I saw a private text about my intern having sex on her desk

A reader writes:

I have a question about something that happened to me earlier in my career and what I should have done.

I worked in a very small office: the executive director, myself, and an intern (who I managed). Often people would be in the office alone if others were out at meetings or off.

I had gone over to my intern’s desk to help her with a task on her computer, so I was standing over her desk looking down. Her phone was open to a text message thread and my eyes naturally went to it and unfortunately read a text to her boyfriend. Essentially the text said how exciting it was to … have relations with her … on her desk yesterday. She was the only one who had been in the office that day.

I didn’t know what to do at the time, as it felt wrong to have seen the text message, but also it obviously wasn’t a great thing to do at work. I ended up not saying anything and just pretending I never saw it. I think I may have felt differently if she had been an employee who would be presumably sticking around for awhile.

What should I have done?

There’s nothing worse than information we wish we didn’t have!

Your response was fine.

First, you only knew about it because you saw a private text message that you shouldn’t have seen. It would be different if you had walked in on them, or your intern told you about it, or the boyfriend had accidentally sent the message to you — in which case you’d have to respond. But none of that happened; you just saw a private text message. For all we know, this carnal act didn’t even happen — maybe they have an elaborate fantasy life. You could plausibly just write it off to a private exchange that you were never meant to see and therefore don’t have to act on. (Obviously I’m factoring in the level of harm here. If you’d seen a private text message plotting to burgle the building or kidnap your boss or something, my advice would be different.)

However, it’s also reasonable to use it as background information about your intern’s judgment and professionalism. For example, if I saw that message, I’d think about whether the intern could be trusted to work in the office alone … and whether there were security ramifications to her letting her boyfriend in when no one else was around (in some offices that wouldn’t be a big deal and in others it would matter very much). I’d also think about whether it was surprising or not; if it was part of a pattern of bad judgment, it would prompt me to address the overall pattern more aggressively (even if not this specifically).

That’s not to say you couldn’t have addressed it with her directly, though. Just because you saw something you weren’t supposed to see doesn’t mean it’s off-limits to address. It would be different if you’d intentionally gone snooping through her phone, but it was right there when you were at her desk for work-related reasons. So in theory you could have said, “This is awkward, but unfortunately a message came up on your phone when I was at your desk and I couldn’t help seeing it. I want to be really clear that you could be fired for what it says happened — you can’t use the office space that way and you need to realize it’s not private. Someone could have walked in unexpectedly and been a non-consenting witness to something no one should be exposed to at work. I assume that aspect of it wasn’t on your mind, so I need to make sure you understand it’s a big deal.” If you did choose to address it, I don’t think you’d need to say more than that. She’d be highly likely to be mortified, and the message received.

But assuming the intern otherwise seemed reasonably responsible and this wasn’t incident 32 in a parade of problems, I think choosing to pretend you hadn’t looked down in the moment and didn’t see what you saw was pretty understandable too.

{ 190 comments… read them below }

  1. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*

    Oh boy, yeah standing over the intern’s shoulder and seeing that would have made me freeze up in the moment, and then doubt what I actually saw afterwards. So I think you can give yourself plausible deniability in your own head, let alone with others.

    1. many bells down*

      I’ve also been in a similar situation at work – I found some emails that I was very much not supposed to see – and yeah it’s like my brain suddenly can’t process sentences. My eyes skipped around the email and my brain tried to block them out.

      It took me two days to process it enough to report it. The sender was in a senior role and was possibly violating several ethical standards. It’s been 18 months and I’m told the investigation is still ongoing. What I found was the tip of the iceberg!

      1. Anon for this*

        Wow. I wonder if this is a company that didn’t have the tooling to do effective investigation quickly, or…

        Many years ago, I worked for a company where one of their lines of business was tools for legal discovery, mass-extracting content from corporate communication systems and then doing correlations quickly identify cliques talking to each other about things that nobody else was involved in — part of the pitch to customers was that you could use it internally, quickly unravel what hostile lawyers might find, and figure out when you needed to quickly settle. A lot of this used techniques that are very common in “AI” today, but _weren’t_ common yet back then.

        For demoing, they used all the emails that came out of Enron during discovery; it was literally a few clicks to quickly unravel exactly who was at the center of the conspiracy.

        Point is, though, a company that’s investing in their IT tools should be able to figure things out _very_ quickly these days, at least when the paper trail is one those tools can manage (it’d be a different matter if you needed to, say, get a forensic accountant in; or if your conspirators were smart enough to keep everything outside of corporate-monitored systems).

        1. Observer*

          Point is, though, a company that’s investing in their IT tools should be able to figure things out _very_ quickly these days

          Not necessarily. For one thing, as you note some of the “paper trail” may not be in systems that the tools can manage. For another you may be dealing with people outside of the organization which complicates things. Lastly, if legal action may be required, what these tools come up with may not be enough to take action, so things may be kept quiet till the organization gets those ducks in a row.

          And that’s before you deal with the possibility that you get handed something that turns out to be the tip of an iceberg that requires to you retool the whole investigation.

        2. Cmdrshrd*

          “For demoing, they used all the emails that came out of Enron during discovery;”

          I listened to a good podcast on this. Maybe this is what you meant by demoing, but the AI was likely trained using those emails to learn how to detect those patters, a lot of other software such as predictive text was also trained using those email to figure out how people talk.

        3. Tiger Snake*

          One day that might be the case, but we’re not there yet. Even if the AI tools you’re thinking of would possibly let you find things, 99.9% of them aren’t suitable for an investigation because they don’t pass the muster for forensics evidence requirements.

          The 0.1% that do are very expensive and not something most companies would ever think to invest in ahead of time, when they’d need to be in place, because “we trust our staff”. They also usually require a lot of manual overhead anyway, so how useful they actually are is case-by-case.

