included, can read a word or two essentially as quickly as it takes to see the words. I could totally see myself being startled by a notification sound, instinctively looking towards the sound, and seeing “Jane’s BDSM DistList” more quickly than I’m able to analytically process, “this is an email, I shouldn’t read it.” Obviously I wouldn’t continue to read every word visible, but seeing some text on a phone is normal. If it’s important to someone that no one ever read a a word of their notifications they should really disable them.

      1. Red 5*

        Agreed. I also have the immediate “look towards something shiny” reflex that comes with certain attention span issues. I have seen random things on people’s phones more times than I can count, because there’s a movement in the corner of my eye and I look towards it and see “Mom: Don’t forget the milk” before my brain has finished saying “it’s just their phone.” I could go on for a while about how it might be a part of our phone-dependent culture and our obedience to always check notifications, but that’d be a tangent.

        I have to admit though, I’d give said co-worker more benefit of the doubt if not for the rest of the context of the letter, because it would never even occur to me to even bring it up to somebody else and also because he even had the thought to mention he’s also into this, I think that’s what makes it feel weird. Like, take an innocuous situation, I have an app that can notify me that TV shows I follow are coming on that night. If a coworker saw a text come up from that app and then said “I see you like Brooklyn 99, me too! But you should lock your phone” that would _still_ be a creepy way to handle it, and feel invasive. So it being about their sex lives makes it so much worse.

        1. Allison*

          Heck, even if I was watching something on my tablet on the subway, I’d rather not have people commenting on what I’m watching. I know they can look at the screen, I’m not trying to hide it, and I know they’re allowed to strike up a conversation with me (it’s not illegal) but if someone sat next to me and said “Oooh, you like Attack on Titan too?? I LOVE Attack on Titan! What part are you on? Did you know the new season is out? Did you go to the anime convention last month? What other anime do you watch? You should check out this other series . . .” I’d be really annoyed, and that’s if the comments are positive. If they were judgmental, I’d be downright mad. Just because you can see it doesn’t mean you should comment on it.

          1. Red 5*

            Exactly! One time a guy sat down next to me on the train watching an episode of Star Trek that I had just watched a few weeks before, but I didn’t say anything because honestly, who wants to be distracted from Star Trek by awkward conversations with strangers? I think most people know their phone screens are super visible in a lot of situations, but it should just be common decency that even if you see something obvious or because you’re a snoop you don’t _say_ anything about it unless the person starts the conversation themselves. Like, a co-worker of mine sometimes will laugh at her phone and then show me the cute dog picture she just saw. Even if I saw it over her shoulder already, I shouldn’t say “that’s adorable” until she actively shows it to me. That’s just manners.

      2. MegaMoose, Esq.*

        Even if you don’t disable notifications, there are two pretty straightforward bits of phone etiquette here: 1) don’t leave your phone unattended, and 2) place your phone face-down when you’re not using it while interacting with others (either at work or socially). Maybe some of this is my being old enough to remember The Days Before Smartphones, but it astonishes me how many people will just walk away from a device that costs hundreds of dollars, contains massive amounts of personal data, can be used to purchase all sorts of things, and that many of us rely on heavily for both work and personal matters. Back in the day, you might ask a friend to watch your purse, or even ask a stranger in a coffee shop to watch your laptop, but now I see people regularly just walking away from phones without saying anything.

        1. RG*

          Eh, maybe the end of your comment would make sense of the letter was set in a coffee shop, but it seems a bit odd to say that given this happened in an office. I’m not going to ask my co-workers to watch my purse when I go to the bathroom.

          1. MegaMoose, Esq*

            Point, although in an office, there’s the annoyance of the co-worker’s phone ringing/buzzing when they’re not around to turn it off. I think it’s more that leaving phones sitting around no matter where you are strikes me as a bad habit. It’s fair to have some expectation of security in your office or desk, but I’ve found coworkers phones sitting completely unattended in the bathroom (shared with other offices!), conference rooms, and break room as well.

            1. MegaMoose, Esq*

              Even in your workplace, would it really seem like a good idea to leave your wallet sitting on a table in the kitchen while you run to the bathroom?

