Living With Past Violation

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about a woman feeling violated because a departed boss had her emails monitored and distributed and had a guard watch her.

Is it legal for security to read emails I send on a work computer from a Gmail account, and then distribute them to other staff members?

I am a researcher in a basic science lab. I had a huge falling out with my boss 1.5 months before I was to be laid off (he was moving to another university). It is my understanding that he tried to fire me but couldn’t b/c he’d just given me a very positive review a couple months prior. He also tried to prevent another professor from hiring me – as we had planned – but the other professor took me anyways. The original plan was for me to continue on with a collaborative project we had been doing with this other professor.At the time of his move, I was in the middle of experiments that were very much dependent on machines located in his lab and on shared equipment within his department. I stayed behind in his lab and worked on my experiments for a month after I had technically transferred so that my project wouldn’t be ruined. This is not uncommon in academic situations.It has now come to light that he had security perform very intrusive monitoring of everything I did during that time. If I was in the lab they would come by every hour to “check” – and then they sent out (by email) a listing of my activities to my old supervisor and many other professors in the department. I was not included on these emails and my understanding is that some of the things said were untrue, degrading and slanderous. It is worth noting here that I had previously complained of sexual harassment and mistreatment by one of the security guards involved.I have also come to know that everything I did on my work computer was being broadcast to that audience as well (as in they literally received a listing of every page I visited and the text of every email I sent from both my work and Gmail accounts).During this time the guard I had complained about (he had been yelling at me, speaking to me in suggestive tones, hanging out at my desk without reason, once followed my into the women’s bathroom) became even more aggressive. I became afraid of him but didn’t feel there was anything I could do. His intimidation tactics became more and more extreme – at one point he followed me into the bathroom and yelled at me “I am security. Get out here right now (I was in a stall)” repeatedly. To this day I believe that man is a predator.

My question is, was this legal? I know they can read whatever you send over their network, but can they distribute it like that? These were very personal emails. Apparently a lot of the people receiving this information were offended by the way I was being treated and demanded security stop. They would not stop even though several professors told them what they were doing was not acceptable, and my understanding is that many people then wrote security telling them that they were not reading these things.

It is now 1.5 years later and I am still in the lab I transferred into when that professor left. However, we still collaborate with my old boss and I find it incredibly difficult to deal with – I feel totally violated, and I know he did it on purpose. How can I deal with this until I move on?

Signed, Want to Move On


Dear Want to Move On:

If I understand you, you are fortunate to no longer be under the direct control of the former boss who has moved to another university; however, in some ways you are obligated to “collaborate” with him. You have not moved on yourself because you continue to harbor the indignity of having your emails monitored and distributed and you are angry about the security guard who violated you by his suggestive remarks and following you into the woman’s restroom. I assume that monitoring and distribution of emails is in the past and the guard harassment occurs no longer. Have I summarized what is still playing like a broken record in your head?

Your account of the period of what occurred provides ample reason for your distress. You don’t say how long ago you became aware of the monitoring/distribution of emails. I gather that the guard no longer sexually harasses you. But the anger and violation you feel is still with you.

Our site states upfront that we don’t answer legal questions; therefore, you have our answer to your question: Is it legal for security to read emails I send on a work computer from a Gmail account, and then distribute them to other staff members? The legal department within your university might provide an answer to that question and if you want to pursue it further, an attorney outside the university could advise if you have a case.

That leaves your question to us with how do you cope with feeling violated and to dealing now with this former boss. Here are several thoughts to consider:

  1. Whether you do or don’t gain legal advice, tell you current boss what transpired and how violated you feel. Seek assurance that such a practice is not and never will occur again. Make that request as brief and firm as necessary to be is persuasive. You don’t want to come across as reliving it. Request that your current boss inform your former boss that such acts were unethical, reprehensible, and that you are due an apology.
  2. Also because of that past monitoring/broadcasting and guard surveillance, request that your current boss relieve you of having to deal with the professor who is no longer at your university.
  3. Get your head on straight—let the past be past. Focus on your work and making your current coworkers’ work effective. Don’t relive those past hurts by playing them in your head or gossiping about them.
  4. Seek a life beyond your lab. Treat yourself to the joys of being employed in a creative community—join a professional association, see plays, guest lectures, music and dance recitals, be active in a fitness center, give of yourself to the less fortunate, give back to those who helped you qualify for your career, and find ways to play forward what you have learned so far.

