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How to deal with a mentally unwell (but not threatening) former intern?
April 16, 2012 10:59 AM   Subscribe

Former intern has become mentally ill and sends numerous disturbing (but not threatening) emails. Not sure how to proceed.

Former intern is a female, mid 20s. Was quiet but nice and worked adequately, did not act out when she was our intern, about 2 years ago. Left when her "term" of being an intern was over (usually about a semester's worth of work). About 6 months to a year later, we all started seeing just a flood of daily, strange facebook postings on her own personal board about everything under the sun, but constant. It was at a rate that was far beyond normal, or just having a drunken few weeks. She then began posting strange, disturbing (but nothing to do with self harm) "artistic" semi-nudes. We were all taken aback as it seemed very out of character.

She then started posting very accusatory messages, saying that people had wronged her in certain ways, at school and at work. She accused people (by name) of sexually harassing her, having affairs with co-workers, pedophilia, you name it. Super conspiracy stuff. She'd usually go back and delete it after a day or so. To me, it sounds like schizophrenia. It has been going on now for almost a year. She will send certain people who she considers on her side numerous facebook messages in a week, accusing other people of all sorts of strange things, and then immediately following it up by asking for work. It is very, very out there stuff. We've all spoken with our HR department about it and while they want to be informed of the situation, they do not feel that anything can or should be done by them unless she threatens herself or anyone else, or says she's going to show up on our doorstep. She has not done any of that, at all. Work has beefed up security. Fortunately, she does live several hundred miles away now.

In my personal case, I did write back to her once to tell her that we had no jobs at the moment, but that she can always check the job board for our company. It is clear that she will never be hired by us, but I had hoped it would stop the emails. She found an open job that she was not in any way qualified for, but took that as me lying to her about no jobs being open, and emailed several people about how I "denied" her a job. I have no hiring or firing power at all. She's now accused at least three to four other people of "denying" her a job as well. Another coworker wrote her back once, to say he was unable to help with work, and also rebuked her offers of romance by saying he has a girlfriend. He's still getting the same "do you have work/do you want to be my boyfriend" emails over and over again, despite that.

I'm of two minds: I feel badly for the girl because clearly she is unwell. From what we can tell she does live with family. People have talked about contacting her family but I just dont know if it is the right thing. She's an adult, and I'm wary just because I dont know the role her family plays in her life - what if they are not supportive, or part of the problem, or would make things worse - or would tell her we spoke to them, therefore making us a target? People have also talked about writing her back in a very direct manner about what she's doing and telling her to stop in no uncertain terms, but I'm afraid of escalating things and I honestly dont know if logic would work at this point. Some, like me, have blocked her on facebook and via email. Others have not, and while they do not interact with her, they feel better being able to keep tabs on what she's up to.

On our end, the ideal situation would be for the constant barrage of messages to stop and for us to feel safe. We are concerned for our safety, but then we also wonder if we should be doing anything to help her. Personally, I've been through a stalking situation by someone who is schizophrenic and I'm very, very wary of opening myself (or us as a group) to becoming even more of a role in her scenarios. The advice I was always given is to just not engage at all.

We document everything, and for me personally, if she did threaten to hurt herself or anyone else, I would pretty much demand action from HR, talk to the police, at least. One can sit and speculate all sorts of terrifying scenarios where things can get very, very bad in a situation like this...We dont want to overreact, but we want to make sure we are doing the right thing for all involved. If anyone has any advice on a situation like this, that would be great, as right now we are just in a holding pattern of documenting and ignoring.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (28 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
Why are you people following her Facebook and personal board? Disengage.
posted by rhizome at 11:01 AM on April 16, 2012 [32 favorites]


And you should all unfriend block her on FB.

You've done that, right?
posted by jayder at 11:03 AM on April 16, 2012 [8 favorites]


unfriend AND block her
posted by jayder at 11:03 AM on April 16, 2012 [4 favorites]


I've worked at a couple of places where emails of this sort were filtered and never seen by anyone except HR and maybe legal. In both cases that I know about, this was because an employee (never knew who) was being stalked. Any of us who ever had to work the front desk phones were given specific instructions on what could be given out about any employee's contact info (basically, none) and to whom calls should be transferred if the caller seemed...off.

The advice I was always given is to just not engage at all.