              1. Jessica*

                If it were a customer-facing area with a regular amount of foot traffic, I’d definitely put my devices away and not leave them around. But in my office, which has multiple levels of security (cameras, badge access), people do leave their devices on a table to run to the restroom, and in the restrooms themselves, the shelf in the entry usually has a bunch of laptops and phones on it while people use the toilets. You have a few near-misses when your phone falls out of your pocket and ALMOST into the toilet, and the shelf looks like the wiser choice.

                It’d just be too easy to finger a thief, and who wants to risk their job and career for a used phone? Very few. It has happened, but rarely and not for long.

                And, sometimes people just plain forget. We have had some downright hilarious floor-wide emails of people leaving phones in bathrooms, meeting rooms, break rooms…even the fridge on one memorable occasion.

        2. Casuan*

          re Two bits of etiquette: YES!!!!!
          Just from habit, even when I’m home I turn devices face-down, certain documents as well.

          re How we process & comprehend infos: Some people are word-oriented & others are more graphic-oriented.
          With the OP’s friend-colleague-text, I could imagine a words-person seeing the letters & a graphic-person noticing an all-caps acronym.

          Another paradigm: A good skill is to listen for keywords. When I was an AA, if my boss was talking with someone, I could hear the phrase “I’ll need to look at that report” & deliver said report. However I couldn’t tell you anything else that was discussed because I wasn’t truly listening.
          If that makes sense…?

    4. kb*

      Ehh, I don’t think it’s inappropriate that he looked over. The information he gained when he looked over falls squarely in the nunya category and he shouldn’t say anything about it, but notifications on a phone are meant to be attention-grabbing. An email subject is short enough to be absorbed moreso than read, so if they were in a small meeting room or close together, OP’s friend wouldn’t really have to go out of his way to read it.

  8. LeisureSuitLarry*

    OP #3: I think you’re better off saying “Thank you for your time and consideration” or whatever in a cover letter. I pre-thank you note would come off as extremely weird to me. Your application/resume would immediately go in the “no” pile.

  9. Matt*

    #1: as soon as I read about the email from the “BDSM business” my first thought was: spam. Of course it’s possible (and not anyone’s business) that the coworker is into BDSM, but to me it seems far more probable that this was simply a spam email. I keep getting all kinds of this stuff, from “100 % better than Viagra”, “penis enlargement”, all kinds of sexual things, recently I keep getting emails from beautiful young Russian ladies who claim to “have found my profile on a dating site” and “want a serious relationship with me”.

    1. Flapjack*

      Also, some companies associated with sex and kink also sell other stuff. I mean, I’ve ordered bras from Ann Summers. I wouldn’t be thrilled if someone saw an email and assumed it was about things that go buzz in the night.

    2. The RO-Cat*

      Now, you take care, those Russian ladies are anything but cheap, trust me! :-D (How I know? A lot of years ago I was looking at an SUV with plates from an ex-USSR country. A very attractive young lady came out of it, so attractive in fact that I forgot myself looking at her. She smiled and, with a heavy accent, told me “Look now, while it’s still free; I usually charge this stuff”). I don’t have any excuse for looking, but boy was she an appearance!

    3. Blossom*

      Or it could be something totally innocuous! I once saw an email on someone’s computer which, judging by the sender name, looked like something rather kinky. I was nosy enough to google it – and it turned out to be about car parts (or bike parts? I forget)!

      1. Mookie*

        I received an e-mail once with the subject line addressing the “compartmentalization of crotch wounds” (arboriculture). I kept putting it back at the top of my inbox just because I loved catching a glance at it now and then.

          1. Flapjack*

            Yeah but really this is just detail that doesn’t affect the overall issue: don’t comment on other people’s personal emails.

      2. Sherry*

        Haha, car parts do get kinky. Master and slave cylinders. Married and divorced couplings. Male and female plugs.

        1. Sarianna*

          So can computing. Master and slave drives (not really used nowadays). Linux commands include unzip, touch, strip, finger, mount, gasp, yes, top, uptime, zip, and nice. Gender changers for ports/cables (two ends which can be female or male in all combinations).

        2. ancolie*

          And car problems, too! My favorite dirty sounding ones are “rod knock” and “piston slap”.

  10. that guy*

    #1 Definitely don’t say anything about the BDSM. Because it could be spam, and besides, it’s private. If you mention it she will see it as an invasion of privacy. But I think it would be okay to say something like “Don’t leave your phone lying around. People might be able to see your private emails and messages.”