          That’s nothing to say of the sheer volume of metadata that computers produce. We have forensics tools, they’re very good at what they do – but they still take forever because of how much data there is to go through.

          A forensics investigation is very time intensive, and requires very specialised skills that can, at this stage, only be enhanced with technology rather than replaced. There is a reason that hiring a digital forensics specialists are so expensive.

    2. Juicebox Hero*

      In college, I did work study in the biology and chemistry labs. One Friday afternoon after the place was pretty well cleared out, the lab manager took me into one of the labs to show me something he wanted me to work on on Monday. This lab was mainly equipment for high-level chemistry classes and used the least out of all the labs, and was at the end of a corridor to boot. We walked in on one of the professors and a (fortyish) student kissing. All four of us had a moment of “I’m blind, I see nothing, nothing to see” before the lab manager and I hightailed it out of there.

      We all developed selective amnesia about the incident, but whenever I had to go into that room for any reason I braced myself for whatever I might find.

      1. Quill*

        I’m just hoping it was the instruments lab, because the instruments lab is theoretically food safe (aka you can bring snacks and your water bottle in…)

        1. Juicebox Hero*

          The school had a strict “no eating, drinking, or smoking” policy for all of the labs. And the instruments in this lab were very sensitive, very fragile, and very very very (as in over $100K back in the 90s) expensive: gas chromatograph, infrared spectrometer, high-pressure liquid chromatograph. It was also where very expensive specialty glassware normally got put to keep it out of the way of clumsy undergrads like me.

          So basically if they were doing more than making out in there, they’d have had to be REALLY careful.

          1. Quill*

            Ah, see, we had our Especially Sensitive Instruments in a card access only room adjacent to the “instruments lab” and things like the Extra Large Centrifuge and the second best GCMS in the instruments lab. You weren’t supposed to eat and drink while working on the instruments but if you were in there at a bench doing calculations waiting for something to run you could have your water.

      2. Nina*

        At my college there were three or four doors in the chemistry wing (I have no experience of other wings) that old grad students warned new grad students to approach loudly. Because in a building where almost every square inch of floor space was visible from outside the room (liberal placement of windows, including in the doors), the space behind a door whose window was covered with hanging lab coats inside or health and safety signage outside was valuable.

    3. Smithy*

      Presuming this intern is overall a good employee, and this was isn’t part of a larger pattern of unprofessionalism – I’d have to also imagine that the likely potential of knowing her boss likely caught the text message may serve as correction enough. I know that a lot of my “omg, I can’t believe I did that” moments from earlier in my career that I have remembered and resulted in behavior change didn’t necessarily require getting caught or being reprimanded.

      Just the anxiety of maybe getting in trouble or moments like the one the OP described (i.e. did my boss see that text????) were often enough. Now, as AAM said – maybe there are genuine security issues with the office or the nature of the work – but if this is more a case of being unprofessional with some plausible deniability, then I don’t think this boss is being horribly delinquent in letting this slide.

  2. I'm just here for the cats!!*

    I wonder what the text said specifically. Like I wonder if it was just a knik and the guy sent a text saying what he’d like to do, and OP read it differently. Or maybe they did some sort of fantasy thing at home. I really want to give the intern the benefit of the doubt here.

    This doesn’t sound like something that happened recently, but if it did I would just have a basic conversation about not allowing guests in the office or at your desk during work time.

    1. Ace in the Hole*

      Agreed. My first thought was whether LW can be sure this even referred to the desk at work. Most people I know also have desks at home too!

    2. Letter Writer*

      This was pre-pandemic so WFH was not as much of a thing. She was definitely in the office that day. I’m not sure how much of a “thrill” having relations in your private home would be, even with an strong fantasy life, but who knows!
      It’s been a few years so I couldn’t recall the exact phrasing of the text message, but it was a frank “it was thrilling to f*** you on your desk yesterday, glad we didn’t get caught” vibes.

              1. New Jack Karyn*

                The ‘glad we didn’t get caught’ part leads me to believe otherwise. I think it’s likely that they were in fact on her desk at work, with a chance it was all part of a mutual fantasy. But I don’t think it was a desk at home.

          1. Nina*

            Obviously they were thinking and talking about it, but it’s not at all obvious that it actually happened.

      1. Middle Aged Lady*

        My passive-aggressive response would be to give the intern a canister of disinfecting wipes.
        I once had a student employee who said he fantasized about coming into our branch kibrary and doing the same in the circulation desk after hours. I told him not to mention it again, and if I even had a hint that he had done so, he would be fired with no reference forthcoming. It was different because he openly said it.
        A more direct approach, but still not super direct, would be to remind the intern that guests are discouraged in the office when working alone, and they must give advance notice if they will have one, “for security resasons.”

        1. Anonosaurus*

          In a previous organization I used to have a fairly vanilla fantasy involving a man in another department and the table in the company boardroom.

          I’ve never told anyone, much less my supervisor : facepalm

          1. Lydia*

            At one job, we had a temp leave very quickly for unknown reasons. It got around and was pretty much confirmed that he had used his security badge to come back to into the office after hours and, well, show his boyfriend how sturdy his desk was.

    3. Daisy*

      Intimate relations on a desk at work is a VERY common trope in romance books. I’m in the ‘this shows extremely bad judgement’ camp, but it isn’t at all an unusual idea.

    4. hydrangea macduff*

      Ah, the “Air Bud” exception. It doesn’t say a dog *can’t* play competitive basketball!

    1. Expelliarmus*

      The OP says the intern was the only one who had been in the office that day, so she wasn’t WFH. But yeah, I agree there are still a lot of unknowns here.

      1. Quite anon*

        That doesn’t say much. Sure, she was the only one in the office yesterday, but “yesterday” could refer to after work. Or before work. I spent several hours yesterday working on a fanfiction. It was not during work hours, though.

