coworker invades personal privacy
August 10, 2010 6:58 PM   Subscribe

My coworker read my personal files. Should confront him, avoid the confrontation, or bring the issue to Human Resources?

I brought to work my personal drive to copy some pieces of my portfolio into it, and I forgot to take it back with me when I left work. (my coworker was the only person left in the office).
This morning the first thing I did was to check what were the recent items opened in my computer, and I found that a couple of personal letters (a very personal letter, and my self assessment review) have been opened. I know that I didn't open this documents because I never open my personal information at work, the only reason I brought my drive to work was to storage my portfolio.

I'm leaving this job in a couple of weeks, and I wonder if it is worth addressing this issue myself, with human resources, or let it go.

This guy is known for being a bully, although his work is appreciated.

Any thoughts out there?

posted by arugula to Human Relations (29 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You're leaving soon; let it go.
posted by downing street memo at 7:01 PM on August 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

if you were staying, i'd mention it to HR or my manager.

since you're leaving, just let it go.

in the future, use a non-personal drive to transport documents.
posted by nadawi at 7:02 PM on August 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

nthing let it go.
posted by Colonel_Chappy at 7:15 PM on August 10, 2010

Really? I'd take it to HR in a second. You'd best be sure it was that co-worker though. But reading your personal letters? Way out of line. Who knows what he's done with them--made a copy for himself, mailing it to your mom--it boggles the mind.

It just won't do.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 7:16 PM on August 10, 2010 [15 favorites]

If you've got the kind of workplace that doesn't let you use your work computer for personal stuff (it doesn't sound like you do, though), that might be an argument against bringing it to HR.
posted by box at 7:21 PM on August 10, 2010

I say let it go. You wouldn't be able to prove to someone else that he opened the files or how much of them he'd read or if he made copies or whether he'd really delete them if he admitted to making copies etc etc etc. And though it's an invasion of your privacy, it's not like he can really do much with that info. It's one of those small shameful curiosities that people sometimes indulge in and you'll be more careful in the future as a result. You wouldn't get anything out of confronting him or reporting him. Cut your losses, seriously let it pass, and sail out on a good note.
posted by Askr at 7:26 PM on August 10, 2010 [3 favorites]

A couple of things seem important to me: would the coworker have known that it was personal property instead of company property? Also, even if it was obviously a personal drive, it seems to me that there might have been rational reasons to investigate.

At least several people I know intentionally lift large amounts of internal company data before leaving a position, for a variety of reasons including if certain untoward things should mysteriously happen after departure; it's in the employee's best interest but not something the company would want happening (and something which might even be prohibited somehow in some employment contracts.)
posted by XMLicious at 7:32 PM on August 10, 2010

Take it to HR. This might not be the first time, or the last, just YOUR first time. (If you were staying, I'd suggest talking to him personally, but he's no-longer your problem, so let HR deal with it)

You don't need to accuse the guy to bring it to HR - tell them
- someone used your personal drive to find and pry into confidential personal information,
- Mr X was the only person still in the office when you left, so it might have been him. (Were you first in the office the next morning?)
- You are unhappy with the intrusiveness of this behaviour (obviously)

That's not a direct accusation, it's the facts as you are aware of them.

HR can decide the best course from there, they may choose to try to make a better workplace, or to ignore it, but they should at least have the knowledge they need to be able to do their job.

If I was stepping into that work environment, or already there, I would prefer that you had taken it to HR.
posted by -harlequin- at 7:35 PM on August 10, 2010 [4 favorites]

If you have actionable evidence and you would not be in trouble for bringing your drive in, take it to HR.

Remember, you're probably not the first person he has done this to. Wouldn't it be nice if the person before you had taken care of the problem?
posted by adipocere at 7:36 PM on August 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Are you doing an exit interview? If so, that could be a good time to bring it up.
posted by kindall at 7:37 PM on August 10, 2010

eally? I'd take it to HR in a second. You'd best be sure it was that co-worker though.