    1. Red 5*

      Your comment reminds me, our IT department sends out occasional newsletters (I think they’re meant to be monthly but they aren’t) and if the OP really, truly thinks it’s a problem it’s not that hard to put this into a frame of a security reminder. You shouldn’t leave unlocked phones around in general, so that’s not a bad thing to tell people. Though I do work in an office where people’s phones can contain sensitive information and are regulated, so maybe it’s an easier thing to drop into conversation for us, but we are constantly being reminded about how to handle our electronics and communications through general company wide reminders. I’d wager at least half of them are actually because of a specific person they don’t want to call out.

  11. Greg M.*

    OP 1: “oh hey you’re into BDSM? Me too? why are you calling HR?” that is a trainwreck in the making.

    OP 5: oh yes liver boss…. *Raises hand* I hearby swear to update AAM on any letter I submit.

    1. MommyMD*

      Did you watch Tom Brady on SNL about sexual harassment in the workplace? Hilarious lol. Yeah 50 Shades guy needs to keep his mouth shut and quit paying attention to other people’s cell phones.

      1. OP 1*

        Never heard of this person, but ouch! I assure you my friend, like many kinksters, finds 50 Shades a massive misrepresentation of BDSM.

        1. ThatGirl*

          I’m sorry, you’ve never heard of Tom Brady? The Patriots quarterback? I mean, I’m impressed! I thought he was ubiquitous.

  12. MommyMDa*

    That email could have been spam. It’s totally creepy to tell a coworker you are into kinky sexual practices. Especially with enthusiasm. Gross. And why is he paying so much attention to her phone anyway?

    1. MegaMoose, Esq.*

      Substitute “kinky sexual practices” for “sexual practices” and I’m with you 100%. It’s just as gross to tell a coworker you really like it when the lady’s on top or whatever.

  13. boop the first*

    1. Wait what? Spam doesn’t require you to have an interest, make a purchase or sign up for some website. Just because I get emails about viagra doesn’t mean I have a penis.

    Well I mean, that I know of.

  14. Trout 'Waver*

    In regards to #1, it seems like the old joke about the person writing in to an advice columnist about how to tell her neighbors that she can see them fooling around if she stands on her tip-toes in the corner of her yard.

  15. Detective Amy Santiago*

    #4 – At OldJob we would sometimes have launch days that coincided with company holidays. In those cases, TPTB would usually ask for volunteers to work that day and have another day off because we needed at least some coverage on those days.

    Basically, I agree with Alison’s advice, but it really depends on why the boss is asking his staff to work. If there’s a major deadline or important event that day, I think it’s reasonable but another day should be given as compensation. If the boss is just being a jerk though, that’s a different story entirely.

    1. Garrett*

      When my company is closed, they turn off the AC/Heat. We also are in the middle of nowhere and have a cafeteria, which closes on those days. Having us come in would be difficult. I realize there are mitigations, but that is annoying.

    2. Natalie*

      Yep, we’ve had to do similar when we’ve had production deadlines near a holiday, and we give everyone some extras (dinner, more breaks, etc) plus a floating holiday to use when they want.

    3. Rachel 2: Electric Boogaloo*

      This was common at a few of my previous workplaces – newspapers and an advertising agency. (The agency closed between Christmas and New Year’s Day, but we needed a skeleton crew that week for two of our major, major clients.) Generally, the department managers would ask for volunteers to work those days, and those people were able to take a comp day off on another day.

  16. Allison*

    #1) Sometimes we see things we weren’t supposed to see. Yes, people should be discrete, but people make mistakes. Just because you can see something doesn’t mean it’s for you, especially if it’s very clearly meant to be private. When the wind blows a woman’s skirt up, revealing her underwear, is it okay to whistle and comment on what you see? No, the right thing to do it pretend you don’t see it. Similarly, don’t comment on any e-mails or texts you may happen to see on someone else’s phone, especially if they may be personal or embarrassing.

    #3) Either we want to interview someone or we don’t. Applicants who follow up by saying they look forward to interviewing, when they haven’t been contacted for a phone screen, won’t sway that decision.