This is good advice and your company should implement policies to make that clear.
posted by rtha at 11:08 AM on April 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


Not sure what the question is?
Don't read her Facebook wall.
Don't answer her emails.
Don't get involved.
posted by KogeLiz at 11:10 AM on April 16, 2012 [5 favorites]


I also do not understand what her personal facebook posts have to do with your work.

This is not an issue for your workplace to concern itself with at all, unless she is posting to your employer's Facebook page or harassing you all through your work email.

Block her, ignore her, and don't involve her personal issues with your work.
posted by phunniemee at 11:10 AM on April 16, 2012


If it's at all affordable for your company, I would suggest to HR that they hire a consultant who specializes in personnel risk management to come up with a strategy and plan of action, given that there are a number of employees affected, and that all of you who are being harassed by her be briefed on that strategy and given support in carrying it out.

I am sorry you are having this experience.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:13 AM on April 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


The idea that co-workers from a job a person hasn't worked at in two years regularly monitoring their Facebook feed and documenting everything to send to H.R. sounds like a paranoid fantasy already. This person is not your responsibility.
posted by griphus at 11:13 AM on April 16, 2012 [8 favorites]


If this is all on Facebook, just block her. Everyone. The company too. From her perspective it'll look like you don't exist on Facebook at all.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:14 AM on April 16, 2012


Yeah if she were harassing you there would be steps to take, but it's someone that interned there two years ago and lives several hundred miles away no. Your steps are to disengage.
posted by kavasa at 11:16 AM on April 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


send it to HR, they can send her some references to competent mental health care resources.
posted by theora55 at 11:26 AM on April 16, 2012


Wait, am I missing something? It sounds like she is harassing her former co-workers with constant requests for work (and for dates with the one guy) which is why some of them look at her Facebook to see what she is saying about them, which apparently is quite a bit of inappropriate stuff.

She's now accused at least three to four other people of "denying" her a job as well. Another coworker wrote her back once, to say he was unable to help with work, and also rebuked her offers of romance by saying he has a girlfriend. He's still getting the same "do you have work/do you want to be my boyfriend" emails over and over again, despite that.

HR should be, in my opinion, more involved in this than they are, considering that the folks are being harassed by this person because of their connection with the company she once interned at, and her fixation that she is entitled to a job there.

On the one hand, I agree that the folks who are checking her Facebook would be better advised to disengage, per Gavin de Becker and all the other experts, but I think blaming them is a bit much, because my guess is that they're spooked by the "disgruntled former employee shows up with a gun" news stories one hears every so often (some of which were telegraphed by disgruntled former employees on social media).

Remember that one of the things Gavin de Becker says repeatedly about his strategies for dealing with stalkers and harassers is that they go against the conventional wisdom. The conventional wisdom is "watch your back," after all. I would bet dollars to donuts that the people who are watching her Facebook aren't doing it because they love the drama, but because they're concerned about what she'll say or do.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:26 AM on April 16, 2012 [10 favorites]


How to deal with it? You don't. Not sure how to proceed? There is nothing to proceed with here.

This is not you or your department's business. Stop with the speculating, for god's sake. Stop following her on Facebook. Block her, block her email, and never ever again contact her, especially not to advise her to check the job board!

I do not understand why HR has not insisted on this already, and on preview, I agree with Sidhedevil's observation that they should be more involved than they are.
posted by Specklet at 11:30 AM on April 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


Specklet is absolutely right on. HR should have told everyone to disengage, to forward whatever correspondence they received from her directly to them, and to let them (or someone they hired) be in charge of monitoring whatever she posted about the company or about individual employees on social media rather than getting all Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys as individuals.

But it sounds like they dropped the ball on this and just let everyone come up with their own individual strategies. This is crap, and in fact is going to be counterproductive to dealing with the problem. Now you've got a lot of tense people being reactive, rather than proactive. Bad call from HR.

So you can either just do the right thing yourself and disengage, and encourage others to do the same, or you can get folks together and pressure HR to step up their game (preferably with the help of someone trained in the field of personnel risk management, because they don't seem to have that skill set in-house). Beefing up security is a waste of money without creating a risk management strategy.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:45 AM on April 16, 2012 [9 favorites]


I think a lot of people have missed this in the original posting: Some, like me, have blocked her on facebook and via email. Others have not, and while they do not interact with her, they feel better being able to keep tabs on what she's up to.

