What to do about an anonymous letter
March 11, 2008 6:46 PM   Subscribe

What do I do with an anonymous letter about one of my employees?

I run a small business (14 employees) in a small, rural town. Today in the mail there was a letter that accused one of my (married) female employees of being an "internet whore", among other similar things. There were three photographs with the letter that appeared to be screen shots of a web site - she was pictured. The short letter contained stuff like "I thought you should know what kind of disgusting person worked for you", etc. etc.

No one else has seen the letter (generally, as today, I'm the one who goes to the post office and opens the mail - although not always. Whoever sent the letter had no way of knowing for certain I'd be the one who opened it. The letter wasn't addressed to me by name, but to "The boss of xyz company").

She's on vacation this week with her (notoriously jealous) husband.

What should I do? At this point I'm thinking that when she gets back I should hand the envelope to her, tell her that it appears she has a problem to deal with, and that I don't want to discuss it further (that's true - I wish I had never seen it or had to think about it).

Further complicating things, her role at the business involves dealing with the public - she's in sales. Her (semi-?) private behavior, if truly objectionable, could, I suppose negatively affect the business.

I'd just as soon pretend I never got the letter and pictures, but I'm afraid that if I don't address it, the thing will just escalate further.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (39 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Shred it and be done with it. The person who sent you that is crazy, and we do best when we ignore crazy people.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 6:50 PM on March 11, 2008 [2 favorites]

Do tell her. That is seriously creepy. It could be her husband who sent it, to try to get her fired, or to humiliate her. Or someone could be stalking her.

Either way, please be the bigger person and let her know you don't think less of her.

If her sales start to drop, fine. But until then, it would be kinda an asshole move to reprimand or punish her.
posted by sondrialiac at 6:51 PM on March 11, 2008 [6 favorites]

Zounds. Your plan sounds good to me. Really, it is going to be her problem, whether you discuss it with her or not. I can't imagine that the kind of Nosey Parker who sent you the letter won't find other avenues to sully her name about town. Better she knows what's happening.

I'd just as soon pretend I never got the letter and pictures, but I'm afraid that if I don't address it, the thing will just escalate further.

You should be dead-honest with her. The thing's going to escalate no matter what you do, because she has a vicious enemy out there. Addressing it means giving her the letter, informing her that as far as you're concerned, it has nothing to do with her performance as an employee, and remaining confidential about it. Unless there are threats involved that take it beyond the realm of a poison pen letter, I don't think there's anything else to do.

Small towns can suck sometimes.
posted by mumkin at 6:59 PM on March 11, 2008 [2 favorites]

Talk to your lawyer. If you don't have a lawyer, you should get one.
posted by The World Famous at 7:01 PM on March 11, 2008

You should want no part of this, and since no-one can prove you got that letter, shred it and forget it.
posted by nicwolff at 7:02 PM on March 11, 2008

You don't mention considering that this might be a lie. I'd hazard a guess that someone crazy enough to send that letter is also crazy enough to make it all up (and even crazies can learn Photoshop). Optimus Chyme's advice sounds like the way to go, as far as I'm concerned, but if you choose to show her the letter, I'd recommend making it clear that you assume it's a lie. "I don't want to discuss it further" makes it sound like you believe the photos are real but none of your business. Especially if it's fake--but even if it isn't--letting her know you trust her over an anonymous crazy person will make this mortifying situation a little more bearable for her, and probably for you, too.
posted by Meg_Murry at 7:09 PM on March 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

I second the lawyer idea, if you have one. If not, shred it and forget about it. Being an "internet whore" doesn't really affect work performance.
posted by Sufi at 7:13 PM on March 11, 2008

Her (semi-?) private behavior, if truly objectionable, could, I suppose negatively affect the business.

This printout you've gotten does not prove that there is a website with these pictures, or that your employee was the one who put up the pictures, or that they are pictures of the same person's head and body together.