  17. Anonon*

    #5 My coworker absolutely wrote a letter about me in December. I was really upset at first, but then realized it was coming from a good place. Although there was a lot of information that she left out that would have provided a lot more clarification about the situation. It was particularly specific to our situation, and she mentioned being an avid reader of the site around the time the letter was posted. It’s a complicated situation because she’s totally valid in her feelings, but there’s a lot more going on that she isn’t acknowledging, and also other circumstances out of her control that she isn’t aware of. I drafted a really long email to Alison explaining the situation in greater detail and giving my side of the story, but then i decided that it wasn’t worth it, and i would focus my energy of helping find a solution to the problem instead of potentially making it worse.

    The comments from other people is what was much more difficult to deal with. Lots of accusations of misconduct and people talking about how they “hate people like that”. I never mentioned anything to my coworker, but as hard as it was at first, I make an active effort to change some of my behavior that was contributing to the problem.

    1. Red 5*

      That’s a good reminder to commenters to be more kind in their replies. I always try to remember there’s two sides to every story, and you never know who is reading.

      I’ve tried to write in for advice about co-workers once or twice, but every time I realized I didn’t know their life story and I couldn’t find a way to simplify the story and not make them sound like a caricature, so I still haven’t even though I could use the help. Maybe it’s also a reminder to letter writers to have some empathy?

      I’m sorry that it happened to you, though I’m glad that you seem to have handled it with grace and dignity and it sounds like things have gotten better. That’s incredibly difficult to do, I’m positive I would have had to get somebody to turn off my internet connection for 24 hours to keep me from responding.

      1. Anonon*

        I think if my husband hadn’t stepped up as the voice of reason after lots of tears and occasional shouting, I would have quit my job and never looked at the internet again. He pointed out that the follow-up comments from my coworker were defending me from a lot of the more extreme accusations from commentators which helped. It was a rough couple of days, especially as someone that is regularly extra hard on myself and deals with a lot of issues of depression and anxiety, and worthlessness, particularly in the workplace. But i think it worked out for the best because it made me recognize how my behavior was impacting my colleague, and prompted me to check-in and have more dialogue about how things were going from her perspective, even if i decided not to mention the source of these changes.

    2. fposte*

      It can be hard to find the sweet spot; we’re trying to rein in tendencies to say “Oh, OP, I’m sure they had their reasons for beating you up under the table” and sometimes we go too far on the side of “The person who didn’t get their reports to you is a hideous troll who should be thrown in a volcano!” Whereas mostly it’s just, as you suggest, human friction.

      1. Turtle Candle*

        Yes. The impulse is to examine every narrative until we find a Good Guy and a Bad Guy. Some of the biggest trainwreck-y comment sections have happened because of that desire, I think–because people just aren’t satisfied with a narrative until they’ve identified the Good Guy and the Bad Guy. Some recent acrimonious threads seem to have boiled down to that (Jack and Liz and the car and the bird, for instance, or norovirus).

        And I totally get it. I want there to be a Good Guy and a Bad Guy too! And sometimes it’s hard to see how it would even be avoidable (I mean, if your boss wants your liver, it’s kind of hard to come up with a ‘there are two sides to every story….’ narrative). But a lot of the time, there really isn’t a Good Guy and a Bad Guy, just a “shit, this stuff is complicated.”

    3. HannahS*

      That’s really interesting (and big of you–I don’t know that I could handle it so graciously if I felt I was wrongly represented on this site). I think it’s worth remembering, as commenters, that there’s a lot going on that we don’t know about, because in any situation there’s a lot going on that the writer doesn’t know about. It’s hard, but important, to strike a balance between giving both the letter writer and everyone else in the situation the benefit of the doubt, without veering off into rampant speculation.

  18. Red 5*

    It’s hard to do when you’re not in the moment, but LW1 there’s an easy solution.

    Next time it happens, when she returns to the room, just drop a casual “Oh, you got an email while you were gone.” Or even “your phone lit up, you have a message.”

    No word on what the content was, if you saw anything specific, etc. You could have been across the room, no need to say anything more.

    Anybody that has thought about their privacy in this kind of situation would immediately check to see what kind of message it was, and even if it was a benign one think “but what if it wasn’t????” and change their settings. Some people might wait until they were out of the meeting to do that, but it either would make her realize the problem and fix it, or she doesn’t care that much and wouldn’t have fixed it even if called out.