Do any of these thoughts make sense or prompt ideas of your own? Work is difficult enough without reliving a soured boss/bossed relationship. Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS, and is not that what you want to experience with your current associates?

William Gorden

FOLLOW UP  I very much appreciate your advice but could I ask a few more questions?  The people to whom my private information was sent (emails, activities and lies) still work at the organization I am at now.  At one point I needed to return to the floor I used to work on to collect some samples accidentally left in a freezer there.  To do so I met a woman I used to work with and she helped me find them, but the next day my supervisor confronted me and told me that I was “not welcome” on that floor.  So clearly these people believe at least some of the lies.

In addition, my former boss saw to it that the professors on the floor I work now, and the head of the department I am now in, were included on the list to receive everything.  My current boss was also on the list.  He did know it was occurring during the “transition period” and didn’t do anything about it.  I see the head of the department in seminar meetings (I present there once a year and attend every week), and of course I see the other professors every day and at these meetings.  How do I look these people in the eye?  I assume at least some of them believe the outrageous lies being spread, how do I come back from this?  How can I not feel outraged and embarrassed at their knowledge of my private life?

One last couple of things.  About 4 months after my transfer I requested a copy of my personnel file from HR.  There is absolutely nothing about this monitoring in my file, no disciplinary action or anything negative whatsoever. Just the regular things – hiring info, salary, visa documents, reviews.  I also had a colleague call human resources to enquire about me as though they were considering me for another job.  Nothing much was said (the representative said they needed a “disclosure” to be signed), but he did say, “off the record there is nothing here that is a problem”‘ or something to that effect.  Does this mean I am in the clear with regards to this coming up with future employers?  How do you think I handle it with regards to my former boss giving a reference. Of course I would never list him, but someone may call anyways.  Should I preempt his negative review? Thanks so much for your advice.


Frequently, questions are followed up with more information. Although in this particular case, I was able to send a prompt response, I’m sure you realize there is no quick fix to such situations as yours that transpired over time and involved many individuals. In this follow up you mention the 1. A problem of lies being spread, 2. What appears to be a “not welcome” statement by someone with whom you had to seek information, and 3. A query about your files and pre-empting a badmouthing by the former boss.

Lies? You can refute them in a general email or request that you current boss do that. Probably unless they are easy to refute, it is best to not raise attention to them. Thinking coworkers and those from other departments probably will evaluate the source of them, and regardless of what you might argue, they will believe or not believe them based on their estimation of the character of the professor who departed.

Not welcome. Your current boss should deal with this. It’s his responsibility to make your work effective. Your work can’t be effective with a “no welcome” or even a cold shoulder. Inter-departmental and/or interpersonal exclusion is both you’re and your boss’s business. Ideally, it doesn’t have to be a topic of discussion, but such a statement certainly should not be ignored. The why of such a statement deserves explanation. If you are to blame, you need to know why.

Files and worry about a former boss negative review. I wouldn’t worry about it. If raised in an interview, you can briefly comment that he and you saw the lab work differently and that he was long gone. It’s best not to pre-empt what might not come up. You have a right to submit a rebuttal to any negative report in your file. Most employers are cautious about giving negative evaluation to inquiries about a candidate they are considering.

Even when we choose to move on, some gossip about us may be forwarded; however, an individual who has a record of achievement, as likely you have, need not worry. Please after a few weeks feel free to let us know how things are going for you. May the wind be at your back and sun on your brow.