    2. desdemona*

      That was my first thought, as well. People have desks at home, especially interns who are likely in college!

    3. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Sure, it’s worth considering! But the LW saw the content of the message, unlike the rest of us, so for the purpose of the answer and this discussion it makes sense to assume she’s correct (although certainly she can consider whether this is possible — I just don’t want the whole discussion to derail on something that might be quite clearly not the case).

    4. Dawn*

      Honestly this is the first thing that I thought. I have two desks at home. Desks do not exist exclusively in the office, and benefit of the doubt.

    5. Retired Vulcan Raises 1 Grey Eyebrow*

      A “thrilling …. glad we didn’t get caught” text doesn’t sound likely to refer to sex at home

      1. Sebastian*

        This is clearly going into the realms of fanfic, but if it were a desk in a home that the intern shared with her husband, I can see why her boyfriend might worry about getting caught.

  3. DramaQ*

    Ooh ooh I have a story about this! At my husband’s work there was an employee who was having relations with another employee. On the production floor. During work hours. They got caught. HR refused to fire them because there was no written policy explicitly stating that you COULD NOT have sex on the production floor. Once I picked my jaw up off hte ground I told my husband I kinda thought that was assumed, not to mention pretty sure that is a hefty OSHA violation which you could fire them for because I doubt they were wearing their PPE while getting it on. It’s a running joke now whenever we switch employers that we need to check the employee handbook to see if it explicity states “no sex on the job”.

      1. Observer*

        That sounds like something that should go into the employee handbook asap…

        That’s a good way to wind up with an employee handbook that’s unwieldy, almost useless, and a running joke.

        The better response is to get some competent HR people in and / or provide some advice and training to the existing staff.

        1. Orora*

          Exactly. We don’t have a “Don’t poop on the floor” policy but we still expect people to not poop on the floor. You can’t have a policy for everything. Mostly because you’ll think you covered all reasonable scenarios and then discover that employees are very, very creative. This is when employment-at-will becomes a very useful concept.

          1. Skytext*

            I think a lot of employee handbooks just have a general statement along the lines of “employees are expected to display professional behavior at all times while on the premises”. That would cover having sex on the production floor, pooping on the floor, screaming and yelling at someone, and many other things that can’t be foreseen in order to be specifically forbidden. Also so employees can’t pull the “I’m not on the clock so you can’t tell me I can’t do it” card.

          2. 1-800-BrownCow*

            Yes to this!! Because you know if you had to specifically say “no sex on the job” or “don’t poop on the floor”, every employee would be trying to figure who did those acts because why else would it be put in the company handbook? Sorta like the crazy warnings of how not to use something and you know the company put it there because some idiot tried it (like don’t use a push mower to trim hedges) and they’re doing a CYA.

            On another note, while expecting people to know to “not poop on the floor”, at my last place of work, an employee was caught peeing in the deep sink in a tool cleaning room. The room was directly across the doors to the manufacturing area and the employee said they didn’t want to walk all the way down the hall to the restroom, it was faster and easier to just cross the hall and pee in the sink. After getting caught and admitting to it, they were quite surprised to learn that this apparently is not acceptable to do at work!

            1. 1-800-BrownCow*

              To add: Employee was fired, despite our company handbook not specifying “Don’t pee in the deep sink”.

    1. Filthy Vulgar Mercenary*

      That’s hilarious. Well, you didn’t explicitly TELL me I couldn’t wear a clown costume to work complete with face paint and a red nose, so…

    2. NameRequired*

      This feels like a prime opportunity to investigate what else the employee handbook does not explicitly state

        1. Warrior Princess Xena*

          I’d be willing to bet my left shoe that this was done by the IT department (unless the whole company is IT in which case anything goes)

          1. Seeking Second Childhood*

            We had a small group of engineers playing HALO against each other shortly before wifi go locked to company owned equipment.

            1. DrSalty*

              Someone once installed a copy of the Sims 4 on the virtual machine we shared across departments to use a specific, specialized software. The VM was incredibly slow and everyone had their own personal computer … I wonder to this day what the thought process behind that one was.

          2. Swix*

            At a past company I worked for, the IT department had a bank of company computers mining Bitcoin. When management found out, they were not impressed.

            1. Quill*

              I’m not impressed but I’m mostly not impressed by the social and financial acuity of the department as a whole.

    3. Student*

      That is astounding. Would you say HR was likely related to one of them, buying or selling drugs to one of them, or also secretly having relations on the job? Because I’m not buying their stated line of reasoning any more than you did, and I’m curious why on earth anyone in HR would stick their own neck out to protect these two canoodlers.

      1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

        We’ve had problematic employees at my job that their managers would go to HR about, and get similar responses. With one guy it became several years of recurring “but he didn’t know he couldn’t do that” he did not know that he couldn’t shout at his teammate? promise to come to her home? THREATEN HER CATS? I don’t get it, but it seems to be a common HR response. Would love to know why.

        1. Anon for this*

          I carpooled with a senior HR rep who said our handbook specifies details like underwear and how short is too short for shorts & skirts because one line manager refused to get into the job of “policing fashion”. He had someone wearing a micromini and no panties on the shop floor. That was just …. something that made me glad I hadn’t gone into HR.

          1. Nina*

            A previous company had a dress code as follows –

            – you must wear clothes on both the top and bottom half of your body
            – you must wear shoes on the production floor
            – the clothes and shoes may not have obscenities or obscene pictures on them
            – if we can visually tell you’re not wearing underwear, you’re not wearing enough clothes

            Every one of those rules was added in response to a specific incident. It was a fun company to work for.

    4. Phony Genius*

      What, was HR a big George Costanza fan?

