my coworker is taking cell phone photos of us during staff meetings

A reader writes:

I work at a mid-sized private university. I can’t begin to describe the number of odd characters we have working here, myself probably included in that. The department I work for at the moment is far from professional, unfortunately, but so far I have been able to deal with most of the quirks. However, it’s been brought to my attention that our assistant director sits in meetings and takes pictures of the attendees with his phone. For many reasons, I do not think this is just to document who was there. I also know that he keeps these photos. How I know this is a long story, so let’s just go with the fact that I know.

I am really creeped out by this. Okay, full disclosure, I don’t like having my picture taken, so maybe it’s me and it’s not such a big deal. And I know that it’s legal and all that to take pictures of people who are out in public without their permission. But this just feels wrong to me. I don’t even know what I can do about it, but is it worth bringing up to my director or to HR? Or should I just start bringing a huge notebook and hiding behind that when I have to be in meetings with this guy?

What the hell?!

I wrote back to this reader and asked for the additional context she had alluded to. Her response:

Well, as far as the department being generally unprofessional, I could write a book, but mostly it’s the constant sexual innuendo that goes on among a certain group of about five people, the “photographer” included. I am no prude, but we are at work and there are student workers around a lot of the time. So, that sort of sets the tone towards “pervy.”

A coworker has a crush on this guy and she flirts like crazy with him, so he lets his guard down around her and she told me that she actually saw some of the “candid” pictures on his computer, and there were LOTS of folders that she assumed also contained pictures. There have also been two women who have told me that he was Facebook stalking them, although they were both able to get him to back off by just ignoring him. He also isn’t particularly stealthy about taking pictures, so it’s sort of obvious what he’s doing once you’ve been clued in.

I repeat: What the hell?!

You need to tell him to stop, immediately. At the next meeting where you see this, say, “Jim, please stop talking photos of me and others during this meeting. It’s inappropriate.” Say this loudly enough for others at the meeting to hear, because ideally you want group pressure to make him stop doing this.

If it continues after that, address it again: “Jim, I already told you I don’t want you taking my picture. Why are you continuing to take photos without people’s permission?”

And at that point, go talk to your and/or his manager as well: “Jim has been regularly taking photos on his phone of people at meetings without their permission. This makes me uncomfortable, and I’ve asked him to stop. It has not stopped, however, so now I’m asking you to tell him to stop.”

And frankly, while I’m a big fan of addressing things directly with the person causing the problem to start with, you could also talk to HR if you see this as part of a generally sexualized atmosphere that’s making you uncomfortable. I’m actually not sure if that’s the case or not from your letter — but if it’s bothering you in that context, that’s what sexual harassment policies are there for. And your university almost certainly has a sexual harassment policy, so you could take a look at that and see if it’s being violated. (It probably is — most include language prohibiting “unwelcome  verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature” that “interferes with a person’s work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile, or abusive work environment” or something to that effect.) That policy should also lay out a procedure for reporting this type of conduct, and that would tell you precisely the steps to follow if you feel uncomfortable with the sexualized culture overall and want to go that route.

But if it’s really just the photo-taking rather than the broader atmosphere, then it’s less an HR thing and more something for your manager and his manager to deal with.


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