If I was this woman, I would want to know that someone was sending this sort of letter. I'd tell her that I would have just shredded the thing and never thought about it again, but I thought that she should know someone had sent it. Then hand her the letter. Do this when she's in a place where you can walk away after saying this and she can open the letter without others seeing her reaction.
posted by yohko at 7:20 PM on March 11, 2008

If you hand it over you may wish to add this statement, "I don't care what you do outside these walls as long as it doesn't affect what happens inside these walls. If that ever happens, I would always go to the employee first, but I would hope that the employee would come to me."
posted by plinth at 7:22 PM on March 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

I like your idea. Give the power back to her.
posted by mynameismandab at 8:00 PM on March 11, 2008

A lot depends on how you feel about this.

Is it not ok with you that your employee's photos en deshabille are available on the internet? Does it affect your ability to interact with your employee or have her be the face of your business? Then you ought to mention it to her, in that context; and the anonymous sender has done you a favor

If you don't care what kind of pictures of your employee can be seen on the internet, then you have a choice to make. Anything you do in this situation, apart from just trashing the photos and never speaking of them, involves you in a struggle between your employee and some anonymous person who wishes them ill. What you are balancing out in this case is your desire to help your employee know someone out there has it in for them, and the methods they are using; against the fact that you really don't care to be involved in your employees' interpersonal dustups. If you want to help out your employee and you don't feel it would poison your working relationship, let her know what's going on. If you'd simply rather not be involved, trash and shred and pretend you never got them. I'd definitely take this latter course, for a number of reasons.
posted by ikkyu2 at 8:09 PM on March 11, 2008

Throw it out.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:11 PM on March 11, 2008

I don't think you should shred it or throw it out. It might represent an annoyance to you, but it's this woman's LIFE.
posted by apetpsychic at 8:24 PM on March 11, 2008

Nobody knows that the letter was received, the accusations cannot be confirmed, and there doesn't seem to be any attempt at extortion or blackmail here. Your only obligation as a boss is to make sure that the company is not affected in any negative way, and from what you've described, unless this letter was accompanied by a good number of signatures or your company has some kind of sordid past where persons of questionable moral fiber were hired preferentially... well, there's basically no harm in ignoring this for now. Don't throw it away though - if the situation escalates and you get more letters you should get the police involved, as someone's a bit unhinged and is harassing your employee, using you as proxy.

It seems odd that they sent the letter to "the boss of xyz company" rather than send it to her husband, herself, or to any other organization she's involved with. It seems as if the person mailing the letter wants her to get fired, specifically. For this reason alone, I might ask your employee if she's been harassed outside of work. If someone is mailing letters all over town about her, she needs police assistance and maybe a big scary dog. If it was just one letter to you, you're being used and it would be best to separate yourself from the situation.
posted by krippledkonscious at 8:38 PM on March 11, 2008 [3 favorites]

Another vote for telling her. The fact that someone out there is trying to ruin her career is a very serious issue for her, and to keep her in the dark just to avoid an awkward discussion would be a great disservice to her.
posted by Hermes32 at 8:46 PM on March 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

Here's a thought. Not sure how realistic it is. Hand the letter to her, saying something like the following:

"This letter was addressed to me. Whoever wrote it claimed to be a coworker of yours, and was writing it about you. I stopped reading as soon as I realized that. I don't gossip -- if someone has an issue with me or anyone else in this office, they can talk to me directly. Otherwise, I don't give them any credibility whatsoever. Although my suggestion is to throw the letter away without reading it, I feel like that should be your call."
posted by treepour at 9:04 PM on March 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

you don't know who this person sending such a letter is and what else he/she might be capable of. how would you react if something else happened to your employee later and you hadn't mentioned this letter, which is an indication that there is someone out there who wishes to do her harm in one way or another?

I'd suggest handing over the letter to your employee in private. offer any help she might need and if you learn that she does have a more serious problem with someone, suggest she contact a lawyer or the police. at best this all goes away and it was just some letter being sent by a lunatic. if however this thing does turn into something worse and people learn about it, they -and I am speaking with your other employees in mind- will know you stood by her. a lot of people won't forget loyality and support from someone in time of need.

kudos for having asked this question, btw.
posted by krautland at 9:11 PM on March 11, 2008

I would hand her the letter and tell her, "Here this came addressed to me, but it is clearly for you."
posted by JohnnyGunn at 9:40 PM on March 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

I bet she didn't post them herself - someone who obviously has enough of a problem with her to send anonymous letters to her employer might well have somehow gotten hold of these photos (or photoshopped something, it seems from your original post they weren't even good quality so could easily be fake) and put them online to create the situation in the first place. The one thing you DO know is an anonymous person is trying to get her fired. So I am worried about her because who knows what else this person is up to.

