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

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.

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