Texted Criticism of Bosses

A question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about disclosure of texted criticism of bosses:

I recently vented to my longtime friend and coworker via our personal phones, about my unhappiness with my work situation and made comments about my bosses out of frustration. She then told HR that I was unhappy, they asked what I said and asked to see the text messages (without my consent or knowledge prior). Now I’m being told that my texts were considered harassment and go against company guidelines since they were sent during company hours (we are working remotely, so they were not sent while on the property, and again on non-work devices).

Is this grounds for a violation or firing? I’ve looked into it and I’ve seen contradicting info. To my knowledge it is illegal to obtain personal text messages without all of the parties consent.

I spoke to my friend after the incident to understand what happened, she then told HR that I reached out to her and they are telling me that is considered retaliation and also another violation… is this true?

Please let me know what my rights are? I have never had any violations or issues with conduct in my last. This is the first and only situation. I thought I was talking to my longtime friend. —Talking and Texting Criticism of Bosses

Dear Texting Criticism:

You have already learned a lot from this unhappy experience. Therefore, what we suggest is not meant to preach about dos and don’ts. The purpose and hope of Ask the Workplace Doctors is to encourage you to reflect on the background and immediate causes for what has happened. And to help you see the options for coping with whatever happens. Before we consider options, the resolution of this situation will hinge on your sincerity about examining the background of your texting.

Background? Apparently either or both you and your boss (or as you say bosses) were not in sync about the performance of your work. From this distance, we can not know. Have you backed off enough from what you texted to be able to describe specifically what you might have done or were thought by them to have done or not done that provoked them to do or say something that upset you? Can you be specific about that–the action and words that annoyed you–and what preceded them?  Unless you can be explicit, there is little chance you can cope, correct or prevent this kind of upset from occurring again in your workplace or, if fired, in a future workplace. 

Coping with your friendship. Whether you mope or cope has much with your assumptions and actions. You vented to your longtime friend and coworker. That was natural. You have probably conversed with and texted her about many things, particularly distressing matters. Because she told HR about your unhappiness, you now must decide if this incident will cause distrust of her and sour your friendship. This too would seem a natural reaction. Think twice. You might have done the same thing. Think a third time. Should a friend see a friend as motivated by anything but acting in the best interest of that friend? In short, did Ann or whatever is her name, spill your unhappiness with your bosses out of anything but wanting to help you? Have you thanked her for talking with HR and come to an understanding about what will and will not be disclosed in the future? 

Coping with HR. You have the option to see HR as an adversary or as doing the best they can to make your working life better–to survive since you vented in what you thought was a private, but has become known to them. Now in a sense it is public because HR asked or ordered disclosure of what it was you criticized. What was it that you were so unhappy about that your coworker friend communicated to HR? You can go legal (that’s your choice) to seek a labor attorney’s answer to such questions as: Are texts private between coworkers especially during working time even when working remotely? And does HR have the right to review them without the participants granting permission? Perhaps the bigger question is not if HR was right or wrong but what might you do now to communicate constructively with HR? Rather than see their action intended to harm what might you do to remedy this matter? Can you talk with HR about how to solve the problem? Do you need to admit texting negatively about bosses, although it was a natural way for you to vent, it was not a way to solve your frustration with you bosses?  Might it be unwise to promise this will never happen again? Do you need to apologize to those bosses and ask how you might work in ways that they approve of? Do you need to candidly explain what specifically provoked your texted criticism of them?   

Planning for tomorrow.  Don’t assume you will be fired. However, is it not time for you to prepare should this matter result in firing? I assume you don’t work in a company that has a union, since you have not mentioned that. Nor have you mentioned your qualifications for your job and your accomplishments during the years you’ve worked there. So what do you have in your favor should you have to job hunt? What does your resume say about you? What credentials might you hang on your wall or, if you were to post a certificate noting the good things that you want on it? Each of us should be able to say some good things without bragging. Who helped make you who you are? Might you thank them? Who will provide recommendations?  What can you say positively in an interview about what you can do for an employer? Finally, what can you do to be resilient and be the kind of individual who can make lemonade out of lemons, or to at least eat chocolate with you when bad things happen? During these next few days, what songs might you sing, poems you might repeat, workouts you will do, food you will prepare and fun things you can do to boost up your spirits? Life will go on after this drama is concluded and you will be able to talk about it jokingly some day.  

Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS. Do let us know what you elect to do and what happens. Those who share make Ask the Workplace more worth consulting. I have sent your question to one of our guest respondents who has headed HR in several major companies. If he is able to interrupt his work now consulting, I will send his advice. Whether he does or not, you can allow some sunshine in for today and plan what you will do tomorrow.

–William Gorden