    1. fposte*

      I’m not sure about this; at least in my workplace that’s not the kind of thing anybody would bother to mention, so if I were the co-worker I would (correctly) read it as an indication that somebody saw the email.

      Right now I feel like the OP’s friend is kind of in the place of the letter-writer who really wanted to let new hires know she was an LGBTQ ally and was overfocusing on her performing this role rather than its effect on actual LGBTQ people. I think if the friend weren’t in the community he’d just ignore the email and wouldn’t be worrying about whether she should be making her emails private, but because he is he’s digging in farther than a mere bystander should, and he’s not realizing it.

      In short: let it goooo.

      1. Red 5*

        Yeah, the extra details of the situation definitely read like he’s just eager to maybe make a friend or be performative about being accepting. As I pointed out in another comment, I’m just coming at this from a perspective of what would you do in a situation where it actually does matter that information on phones isn’t seen by others, like where I work. But I also have to remind myself not everybody works in an area where the majority of employers are either government or government-adjacent with strict regulations about communications. Back when I was in grad school, we saw each other’s texts constantly, and nobody said a word because nobody cared. But where I’m at now, we actually do sometimes remind each other about the security stuff because we don’t want our friends to get in trouble.

    2. Allison*

      I wouldn’t want or need my coworkers to tell me my phone lit up, or that I got an e-mail. Great thing about phones is they have notifications when you miss something. My phone has an LED light that flashes different colors depending on what it is (blue for most things, bright green for FB messages, white for a couple apps), and there’s an icon on the top of the screen. Not to mention, my fitbit vibrates when I get a call or text, if the devices are synced via bluetooth. If someone tells me I got a message, it would read as passive aggressive, like “I know your phone was on” or “I know you’ve been using your personal phone at work,” or worse “FYI, I saw your message.” And if that is the intent, to subtly let the person know you saw something you didn’t approve of so she feels embarrassed enough to change her habits, that is definitely passive aggressive. Not cool.

      OP’s friend doesn’t need to say anything in this situation.

      1. Red 5*

        I should specify, this is if they were in a situation where it was actually important to think about the privacy of their phones/messages. I work in a place where some people receive sensitive information on their phones and there are specific security steps that they’re expected to take. So in our office, it would be passive aggressive but the alternative conversation would be “you might be in violation of company policy and we’re going to have to get real formal about that.”

        So my advice was coming from a space of “if this is a situation where it actually matters” where in most cases, it’s not a situation where it actually matters. In most offices, it probably is a why even mention it situation. But living where I do, there’s a lot of people who actually are legally obligated not to have this kind of thing happen, because the next message that shows up might not be just personally embarrassing.

  19. La Revancha del Tango*

    #2 I definitely don’t see this as an issue at all. It really depends on the culture of the office. I worked at a huge company and all of the people in my department would frequently go to happy hours or house parties. Even my boss’ pool party!

  20. Sue Wilson*

    1: I don’t think it’s crazy to mention that someone should watch what comes up on their phone. But only in the moment (“you’re phone screen is pretty readable to everyone in this tight space, I didn’t know if you knew” or something more jokey if you’re closer) and only if it’s the phone being open is truly avoidable.

  21. La Revancha del Tango*

    #1 – it would be super creepy if your coworker said anything. I once received a nude photo from my man in the middle of my meeting and I’m sure at least 1 person saw it. Would have been really embarrassing if they had said something! Although, I probably would have owned up to it :)

    1. Biff*

      I don’t feel you are necessarily responsible for someone else’s bad judgement. What if that nude was from someone you’d asked to not contact you again?

  22. Lynne879*

    LW #1: No, your colleague shouldn’t say anything to your friend. It was something not meant for him to see & it’s none of his business what your friend does in her private life. Your colleague should just forget what he saw and move on.

  23. Sue Wilson*

    2: From what you said later, she’s having these parties and talking at detail because it’s likely some of these people were her friends. That’s probably also why it’s quiet and exclusive (she only wants to hang out with friends, but knows her position is different enough that she can’t be open about it). This is a perfect opportunity to coach her about boundaries with former peers and that the higher she goes in the org chart, the more she needs to be aware of how unfair things look.