How does this not degenerate into a he-said/she-said scenario? Would HR even have the technical literacy to understand how you know someone was snooping in your private drive?

If you're leaving anyway, there is no point.

If you were staying, you would probably want to bring it to the attention of HR, if only to document the first instance of what might develop over time into intrusive, bullying, and even stalker-like behaviour. But you would need to document a pattern of behaviour to prove your case.

There is really no point. But watch your back until you get out of there.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:10 PM on August 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Then again, as others have said, it may be a good idea to let HR know about this fellow. But, once again, how can you prove anything? How easy will it be to actually explain how you know something happened?
posted by KokuRyu at 8:11 PM on August 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

I had a co-worker do this to me once. I carelessly left some documents related to my salary on my desk and when I came back I knew they had been read by a certain guy. I just let it go, because ultimately... meh. Unless the files that were read actually contained something sensitive like your social security number or credit card info then there's not much to be done. You don't have any proof.

Also you will be leaving this place and that guy anyway. Perhaps have a personal word and tell him he's an asshole, but that's really about all you can do.

Next time, Windows key + L. Also, Truecrypt.
posted by tracert at 8:19 PM on August 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

Don't touch the computer. Call the police. Fingerprint it. That's one end of the scale. The other is to let it go. I'd personally say something. Could it have been anyone else? Can you be sure? Another employee came back in later?
posted by chinabound at 8:23 PM on August 10, 2010

Consider that if you report it to HR, you will lose even more privacy. Without knowing the content of your letters and the proactive nature of your HR department, I don't think there's enough context here to give you a useful answer.

My experience over the years has been that most HR departments protect the company and their own positions before any other priority. Information you disclose to them will be used to further the company's position, not yours.

Nthing let it go.
posted by effluvia at 8:49 PM on August 10, 2010 [3 favorites]

Co-workers do creepy or unethical stuff, and no-one ever seems to bring it to HR because "it's not worth it." And that person continues on with absolutely no record of complaint against them.

And then they continue on, and eventually do something even more fucked up to another co-worker, who snaps and takes it to HR, and....the complaining co-worker looks crazy or is ignored or handwaved because this is soooo uncharacteristic of longtime-employee McCreepy.
posted by desuetude at 9:05 PM on August 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

Opened doesn't mean read. If i saw a random flash drived plugged in, I'd wonder what it was and might open a file to see who owned it.

Plus, it's your own fault for leaving it out, and its not work related, I doubt HR will even care.
posted by wongcorgi at 9:58 PM on August 10, 2010 [3 favorites]

1. HR will tell you to look after your shit. If you leave a thumb drive lying around with personal shit on it that's your issue - not HR's

2. You have no proof that it was your co worker

3. Unless the files were changed - how do you know they were accessed? MRU list in word? - Just curious on the last point
posted by the noob at 9:58 PM on August 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

Call the police.
That will probably get a reaction something like this. It may be unethical, creepy, etc. but really - don't leave your personal stuff at work. You're leaving soon and I can see no benefit to acting on this.
posted by sanko at 9:58 PM on August 10, 2010

We're talking about unchecked aggression here, dude... this aggression will not stand.

Well, maybe it will. If you are *really* concerned, talk to HR just to get on the record so if something pops up later you are covered. But it doesn't really sound like you have enough non-circumstantial evidence to go in and say a specific person did it, and they'll probably just ask why you weren't keeping a closer eye on sensitive files.

Since this is all fresh in your mind, it might be a good idea to look into encryption... you can run TrueCrypt (for instance) from an external drive and use it to separate and protect your personal data.
posted by foobario at 10:16 PM on August 10, 2010

Before you do ANYTHING, make sure you had permission to copy those files. Otherwise, you may have breached your contract, stolen your employer's property, etc. Protect yourself before you talk to anyone.
posted by acoutu at 11:11 PM on August 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

I would talk to HR since you're leaving and have nothing to lose by doing so. And you might help whoever gets bullied by this guy by providing a bit more ammunition against him. Not much, because it's he said, she said, but a little bit.