      “Was that wrong? Should I have not done that? I tell ya, I gotta plead ignorance on this thing because if anyone had said anything to me at all when I first started here that that sort of thing was frowned upon… you know, cause I’ve worked in a lot of offices and I tell you people do that all the time. ”

    5. 1-800-BrownCow*

      Yeah, that’s a cop-out. HR didn’t want to have the discussion so they claimed it wasn’t a policy violation. If that happened at any place I’ve ever worked, I can guarantee employees would be “it doesn’t say you can’t do [insert unprofessional behavior here] in the employee handbook, so it’s okay” for anything they can think of.

      1. DramaQ*

        Everyone pretty much felt it was a massive co-op HR didn’t want to address it. I said surely there is something in the manual this applies to. OSHA was the first one that came into my head. I’m sure there was a sexual harassment policy and I would think walking in on your coworkers qualifies since you probably did not want to see that.

        It became a joke in that company of what else isn’t in the manual we could have been getting away with all this time? Can’t punish me it’s not written in the manual!

        Besides that we’re in an at will state as long as you can’t prove it was discriminatory they can fire you for anything they please at any time.

        I was so confused. The look on my husband’s face when I said “Well there’s a missed opportunity!” ;)
        DH left shortly after that so I have no idea if she is still employed. Probably.

      2. Warrior Princess Xena*

        I’m pretty sure if this happened at my workplace it’d get covered in the general ‘you are expected to be a professional in the office’ clause.

        1. Charlotte Lucas*

          “When you are clocked in and on the floor, you must be ready to work.” (Not “work it.”)

          Any job I’ve worked with a production floor didn’t let you on the floor if you weren’t clocked in.

    6. L.H. Puttgrass*

      If they could manage to wear their PPE while having sex, would it be okay then?

      …I kind of hope the answer is yes.

        1. Phony Genius*

          Steel-toed boots? Check!
          Hard hat with miner’s light? Check!
          Earplugs? Check!
          Safety harness? Um, does this type of harness count?

    7. Juicebox Hero*

      “We can’t fire you for doing the horizontal hokey-pokey on the production floor; however, we are writing you up for not wearing coveralls and face shields as required by OSHA regulations. We’re not even going to get into what you did to the forklift…”

      1. Putting the Dys in Dysfunction*

        “Members of the jury, you will hear evidence indicating that my clients were working overtime in Defendant’s facility, when a forklift suddenly activated through no fault of their own, resulting in both injury and embarrassment…”

      2. Anon for this*

        You kid, but I knew a guy who vandalized a forklift by slashing the coolant lines and driving it around at top speed until the engine caught fire. But they didn’t have enough evidence to prove it he was the one who cut the lines, so they didn’t fire him for that.

        Instead, he was fired for *operating* the damaged forklift… because that’s a safety violation.

    8. Orsoneko*

      Did they graduate from the Air Bud Academy of Human Relations? (There’s nothing in the rulebook that says a golden retriever CAN’T play basketball!)

      1. L.H. Puttgrass*

        See also the movie Babe, in which it turns out that nothing in the rules of the sheep herding competition says the competitors have to be dogs.

    9. knitcrazybooknut*

      Lo these many moons ago, I worked at a company where an employee was sleeping at their desk. They were fired. They applied for unemployment. They were awarded unemployment because the handbook did not specifically say that sleeping at your desk was not allowed.

      Lest you think I might be passing on hearsay, I worked in the HR department with the folks who handled the unemployment hearing. It was amazing.

      1. Rex Libris*

        Seriously? My employee handbook doesn’t explicitly state that I can’t let a cageful of rabid weasels loose in the lunchroom, but I’m just going to assume.

        1. Ace in the Hole*

          I think context is really important for this one.

          For example, if taking a nap at your desk during a lunch break is a fireable offense, that should be spelled out in the handbook. Or if the employee in question had a great track record and excellent reviews but was fired on the spot the first time they dozed off, it’s fair to say the response is more extreme than a reasonable person would expect unless they’d been specifically warned.

          On the other hand if they’d been told several times to stop sleeping on the job, it shouldn’t need to be explicitly stated in the handbook!

          1. Charlotte Lucas*

            So, I worked somewhere that had a desk-sleeper and did it pretty much every day. She was in Adjustments, where everyone had the same shifts, breaks, and lunches. I was in Customer Service, which partially surrounded them (awful setup, I know). We knew she was on break or lunch, because the rest of her department was out, but it was still disconcerting. Especially since she didn’t just put her head down for a light nap. She splayed out in her chair, with her arms hanging down. The first time I saw it, I thought she was having a medical emergency, but I was assured this was just a regular break time nap for her.

            Keep in mind, she was surrounded by a noisy customer service department.

            Yet that wasn’t the weirdest thing about working there.

            1. allathian*

              Some people can sleep anywhere, anytime, pretty much regardless of how much noise there is arround them.

              I had to disclose my pregnancy to my manager much earlier than I’d planned because she found me asleep at my desk. Luckily I never had morning sickness to the point of vomiting, but the first trimester exhaustion was brutal, especially as I couldn’t have any coffee. Luckily just the smell made me nauseous so I didn’t even want any.

      2. Alpaca Bag*

        I filed a complaint about being disturbed by a coworker’s snoring, and his response was that we were discriminating against him because he’s ugly(!). He also said that he couldn’t be punished for having a disability, and the disability was being addicted to painkillers.

        The very best part was that he went to rehab, got clean, and came back to work with better results than he had ever had before.

    10. Emikyu*

      When I was in high school, I used to go through the student handbook every year looking for loopholes/things that obviously should have been prohibited but were overlooked. (I was a weird kid, okay?) Things like “it says I can’t have a walkman in class, but it doesn’t say anything about a discman”; “it says I can’t bring pets with me, but I guess that means wild animals are okay”; or “it says I can’t wear a top that shows my midriff, so I can solve that by not wearing anything at all”.