  24. Sue Wilson*

    3: If you send something that says you’re looking forward to an interview when you haven’t even been asked it’s going to come across as entitled.

  25. Sue Wilson*

    4: There are some companies that would not appreciate a dept head killing their moral initiative, and the answer would be no he can’t actually do so, at least without comping it. But if your company already knows you’re working that day, then your company isn’t one of them. And if they don’t know, then it’s going to be impossible to tell someone who could do something about it without looking like you’re wasting someone’s time. It would have to come up very very organically and honestly not by you. Sorry, that really sucks.

  26. whichsister*

    I was working on site with my boss once and he had his laptop open in the office and his email up…. allowing me to notice the several emails from Adam and Eve. There is no amount of whiskey that washes that from your brain.

    1. DiscoTechie*

      Fun fact, my last company was in the same small office park as Adam and Eve. I always thought it was hilarious when the flyer for the Adam & Eve 5k would show up at our office.

      1. Garrett*

        I used to drive by their building when I was in college. They were often soliciting students to work in their call center. They actually paid pretty well and I considered it, but it was somewhat of a drive.

    2. Fictional Butt*

      A few days ago an Adam & Eve ad played on Pandora while my boss and I were meeting. I wanted to die.

  27. peachie*

    #1: Oh my gosh, he can’t say anything like that! I would be MAJORLY creeped out.

    Besides, an email like that could be an indication of her affinity for BDSM–or, based on the alerts I’ve seen pop up it could be any number of other things, like:
    – A poorly worded (or in poor taste) marketing email from a company trying to be edgy
    – A news alert that looks like an email/text message
    – Something I signed up for or clicked on because I thought, huh, interesting (I still get emails from meetup groups I thought sounded cool and never attended)

    Really, it’s never a good idea to make assumptions or comment about what you might see on someone’s phone.

    1. emma2*

      I have no idea why OP1 thought that adding in the “I like BDSM, too” comment would make things LESS awkward. If he is really concerned with protecting her privacy, he should stop at warning her about the text messages. But, I agree that he best not bring this up at all. Especially if the message subject were actually about non-BDSM stuff, he would be making things even more awkward by volunteering information about his bedroom preferences.

  28. Delta Delta*

    #1 – Replace “BDSM” with any other noun that could be someone’s interest. Kittens, knitting, kite-flying, knishes, other things that don’t start with the letter k. Why would someone a) be looking at a colleague’s phone enough to be able to see the email and b) would said colleague then think it was ok to say, “hey, when I was looking at your phone, I saw that email about the knish festival pop up”? Colleague would probably have the same reaction – why was the person looking at her phone in the first place?

    Also, no, don’t say, “hey, I saw your email and I’m super into that scene too.” That is waaaaay too much information for the workplace. Also, I can’t even start to count how many raunchy spam emails I’ve gotten over the last week. (Sidenote: does spam emailing actually generate business for anyone? It must, otherwise people wouldn’t do it, I suppose) How does colleague even know that’s a real email and not spam? Seems like colleague would be best served to stay quiet and move on.

    1. Red 5*

      Exactly, if you replace this with literally any other interest it stays weird. I think it’s conceivable to just generally glance and notice a word or two, which can be enough (I get emails from LoveKnitting, that’s all you’d have to see to technically have a conversation starter) but it’s never okay to then bring it up because at best it’s tacky and at worst it’s seriously creepy.

      I also get an incredible amount of really weird spam and wonder how it could possibly make them money. I’m guessing it costs pennies to send the emails so if one in a million nets a sucker they make a profit? Plus on top of that I know like five people with very generic email addresses who get so, so, so much email for other people. They’re constantly getting signed up for things they didn’t ask for but somebody with a similar name who doesn’t know their own email did. There’s a great episode of Reply All that starts with a misdirected cookie sales email. There’s too many possibilities.

  29. crazybosses*

    Ok, so true story that relates to letter writer #1. I had a coworker who was into the kink scene. There is a website where you can connect with similar minded people. You have all of your kinks listed and pictures etc. Well my coworker was on the site and inadvertently found our boss on the site. Our bosses face wasn’t in the picture but you could tell it was her based on her age, location, and – well – body. Also we all lived on site and recognized the fixtures. Of course my coworker shared this with me and I now have a very close up image of her ahem private parts ingrained in my retina forever. I never said anything to the boss it would have been too mortifying.