Don't do it during your exit interview, though, that needs to be focused on you and your performance as HR might refer to exit interview notes to give you references in the future.
posted by hazyjane at 11:12 PM on August 10, 2010

Let it go. Why? Because HR might elect to burn you instead of him, even it the regs tend in your favour. You are leaving. He is well regarded and staying. You have no concrete proof. You were copying files. You screwed up with your own private data on company premises.

Let it go.
posted by seanmpuckett at 3:58 AM on August 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

I can't believe people are saying it was OK for him to do this because it was a personal drive. At least where I work, employee self assessment reviews ARE considered confidential information and it is not OK to pry into someone else's review. Anyway, the fact that it's personal is irrelevant. If she left her wallet at work and he stole it would that be ok and not of interest to HR because the wallet is her personal property and not the company's? HR will want to know if there is an employee looking into stuff he shouldn't--today it might have turned out to be harmless stuff, tomorrow it might be important confidential records.

I agree with -harlequin---tell them the stuff you know to be true for a fact, let them make their own conclusions. I would only keep quiet if you thought you would get in trouble for putting stuff onto the USB in the first place, a possibility some have mentioned.
posted by phoenixy at 5:38 AM on August 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

What if this individual is going through everyone's desk, going through everyone's files.

How do you know he didnt go through your stuff every night after you went home - the only difference is this time you could check a computer stamp.

I would think HR would want to know. Can't you talk to someone there, explain a suspicion or fear that you have, without making a formal report.

By saying something, you might end up protecting the privacy of someone else down the road - and you might end up helping him, by nipping his trespassing habits in the bud before they really get him in trouble.
posted by Flood at 5:40 AM on August 11, 2010

So you didn't remember to take your personal drive home with you and then you're upset somebody looked at it? Be annoyed with yourself!

As you don't know when and how your path will cross with this company and this individual in the future I would tell HR you left your drive at work last night, explain that you belive somebody has accessed your drive which you are not happy about, try to assess if anything was changed and explain that as well. Then explain what you were trying to do, i.e. retrieve personal files from our work computer (it is ok to store these on your work computer at your firm, right?), that you have now copied these to your harddrive and would like somebody to confirm that there are no work files on your harddrive when you leave tonight - purely to protect yourself from accusations down the line that you were stealing files.

As you cannot prove that nobody other than that person had access in your absence there is nothing to be gained from mentioning them.
posted by koahiatamadl at 5:51 AM on August 11, 2010

let it go but steal his stapler
posted by bunny hugger at 6:43 AM on August 11, 2010 [4 favorites]

Is it obvious without looking at the contents of a file that the drive is yours?

Was it plugged into a computer only you have access to?

Does it have a label with your name on it, so someone who finds it doesn't have to look at the contents to return it to you?

Is there a file on it named "_THIS DRIVE BELONGS TO ARUGULA", so it sorts to the top in the file list? Or was there at least one file on it with a name that makes it clear who the drive belongs to, so a finder wouldn't have to actually open a file to investigate?

If none of the above is true, then it's possible your coworker was just trying to identify the owner, and had to open a couple of files to do so.

If one of the above is true, I would take it to HR myself, unless your company has strict rules about personal drives in company computers. And then I might still take it to HR, to 'fess up before Bully Coworker rats you out.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 6:55 AM on August 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

Probably irrelevant at this point, but if the OS is Windows (assuming you haven't deleted the shortcut file) I believe you can find out when the file was accessed.

Start menu, right click "Recent items", open.
View(s), details, right click the bar with the column labels like "Name".
Date modified/accessed/created (for the shortcut file) should be the time the actual file was accessed.
They may differ if the file was accessed more than once, but I'm not entirely sure how this works.

The actual list of "recent items" is much longer than what you see in the start menu - around 150 items and 1 month here.
posted by kittenstew at 2:04 PM on August 11, 2010

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