      But I was a teenager. And even as a teenager, I knew damn well I could still get in trouble for those things. (That doesn’t mean I didn’t try arguing the loopholes – knowledge doesn’t solve obnoxiousness and often exacerbates it.)

      Anyway, if a 15-year-old would obviously know better, it’s safe to say adults would too.

      1. ecnaseener*

        “it says I can’t bring pets with me, but I guess that means wild animals are okay”

        Lord Byron brought a bear to college for exactly this reason!

        1. Quill*

          Arguably this may be why one of my friends, at 15, brought her not-yet-socialized sugar gliders to school.

          I would have adored them, but they took one look at the crowd and decided to nest in my hair.

          If you want to be discreet about bringing your pets to school don’t put yourself in a situation where someone is gonna be screaming at you to “call off your rodents”

    11. Baldrick*

      I worked somewhere where two employees were known to be in some sort of relationship because it affected their employment, and the added rumor was that they were known to by physically intimate in the meeting room in their work building. Months later I was sitting in a meeting when I suddenly remembered the rumor and quietly moved my hands off the surface as a reflex. Workplaces can be very strange about physical intimacy if they can’t address the safety part of having sex on a production floor! In my workplace the bigger issue was the eventual conflict between them that resulted in both finding jobs elsewhere.

      In OP’s case I don’t think there’s much to do other than remind the intern that family and friends shouldn’t be visiting the workplace to interrupt work, and I wouldn’t even do that unless there were other problems.

    12. Cat Tree*

      Doesn’t the employee handbook prohibit sexual harassment (because that’s illegal)? It would definitely fall under that if any other people were around.

    13. Anon for this*

      I worked at a law firm where a senior rainmaking partner (in a non-US office) was caught having sex in a conference room. There were no consequences to either party.

    14. Ess Ess*

      Well, if it’s on the production floor and other employees can see it, it falls under the federal laws about hostile work environment, which includes inappropriate sexual behavior. In that case, it wouldn’t need to be spelled out in a handbook for that company because it applies to all companies.

    15. Dragon_Dreamer*

      After the Plague lockdowns ended at my university, I took over working in a small storage area that had also been an office. An office that had never been used and had been kept locked, as the person it was assigned to had never come in. They’d been hired right before the Plague, and graduated right after. The owner prior to that had been the faculty supervisor before his retirement and death 5 years before.

      Imagine my surprised when I opened my new desk to find two condom wrappers, one opened! The expiration date was for that year, so it was doubtful it was the old supervisor’s. The new supervisor, my boss, was as genuinely surprised as I was! We laughed about it, but I’ve always wondered who the culprit could have been.

    16. Tiger Snake*

      I would absolutely have LOVED to see HR discipline them for the OSHA violation, on the basis of that was the only policy they broke. It’s just so hilariously ridiculous as a concept.

  4. Filthy Vulgar Mercenary*

    I always imagine the other person being an AAM reader and coming across a description of themselves and being left forever wondering.

      1. Eldritch Office Worker*

        I recognized a former coworker in one of Alison’s “weirdest thing you’ve done at work” or something open threads and VERY POLITELY PRETENDED NOT TO, though it killed me haha. The internet being what it is I’m surprised we don’t see those follow ups more often.

      2. New Jack Karyn*

        I think the employee who was denied a day off to attend her own college graduation (and thus quit on the spot) saw herself and wrote in. That manager–the LW–got taken around the block in the comments.

  5. Orsoneko*

    I got a couple of sentences into Alison’s response and was very confused until I looked back at the letter and saw the “on her desk” part, which I’d somehow glossed over on my first read-through. I’d been wondering why any of this was remotely the LW’s business, why she was still thinking about it years later, and why it merited a multi-paragraph response!

    1. Lydia*

      Because it’s weird, it’s also not one of those cut and dried situations where you know you responded appropriately, and considering having sex at work isn’t that common unless that is your work, it’s the kind of thing that will stick in your brain. It’s not that hard to understand.

      1. BubbleTea*

        If the text had just been about having sex though (and not specifically about sex at work), it wouldn’t be notable.

        1. Orsoneko*

          Yup, what BubbleTea said. I initially missed the part that indicated the sex [might have] happened at work; I thought the LW was just uncomfortable about having accidentally glimpsed an intimate text from the intern’s boyfriend.

  6. L.H. Puttgrass*

    I like the “elaborate fantasy life” interpretation. If the text message is the only evidence you have that the intern did the nasty in the office, then best to decide that you don’t actually know what happened or where and move on.

    1. MissCoco*

      Agreed, I think I would purposefully lean hard on that interpretation, just because I’d find it so much easier to move on if I mentally filed it under “that happened AT HOME”
      Unless there was a lot of evidence to the contrary or reasons other than the text to be concerned, I’d just want to go on imagining that didn’t happen in the office

  7. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

    I have a couple of stories like that. One time, I was asked to remote into the PCs in the training room and do a software upgrade on them. I glanced at the training room and it looked like it was not in use, so I started working on one PC at a time. Well apparently there were a few people in there after all, because one PC I remoted into had the Lotus Notes email app open and an email up on the screen, from a man I didn’t know to whoever was using the PC, talking about what a great time he’d had last night, in enough detail for me to tell that it was sexytimes he was talking about. I quietly exited the remote app, and finished my upgrade at a later time.

    Another one was my teammate, in her own words “back when work issued alphanumeric pagers to all of us, we found one on a couch in the ladies’ room. Went through the messages to see who it belonged to so we could return it to its owner. Found a message to (our other teammate) from (our married boss) talking about what a great time he’d had doing her last night and how soon they needed to do it again. We didn’t know what to do, so we waited until she was away from her desk, tiptoed into her cubicle, quietly put the pager on her desk, tiptoed out, and never spoke of it again.”