  30. LizB*

    I think the subject of #1 needs to remember the polite veneer of ignorance we sometimes have to have in the workplace. It’s hard to have real privacy when you’re around a group of people for 40+ hours a week, especially with the rise of open-plan offices. So when people are doing something that isn’t inappropriate, but that they probably don’t want their coworkers involved in, it’s really just best to pretend you aren’t aware of them doing that thing. If your coworker is making a dentist appointment in a low voice in her cubicle, you don’t then walk over when she’s done and go “so you have cavities too? I’m getting a root canal next week!” — you pretend you couldn’t hear her. If she’s paying her rent online on her lunch break and you happen to glance at her screen as you walk by, you don’t strike up a conversation about how housing prices have really gone up in the neighborhood you both live in. People get emails on their phones; other people see those emails. That’s normal. But following up on whatever you saw is very not normal. Don’t do it.

  31. Amy*

    #1: Do not tell your coworker that you’re into BDSM. If she is into kink, it’s going to come off at best as oversharing in the workplace (awkward and inappropriate), and at worst as hitting her up for sex (extremely awkward and inappropriate in the workplace, and potentially viewable as harassment).

    Also, don’t tell her you were looking over her shoulder at her private messages on her phone. If that’s a habit of yours, it’s rude and creepy and you need to stop. If it truly was an accidental glance, have the manners to recognize that it wasn’t meant for you to see, and pretend you didn’t see it–same as you would if you accidentally saw someone texting a family member about a medical issue.

  32. Jessica*

    Blech. Commenting on someone’s sexual proclivities as a result of having accidentally seen an email pop-up on their phone makes about as much sense as commenting on someone’s choice in underwear because you accidentally caught a glimpse through the crack in the bathroom stall. Just because you saw it doesn’t make it your business. It was not intended for you to see it, it was on someone else’s private device, and it has absolutely nothing do with you. Forget that you saw it and allow the other person their privacy and dignity. You definitely don’t start a “me too” conversation on the subject!

  33. Rachael*

    OP#1: The root issue of this situation is that pop up messages are distracting…not what is in the email message. I think that people are making this situation more complicated than it is. Before a meeting just address the group and ask that people turn their phones over or put them away so that pop up messages are not seen because it can be distracting. No need to go into specifics and a good reminder to everyone because it will probably happen again. Definitely don’t single anyone out and DEFINITELY do not go into specifics of what emails have been seen. It doesn’t matter.

    That is why I turn my phone over – because I have been obliviously writing notes in a cramped room and glanced at my phone to see….HORROR…..my husband texted emojis of poop and a declaration of how long he has been in the bathroom. Completely visible to everyone. We know eachother really well so it was a good laugh…but it can happen.

  34. anon for this*

    Re #5 — not Ask A Manager, but many years ago I did stumble upon a Dan Savage “Savage Love” question about me!

    (and feel free to judge my past self for this; I am pretty appalled at it myself.)
    I was engaged but panicking about the commitment, and I propositioned a single friend who I secretly had a crush on. He turned me down.

    Then he wrote to Dan Savage second-guessing himself. Dan said something like “It’s up to you, and who knows, maybe she’s marrying the wrong guy and this will help her see it.”

    This response, if anything, intensified my crush. But I decided the ball was the guy’s court at this point and didn’t make a further move.
    And-thank God-he never followed up on it. And I am still married (to the guy I almost cheated on) and I am very happy. Bullet dodged.

  35. Zathras*

    OP #4 – If you have one, check your company handbook, there’s a chance it may explicitly spell out how this works. I work for a large university and our handbook is very clear that staff who are required to work on a paid holiday get either comp time or overtime, depending on the exact nation of their position (there are a few differences for union vs. non, salary vs. hourly, and of course faculty are their own special case).

    I have had to have this conversation in the past with my boss. It’s happened twice now that she forgot to make note of the university holidays, and then decided on Friday that because she overlooked the fact that Monday was holiday, she would make us come to work anyway. (There was no emergency or looming deadline either time, she just hadn’t planned on the short week and decided to make us pay for her mistake.) I told her flat out that in the absence of a legitimate emergency I wasn’t going to be canceling my long weekend on short notice, and made sure the rest of the team knew that they were entitled to comp time if they did.

