I saw my employee’s X-rated chat — Ask a Manager

A reader writes:

Today, during a screensharing session with my new direct report, Barb, I saw something inappropriate on her screen and did not speak up. I was so dumbfounded that I quickly wrapped up the training session and ended our call. I’m almost sure I saw her chat session with another colleague in her office with explicit reference to body parts that would be covered by a swimsuit, wet t-shirts, etc. Should I say anything to Barb? Or should I try to forget I ever saw anything? (Both the screenshare software and chat software are part of the same company provided system; it’s typically used for training and collaboration)

I work remotely and Barb works at one of our offices in the U.S. I’ve been recently promoted to a manager position with one direct report besides Barb. Barb is newly reporting to me for one month now, but prior to that we worked together on a special project for one year, as the role responsible for that function was vacant at the time. Since I was in a senior position to Barb, I assumed a leadership role in that collaborative arrangement, but this was not formal management – we worked together as colleagues. When the vacant position was filled, Barb began reporting to her new manager, and later, the new manager put Barb on a PIP. Essentially, Barb’s manager felt that Barb wasn’t a fit for her role and was trying to manage her out; there was a skill mismatch, but Barb also needed to improve her attention to detail.

Meanwhile, our department head granted us the opportunity of adding a new teammate to my team. At this time, I learned from my manager that Barb was close to losing her job. After much thought and discussions with my manager, and Barb’s former manager, I proposed bringing Barb over to my team. I thought Barb could be a good fit for my team. During the interviews, my manager and I were up front with Barb that she would need to improve her attention to detail to be successful in the role. Barb indicated commitment to improving that area and seemed genuinely excited about the opportunity. Per some of your other advice columns, I’ve had both specific conversations at the time errors presented, and a general conversation about the pattern of errors, backed up by retraining. For what it’s worth, the errors seem very simple, but impactful or embarrassing if not corrected. Because of these frequent errors, I’ve had to hold back on fully transitioning some of the more accountable portions of the job where errors can have a more damaging effect.

To summarize, my concerns are about:

• Inappropriate and unprofessional behavior. Unfortunately, I don’t have a reference point for the dynamic Barb has in-person with others in her office.
• Barb started off our meeting by mentioning that she had a very busy day and was trying to juggle responsibilities. Her workload has not yet risen to “very busy,” in fact I’m still holding back on fully transitioning work. These types of conversations would be a distraction from work responsibilities, which are currently not completed to a satisfactory level.
• Since my view of the chat window happened very quickly, and I have no “proof,” I’m not sure I can or should say anything, especially when the content was something I’d rather not repeat.

Would love your advice as this situation has made me uncomfortable.

Given the whole picture here — low performance plus sending sexual messages at work and on work systems — I’d be thinking seriously about whether you want to keep Barb in the job or not. (I’m assuming for the purpose of this post that you could see Barb was a willing participant in the conversation.)

This is someone who was previously going to be fired because of attention to detail, was warned she’d need to increase her attention to detail when you hired her, is still showing those same issues and not working at the level you need, and hasn’t been able to take on the full work of the role — and in the middle of that is sending dirty messages at work using work equipment.

I’d seriously consider cutting your losses and moving her out of the role. But if you’re not ready to do that or your company doesn’t allow you to do that without going through a formal process first, then there are two things you should do.

First, take this as background info confirming that there are serious issues with Barb’s work and judgment and that you need to get much more hands-on in managing her. That would mean resolving to figure out quickly if she’s going to be able to do the job or not, and whether she can bring the level of professionalism and attention to detail you need. That’s something you’d want to do anyway, regardless of this incident, so this would just be the impetus to really lean into it and come to a conclusion quickly. This could be a situation where you give her really clear feedback about what needs to change and give her a few weeks to demonstrate the changes you need. (Obviously you need to follow whatever procedures your company has for letting under-performers go, but the idea here is that you’d get aggressive about following that path.)

Second, while you’re doing that, it sounds like you need to dig deeper into how Barb is using your company chat program. If your company is like most, it has policies that allow it to examine chat and email logs when managers have reason to suspect wrongdoing, and your IT people can check to see if this was a one-time thing or part of a pattern. Depending on how your company handles this kind of thing you might need to loop in HR too — and definitely do that if there’s any chance that the recipient of Barb’s messages didn’t welcome them. I’m assuming this was an, er, mutual exchange. If you don’t know that for sure, that’s an additional issue.

Once you look into it, I wouldn’t be surprised if you find out that this is the tip of the iceberg — and if that’s true, that warrants cutting your losses immediately.

All of this goes to Barb’s judgment, her professionalism, and how she spends her time at work. Take it seriously and act swiftly.

(In some ways, it’s more interesting to ponder how to handle this situation if Barb were a fantastic employee. In that case, I could see just talking her — “A message popped up when we were screen sharing that was really inappropriate for work. I want to trust your judgment and hope that was a one-time error in judgment. Can you assure me that’s the case and it won’t happen again?” But that’s not your context.)

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