    So, yeah, the course of action seems to be “nope out of there and pretend you never saw”

    And, in this case, I agree with others that said the desk could’ve been at her or his house. People have desks at home. Mine aren’t nearly sturdy enough for that kind of action, but if theirs is, more power to them.

    1. pope suburban*

      Oh lord, this reminds me of the time that, when I worked for a deeply cursed construction company, something off-color happened that was actually not our fault! We installed and maintained wine cellars, so we would need to get access to homes in gated communities, and/or with private security and serious security hardware. Often, the simplest way to accomplish this would be contacting someone at home so they could call the gate/inform security/switch off any locks or alarms. One time, the client gave us his teen/early twenties daughter’s contact information, since she would be home during the day and able to let the techs in. She ended up inadvertently sending the tech some spicy texts about her “being a brat” who needed to be “put in her place.” They were clearly meant for her boyfriend, but she had put them in the wrong chat. The whole office gathered around to witness this train wreck, to which the tech wisely did not respond aside from once to tell her she was not chatting with her beau. It was so awkward, and frankly I’m surprised no one escalated the shenanigans on our end, because that’s the kind of place it was.

      Oh, and at the same company, a girl once thought she was texting a friend (or maybe potential romantic partner? It wasn’t clear) to get opinions on dresses she was trying on. They were…let’s call them club wear. That time it was one of the designers who got the messages, which was a huge relief because at least a few of the techs would have hit on this poor girl who was just trying to pick an outfit for a night out. She let the girl know right away that this wasn’t the right number and no more was heard of it. I’ve had an absolute paranoia about checking the numbers I’m texting ever since that job, though.

    1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

      I worked with a guy who bragged to me that he and his mistress/subordinate had “christened every office and cubicle” on weekends.

      He *was* the boss. smh

      1. pope suburban*

        The cursed construction company I mentioned upthread was wine-industry-related, and so we had both on-site climate-controlled storage (So the bougie don’t have to risk their wine sitting outside upon delivery) and a tasting room next to our fancy demo cellar. The owner’s friends treated the place like their own personal clubhouse, which, eh, whatever, they tended not to be underfoot during the day, and sometimes they’d give us a glass of wine that cost more than we made in a month. But they partied there on weekends and I absolutely do not want to know what they got up to. My desk was often in disarray, the kitchen would be thrashed, and even some of the private offices in back were rummaged through. One Monday, I walked in to see a big, bright pink lipstick kiss on our front door; cleaning that off, I reflected that I was not paid nearly enough for this kind of ick. I’m grateful that I never saw it but I also put a lot of work into shutting down the part of my brain that can figure out what happened from a general picture of disarray. I’ve seen frat houses where people behaved better than these well-to-do middle-aged folks.

      2. Hiring Mgr*

        Years ago I worked at a well known startup in a building that had showers for people who biked or worked out at lunch, etc.. They later became known as “sex cabins” for some of the work hard/play hard/drink hard folks

    2. Lydia*

      All I could think of was asking the intern to make sure they clean off and disinfect their desk when they left. Ew.

  8. Dances with Flax*

    Maybe your intern could start your company’s very own Duck Club, with her as president!

    But seriously, I’d go with Alison’s second recommendation: tell your intern that her phone was open, on her desk, that you saw what she’d written and that she could indeed have been fired for that. And then document this and put it in her personnel file!

    The security implications alone are staggering; you don’t know her boyfriend OR his history OR what he could have seen (besides her!) in your company. Most people aren’t looking out for stuff to steal and fence, but some people ARE and again, you don’t know this man at all! Her judgment was absolutely terrible and should prompt reconsideration on your part re: letting her access the office while you or another employee aren’t there.

    1. Warrior Princess Xena*

      No, do not document without proof! As has been discussed, we have no way of knowing if it actually happened (people have named a number of plausible explanations). Don’t put unproven theories on people’s personnel files. If there are security cameras you can check, or any other form of access control that you can use to see that she did let an unauthorized person into the building, then check if you feel it’s necessary and go forwards from there.

      Personally, “I let my significant other in so we could… distract each other… during a long shift” would be a terminate-on-sight offence, rather than a warning, but even then I wouldn’t be comfortable making that call without more proof than “someone saw a text reflecting questionable judgement out of context on a private phone”.

      1. Marzipan Shepherdess*

        I’d go with documenting any such supervisory meeting with an intern; during the meeting, she will almost certainly reveal more about the background of the text which will enable the OP to know where to go from there. And it’s always safer to have a paper trail in case a pattern of questionable behavior emerges; it makes it clear that early instances of that poor behavior were noticed and addressed. That’s better than waiting until a major incident explodes and people start to wonder “Why didn’t their manager get onto this earlier?!”

        This intern is there to learn; hopefully, if the OP addresses it clearly and firmly AND makes it clear that it’s going into her record, she won’t make a mistake like this again. And she’ll realize that “Get a room!” doesn’t mean your office.

    2. Smithy*

      I think this is why AAM mentions whether the office has those additional security measures or not. I’ve worked in a few offices where any visitor at all – be it a family member or official visitor needed to go through a registration with building security. And in one case, that registration process was very formal, as in they needed a message from select team members on reception to go to building security. Despite having building clearance and a badge for my office and my bank of elevators, when I went to my dentist – that used a different bank of elevators – I’d still need a message from my dentist’s office to building security, would need to check in and get a separate pass to use those elevator’s. All in the same building.