The OP has already blocked her on facebook, other in her company are too afraid too. Sidhedevil and Specklet are right, the people of the company should not speculating about this woman and what she might do. It interferes with production and brings down morale. Definitely bring it to HR and let them handle it.
posted by patheral at 11:54 AM on April 16, 2012


Do HR actually know about this? I get the impression that they don't.

They should.
posted by tel3path at 11:55 AM on April 16, 2012


We've all spoken with our HR department about it and while they want to be informed of the situation, they do not feel that anything can or should be done by them

From paragraph 2. This is exactly the wrong response, especially seeing as Work has beefed up security (later in paragraph 2).

Not knowing your organization, I don't know what the right next step is. Maybe revisiting HR? Maybe going over the head of HR to whoever in senior management they report to (COO? CFO?) Maybe talking to the legal department?
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:02 PM on April 16, 2012


Re. the job back-and-forth, and the issue of some people "keeping tabs":

If it helps, I drew this up a few years ago* after a long, long bout of being stalked to explain to myself and others (mostly myself) that there is no way to engage somebody who is not currently mentally capable of discerning the difference between positive and negative responses.

There's a natural and very human tendency to believe in the back of your head that you can reason with people. Unfortunately, some people for whatever reason lose the ability to parse input, and any input will therefore be used to fuel their engagement with you.

There was literally no way you could have communicated "no job" to this person that could have been interpreted in the way you intended it.

This doesn't mean this is a bad person. Just somebody whose current switches have been thrown in a way that keeps them from parsing what kind of signal you're sending. The only possible answer is to send no signals.

*and the rest of the site is irrevocably broken – I resurrected this page pretty much alone because it keeps proving useful for folks.
posted by Shepherd at 12:38 PM on April 16, 2012 [8 favorites]


There are ways to deal with this situation through disengaging and utilizing HR--and those are the correct, professional things to do to protect yourselves and your workplace. But I think part of your question is, can I step in and help this person somehow? Because it is glaringly obvious from what you have written that she needs help and that no one is helping her (or, if they are, that it isn't working). Again, the answer can be, 'disengage, do not get involved' and that is a very rational answer. Yes, people may be in danger. Yes, it's disruptive for your workplace (as people keep tabs which is perfectly natural as her posts are alarming). So, yes, it's acceptable to focus exclusively on the functioning of one's workplace and redirecting this issue to HR. I would, however, consider contacting her family if that is possible. That might be a terrible answer, but if you are wondering if anyone else would consider stepping over that line were they were in your shoes, someone would.
posted by marimeko at 12:40 PM on April 16, 2012


I would, however, consider contacting her family if that is possible. That might be a terrible answer

It's a very compassionate answer. The gold standard view, though, would be that the most appropriate person to contact the family is someone who has experience in dealing with these issues, and who isn't speaking from a place of personal involvement (e.g., the consultant HR should have hired when they first heard about employees being harassed).

There are a couple of reasons for this: a) it makes it less easy for the family to dismiss the issue as just an interpersonal spat, and b) the person trained in personnel risk management would be far more likely to direct the family toward helpful resources.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:48 PM on April 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


sorry, I meant "far more likely to be able to direct the family toward helpful resources" given their professional training and networks.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:49 PM on April 16, 2012


We've all spoken with our HR department about it and while they want to be informed of the situation, they do not feel that anything can or should be done by them unless she threatens herself or anyone else, or says she's going to show up on our doorstep. She has not done any of that, at all.

Your HR dept seems to be taking the right tact here. Are you the owner of the company or any kind of authority figure who can dictate what HR does? If no, then why are you keeping yourself involved.

Did you have a personal or intimate relationship with her, i.e. do you have "feelings" for her so you are wanting to help her? If no, then why are you keeping yourself involved. If yes, then you should reach out to her personally, not as any kind of representative of your company, if at all.

There is no way you or your coworkers or "us" can possibly diagnose what's going on with her. Maybe she's schizophrenic. Maybe she's on drugs. Maybe she's just fucking with y'all because of some perceived slight or just to fuck with y'all.

She's an adult, and I'm wary just because I don't know the role her family plays in her life - what if they are not supportive, or part of the problem, or would make things worse - or would tell her we spoke to them, therefore making us a target?


Before making us a target? this seems like some high level paranoia. Why on earth would you know the role a former interns family plays in her life? And how do you know that she lives hundreds of miles away? Because it says so on her facebook page? Something seems off here, on both ends.