    If you were the boss in this situation I would advise you to only do it if there was a really legitimate business need specifically tied to that date – a product launch, a conference, something like that. “We have too much to do” is a terrible reason to cancel someone’s paid holiday. Doing something nice like treating everyone to lunch that day helps a little bit too.

  36. kapers*

    OP1, no, nein, non, nyet. No way should you or your friend or bring this up ever again. Let it go. There is no configuration of gender/orientation/kink level/friendship level that makes this a good idea.

    If your friend’s intention is to avoid embarrassment, bringing this up accomplishes the opposite. If your friend’s intention is to not appear to be making a pass, bringing this up accomplishes the opposite.

    He never saw it, you never saw it, please continue to treat this coworker with respect, eyes on your own papers, the end.

  37. EvilQueenRegina*

    There was one time when I looked at the subject header of one letter and wondered if it was about my office. It was one about a job with a “Defence Against the Dark Arts” style turnover, of which there is one in my team about to be advertised for the eighth time in three years (long story). On reading the letter properly, it became clear it wasn’t my office (the job in the letter required spoken Spanish, which mine doesn’t). Sometimes I will read a letter and think “I can just imagine Fergus doing that!” but never recognised anyone for sure.

  38. tigerlily*

    Agree wholeheartedly with everyone saying OP1 should just leave it alone. My boss has been out of the office for the last several weeks due to a surgery and she remote accesses into her computer. Her computer’s right next to mine, so I can constantly see it moving and working when she’s not here. She sometimes forgets to disconnect the remote access when she’s done working and checks her online dating profiles. Unless I thought our clients were going to notices, there’s no way I’m going let her know I’ve accidentally seen her dating profile. There’s just no need for that conversation between us.

  39. sophiabrooks*

    This is possibly a situation unique to me, but my second job is doing costumes for theatrical productions. I don’t use my work email, but I have had to purchase (and still receive emails from), BDSM type stores, weapons/tactical gear, sports teams I do not care about, clothing from many different religions, and Ku Klus Klan gear etc. My amazon history is not at all an accurate reflection of me, for example- I have bought so many strange things that it does not know what to offer me.

    In pre-internet days, I actually remember going to shops and trying different bondage gear, but it is not something I am personally into, just something I needed to purchase for my job!

    So, there could be many explanations, and if someone mentioned even my “love” of the Philadelphia Phillies because an email from their shop popped up, I would be weirded out.

  40. Dave*

    Someone wrote in to this site pretending to be a coworker of a friend of mine because she didn’t like my friend’s venting about her coworker on a non publicized, private, unknown, personal blog meant for that type of thing, all in an attempt to dox and stir up internet drama.

    1. Lissa*

      Ohhhh man. That’s some bad drama. How did you know that it was someone pretending to be a coworker and not the coworker? Details not quite right?

      1. Dave*

        Yes. The aforementioned blog was virtually private, didn’t have identifying info and was only known by a handful of the person’s Internet friends; that context is obfuscated in the letter. It wasn’t about the person, either. It was a personal blog about whatever, with random annoyances of life. Someone on the Internet or a small collection of “friends” decided the writer ‘deserved’ to lose their job for venting.

          1. Dave*

            The person went to their coworker contritely, thinking she may have been the one to write the letter because some of the details seemed familiar, if out of context and without awareness of the real challenges in both people’s lives (at the time). Many details were exaggerated in the letter; the blog writer had had issues with anonymous messages before this. They worked together to fix the relationship.

  41. emma2*

    #5: I have wondered this before! I’ve refrained from writing about a specific situation in the past because I’m paranoid that the exact person I’m writing about will read it and know it’s me.

    There was a letter here in the past complaining about an employee with a nervous laugh. Had the letter writer not specified that this person got a promotion (alas, not my case), I would have seriously worried for a second if it was about me.

    1. emma2*

      Another thing I’ve wondered – although I feel that we might have heard about it if it were true – is that if by chance, you received letters from different people in the same situation. Like LW#1 writes in complaining that their coworker smells or something, and then you receive a letter from someone who would be the coworker complaining about their coworker complaining they smell.

      Although the situation would have to be specific enough that you could tell they know each other.

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