      I’ve worked in other buildings where family members would regularly drop by the office, see people’s desks and as long as they were accompanied by a staff member with the right badge/key fob – there was no sign-in/registration needed. At one job, my friends would use my downtown workplace to use the toilet during things like parades or festivals. If we’d been seen by another coworker going to the kitchen to fill up water bottles, no big deal. Lots of offices allow friends and family into their office spaces if accompanied.

      Obviously the same would NOT have been the same in super high security office building, though the workplaces themselves were not wildly different. The high security building was just in NYC over a subway station and had much higher levels of security. If this office or building has that kind of security situation, then fair. But to make this a security situation when the reality is that it’s a professionalism situation (no different than had she been drinking bottles of wine after hours in the office while watching NC-17 movies off of Amazon Prime), I don’t think that’s right.

    3. ferrina*

      It’s…..not terrible to have a friend in an office that allows visitors. I assume if that was an issue, LW would have said so.

      I’ve worked a few places that didn’t allow visitors (for very good reasons), but “your boss doesn’t know this person!” usually isn’t a reason. If an office allows visitors, it trusts that the employees are using good judgement and are keeping an eye on the visitor (sometimes they’ll do a quick walk of basic security protocol for early career employees).
      I don’t think having a visitor was the issue for LW- it was the other part

  9. bamcheeks*

    The “you may also like” section serving up two more sex stories and then “can I go barefoot at work” feels like it’s telling us WAY too much about the algorithms preferences.

    1. Warrior Princess Xena*

      I think Allison has confirmed that she usually selects those stories rather than letting it get decided by the algorithm? I’d have to double check though.

  10. Caramel & Cheddar*

    I think the thing sticking out to me here is the intern being alone in the office by herself more than the “relations” with her boyfriend. Interns obviously don’t have to be supervised 100% of the time, but I’d worry about having one in the office alone purely for liability reasons on top of the fact that they’re there to learn from staff, which is more difficult if they’re alone all day.

  11. mlem*

    In my workplace, this *could* come up as being adjacent to the sexual harassment policy and could definitely be a coaching opportunity as a consequence.

    Our policy states that exposing coworkers to sexual content is a disciplinary matter. Reportedly, one staffer opened an email from a friend that he (reportedly) didn’t know would display porn on the screen, someone adjacent in the open floor plan saw it on his screen, and he was fired as a consequence.

    So if this kind of thing ever happens again, in workplaces like mine, it could be worth telling the intern that leaving a screen with sexual fantasies open to view on her desk could be a violation of the sexual harassment policy. (How much to emphasize the “I’m confident that’s *only a fantasy* part is up to discretion.) It would certainly be a valuable lesson for the intern to learn!

      1. Lydia*

        It could still warrant a chat about appropriateness and keeping your phone on you. It’s one of those things where there are many interpretations, but the content is still sexual, whether or not it happened at work or at home or is a fantasy.

        1. Rachel*

          I would have chalked this up to plausible deniability and pushed it out of my brain approximately 3 minutes after it happened.

          I have to say, I think the comments are taking this too seriously.

    1. Observer*

      Reportedly, one staffer opened an email from a friend that he (reportedly) didn’t know would display porn on the screen, someone adjacent in the open floor plan saw it on his screen, and he was fired as a consequence.

      If someone was actually fired for opening an email that turned out to have porn that they credibly claimed not to have been expecting, then that’s such an inappropriate reaction that I would not use it as an example of what to worry about. Also, it’s not actionable. I mean what is the intern supposed to learn from that? That no matter what she does, she’s at the mercy of people outside her office?

      And it’s not even necessary. You don’t need to invoke accidents and unexpected problems. It’s enough that she had the text up and easily viewable – that’s something that she should not have been doing, even if it was only a fantasy. This *is* actionable information, so much more useful.

      1. Ace in the Hole*

        Agreed. Someone shouldn’t be fired for the actions of another person. Any email could contain unwanted content – even if it’s from a trustworthy source, it’s always possible the other person’s account got hacked and is sending out spam.

        “I happened to see a very personal message on your phone the other day because it was in plain view. You might want to be more careful about where you leave it for the sake of your privacy,” is a very different sentiment from “you’ll get fired if people happen to see a sexy text someone sent you.”

      2. New Jack Karyn*

        I’d say that it’s at least worth a warning to not use the company equipment to check their personal emails!

          1. New Jack Karyn*

            Oh, man. If a friend was sending porn shots to a work email . . . I’d have a serious talk with that person. And we may no longer be friends.

  12. Jessen*

    Can I just say this is why I think all offices should have at least one camera? Not in the office necessarily, but at least being able to see who was coming and going when the intern was supposed to be by herself would have improved this situation.

    1. Rachel*

      How would it have improved this situation?

      I think reading private communication over somebody’s shoulder and then checking security footage to corroborate it is weirder than having sex in the office.

      1. DrSalty*

        I don’t think it’s about the sex, it’s about the security risk of an unknown person being let into the office without anyone else there. A camera on the door would have caught that.

      2. Jessen*

        Having door cameras that someone checks somewhat regularly at least allows you to know whether there’s people coming into the office that aren’t supposed to be there. It wouldn’t address the sex specifically but it would give you a way to know if someone’s bringing in third parties that don’t have a legitimate business with you.

  13. Ally*

    I just watched the Seinfeld episode on this last night! George was never specifically told it wasn’t allowed :)

  14. Kan*

    Sounds like an opportunity to provide mentorship to the intern on professional norms – don’t say a word about the content of the message, but tell them “You should get used to setting your phone face down when you’re in the office, to be sure your private messages aren’t seen accidentally.”

    1. Anon for this*

      There’s nothing “perfect” about this response. It’s blaming the intern for snooping that LW shouldn’t have been doing in the first place.

      1. Yoyoyo*

        I don’t know that I would call it snooping. My brain works in such a way that to see words is to immediately read them before I can ascertain whether or not it is something I actually want to read. If a phone right under my nose lit up, I would probably look at it out of habit and would involuntarily read the words that popped up.