Like people said upthread, just block/ignore her at work. I guess I understand reporting stuff to HR, I guess, but that seems kind of creepy/stalkerish to me, tracking someones life like that. Then again, I don't really use any social media so maybe this is the norm.
posted by holdkris99 at 12:54 PM on April 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Sorry - I totally misread. Don't understand how I missed that.

By nothing, you mean nothing? Have they left you feeling that the only way you can protect yourselves is by monitoring her Facebook for threats? I understand why you're vigilant. Have they explained fully their reasoning for why you have to keep receiving her messages and have they given you any guidance about whether and how to block her? It makes no sense that they have no stated policy as to how you should interact with her.

I guess talking to the legal department next is your only move, if HR don't satisfactorily explain this.
posted by tel3path at 12:55 PM on April 16, 2012


She then started posting very accusatory messages, saying that people had wronged her in certain ways, at school and at work. She accused people (by name) of sexually harassing her, having affairs with co-workers, pedophilia, you name it.

I am pretty sure this is why the OP and her co-workers are not just blocking the girl on Facebook and completely ignoring her. They (and HR) want to know if she posts something defaming about one of them or the company.

This may be way too extreme or instigating, but the legal way to attempt to discourage such a thing would be a restraining order, I would think.
posted by curtains at 2:40 PM on April 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Bottom line: she hasn't threatened anyone. She's broken no laws. She's mentally ill. There is nothing unusual about mentally ill people, nothing that rare about paranoid people. So I really think the best decision here is to block her and move on.

Your company's and co-workers' current strategy looks, from where I'm sitting, like you all are getting riled up about nothing. And keeping her as a Facebook contact is just super-weird; in some sense, not blocking someone can be interpreted as an implicit tolerance of their activity.

There is no equivalence between "mentally ill person with weird grudge against us" and "person who's going to come shoot up the office." Your chances of that happening are infinitesimally small. Stop gawking at the crazy person, block her, and forget her.
posted by jayder at 4:58 PM on April 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


Bottom line: she hasn't threatened anyone. She's broken no laws.

I'd think that making public accusations that people are pedophiles would be defamation, and illegal.
posted by parrot_person at 1:45 AM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


It probably is the case that this woman poses no real threat and they should all block her, but I don't think it's enough to say that.

I once worked for a large company and one day an employee was the victim of a serious violent crime by a stranger who trespassed on the company premises.

The company held a question and answer session to explain what they were doing to maintain security and reassure staff that the same thing was unlikely to happen to them.

On the one hand, you could say that that was unnecessary because the guy had already been arrested and it was not the kind of crime that happens every second Thursday. They might as well have been reassuring us that we wouldn't be struck by lightning.

On the other hand, most of the questions *were* of an 'are we going to be next' nature, indicating that a lot of staff did have that fear and that it did not seem irrational to them. I guess it's relevant to say it was a stranger rape, because women are conditioned to think of stranger rape as something that's extremely likely to happen to them, in the same way office workers are conditioned to think that an unstable coworker is extremely likely to go postal. It's easy for a knowledgeable person to dismiss that fear as over the top, but being dismissive isn't what will make the fear go away.

Invoking extreme scenarios like violence also doesn't address the things this person is actually doing, which include false accusations of crime and immoral behaviour. It may be obvious to an informed observer that these accusations pose no real threat to anyone's reputation but the person making them, but you have to expect the subjects of the accusations to be disturbed by them. To a lawyer this must be old hat and barely enough to raise a yawn, but to them it's all distressingly new.

What I think should be happening is that HR should be meeting with the group of workers that are concerned about this and explain why they don't think it's dangerous. If it's legally inappropriate for them to do anything other than block her on Facebook then they should be clear about that, because some of them
might think this woman will be more provoked by that. Clear instructions will also stop these people from doing anything else to inflame the situation.

Maybe to those who aren't experiencing this it should be obvious that she's not dangerous and just needs to be blocked, but clearly it's
not obvious to these people, and what's missing is any assurance that the company is in control of the situation and has their backs. Instead they're being left to handle it individually and off the tops of their heads. A meeting to clarify policy would go a long way.
posted by tel3path at 3:10 AM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


And to further emphasise the against-the-oddsness of the crime, there was kidnapping involved, as well as murder (of someone else). Yet the company still took the trouble to reassure staff.
posted by tel3path at 3:14 AM on April 17, 2012


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