        1. allathian*

          My brain works the same way, I can’t avoid reading any writing that appears in front of my eyes in a language that I can understand. I’ll even attempt to decipher text in languages I don’t understand as long as I have some clue of the writing system, that is all languages written in the Latin alphabet. My text-oriented brain will even attempt to make sense of alphabets that I don’t know very well, like the Cyrillic and the Greek.

      2. Ess Ess*

        It’s not snooping when a clearly visible message appears that can be seen by someone else in the office.

      3. Lydia*

        Except the OP wasn’t snooping and it would be a favor to the intern. It’s almost as if text message apps are designed to draw your attention to read the message without regard to who is actually reading it.

      4. New Jack Karyn*

        How was it snooping? An eye-catching notification popped up, and it . . . caught OP’s eye. She wasn’t scrolling through the phone, or craning her neck to see it.

  15. Joie De Vivre*

    At a former employer, the new HR Manager in a call center found a used condom on her desk on her first day.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if the intern “had relations” on her desk.

  16. Capt. Liam Shaw*

    Going to disagree a bit here. The intern basically brought someone unauthorized into the building. I work in banking and in secure buildings. I am pretty sure this would be a firing offense at some places I have worked.

    1. Sneaky Squirrel*

      Echoing these thoughts. Regardless of how the information was obtained, LW has serious suspicions that intern ‘had relations’ on her desk. I would still consider at least having a serious conversation with intern about judgement and be sure to never leave intern alone in the office again.

    2. Observer*

      I am pretty sure this would be a firing offense at some places I have worked.

      True. I’m sure that the OP would have been aware of that, if they were in such an industry. And I’m also sure that the question would have reflected that.

  17. Martin Blackwood*

    I definitely read the title of this post as the desk being where the message was seen (not untrue, I suppose), not where the sex was taking place. Would be much easier to ignore if that was the case

  18. Some Dude*

    The fact that she was in the office alone the previous day… yeah, I’m taking it at face value. That’s no fantasy or kink. If it texts like a duck, it had sex like a duck… on a work desk.

  19. jellied brains*

    Could be worse, could have caught them mid-act like I did when I was in 1st grade & I had to go after school to get something I forgot in the classroom. Teacher was such a bitch to me after that, like it was my fault.

    1. LJ*

      Teacher was still a teacher at that school after that? I suppose a different time and place, but I hope that wouldn’t happen in today’s world.

  20. Lisa Simpson*

    Wait three weeks, then send everyone a reminder email about whatever relevant policies your company has that would govern this behavior. “Ex: please remember the guest policy is X and there are cameras in Y, Z locations. When you’re in office you should be ready to meet with a client at all times, etc.” (I am not in your office, I have no idea what the rules are.)

    It’s far enough away from you seeing it for it to be not aimed at her, but close enough to freak her out a little bit.

  21. Econobiker*

    Worked at a factory where a legitimate dating couple (m&f) couldn’t wait to “knock one out” before leaving the parking lot Friday afternoon post shift. So they occupied the front seat of their car with their amorous coupling.

    In full view of the 2nd story administration offices.

    They were both embarrassed on Monday by finding out from their respective supervisors that those 2nd story offices were, in fact, actually occupied by accounting and administrative personnel who observed their rated X car activities. The embarrassment was enough punishment and their coworkers enhanced it at lunchtime by putting a cardboard sign under the car’s windshield wipers saying “Shaggin’ Wagon!”

  22. I should really pick a name*

    I like the fact that “I saw a private text about my intern having sex on her desk” can be interpreted two ways and both are correct.

  23. HR Failure*

    Back in the day, HR called a meeting with a friend to discuss what they described as a delicate subject. Apparently the evening cleaning crew had seen her having relations in the office. As you might expect, she was livid to be accused of something like this and responded accordingly. Based on her reaction, HR began to backpedal the implication and tried to sell it as more of advice as opposed to an accusation. Well she wasn’t having any of that since she felt that the firm’s partners were surely in the loop and this had severely damaged her reputation. Long story short, when HR finally tried to verify the accusation, they learned that the person who actually committed the act worked for a different firm, on a different floor in the same building and only had a passing resemblance to my friend. I’m not sure what she got out of this but HR’s closing comment was that they should keep this matter private. If I had been in her position, I would have had the exact opposite reaction.

  24. Lobsterman*

    OP did 100% the right thing. There is simply no reason to believe it actually happened, as versus being a fantasy or comedy bit.

    The only thing OP did wrong was to not erase it fully from their mind after doing the right thing and ignoring it.

  25. VeryAnonymous*

    I had a fling with a coworker in my early 20s. Our company vehicles had dash cams in them for insurance purposes that were audited at random by the risk manager to ensure we were driving safely. (You can see where this is going.) Coworker and I rode together to a work event one day and had a little free time afterward, and, well…things escalated. We later realized the dashcam had been recording the entire thing. Granted, it was facing the opposite direction, but we could be heard which is almost worse in some ways. As luck would have it, this particular dashcam footage came up in the cue for audit. Coworker was the driver, so he received the notification of the audit along with the footage that was audited and yeah…audio was definitely there. Nobody ever spoke to us about it, and we all pretended it never happened. Trust me, sometimes the scare alone is enough to make you never repeat that again! lol

  26. Truly*

    Honestly, what else do you think could possibly have been done? Like, actually? What good would come out of saying literally anything?

    1. New Jack Karyn*

      Letting an intern know when they are breaking office norms is generally a good idea. “Turn your phone face down or shut off notifications to keep your private conversations private,” might cover it.

  27. Zarniwoop*

    If I said anything it wouldn’t be nearly as long as Alison’s script. Just “Euww” and side eye the desk surface.

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