But then I also wonder about legal implications. If you have a lawyer I would check with the lawyer on what to do first off because I am not one.. If you don't have a lawyer I think tell her.. the one thing you do know is you got a threatening letter about your employee and it seems you don't know if it has any connection to her private behavior b/c there are so many ways to fake those "screenshots". If someone is doing other harassing things (they may be already and she hasn't told you, why would she) additional documentation is very helpful for her to get the police to take action so I think you could also say, if she wants to take this to the police you are willing to back her up on what happened.
posted by citron at 9:42 PM on March 11, 2008

I second telling her in private and saying something supportive. Say that you're concerned for her well-being, and she should take steps to fix this, like going to the police if it's a stalker, that sort of thing.

Also, going to see a lawyer is a good idea, CYA is never a bad idea.
posted by Jhoosier at 9:43 PM on March 11, 2008

Please tell her. Wouldn't you want to be told if someone were waging this kind of campaign against you?
posted by LittleMissCranky at 9:49 PM on March 11, 2008

DO NOT shred it or throw it out. She needs to see it. She has a crazy person stalking her and trying to ruin her life. Sending a nasty letter/pictures to her employer is already so far over the line that I think it's very likely that the stalker will eventually escalate to worse attacks, including violence. How would you ever forgive yourself if you threw the letter away and she was later assaulted or killed by her stalker because she was unaware of the danger and thus unable to take steps to protect herself?

Personal anecdote: I had/have a mentally ill stalker from my political activism days. He was leaving repeated, explicit death threats on my voice mail. Research into his past revealed that he had a history of becoming obsessed with and stalking politically active women to the point of vandalizing their homes, and he also had a criminal history for assault and fighting. He went to jail for a few months for the death threats, I got a restraining order, I didn't hear from him for a while, and I thought it was over.

Two years later I received an email from a concerned stranger at another, unrelated political organization. The organization had received ranting letters about me and one of the people who worked there looked me up to warn me. I contacted my stalker's parole officer, and the parole officer was able to get him back on his psychiatric medication before he harmed himself or others. If that stranger had not taken the time to look me up and warn me about the crazy letters, who knows what my stalker might have done to me or another woman while unmedicated and unhinged?

If you don't want to get involved, just tell her so when you give her the letter. But even if you don't care what happens to her, it's still in your best interest to let her know about the problem so she can deal with it before the stalker does something like come after her at your business.
posted by Jacqueline at 9:49 PM on March 11, 2008 [2 favorites]

I agree with ikkyu2, that you need to tell her or forget it, but I don't think you should shred the letter at all. Forget it, lock it away where no one else will come across it, but keep it, because it's evidence. I can think of a number of situations in which you'd need to go to the police with it if this goes beyond someone out to ruin her reputation. Primarily, I'm thinking that if her husband is abusive, she won't turn him in, but if she shows up with bruises, you might need to go to the police. This is wild speculation, but just saying- don't do anything drastic, but also don't shred in the event this gets uglier.

And please, don't make this "her problem to deal with." Whether or not she's an internet whore, this is not her fault and you shouldn't suggest she has to do something about it, other than maybe report it to the police if she suspects she's in danger.
posted by slow graffiti at 9:51 PM on March 11, 2008

Give it to her and say, "I got this letter in the mail while you were gone and am not sure what to make of it. Whatever goes on outside of work is none of my business, I just thought you should know about it. If you need any help, I'm in my office...."
posted by the christopher hundreds at 10:35 PM on March 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

She might be in serious danger. I would think that fact might trump any embarrassment you might feel in sharing the letter with her. If she is being harassed, she will need it for evidence.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 12:03 AM on March 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Don't let the sender of the letter manipulate you. Any response on your part is bound to escalate the matter one way or another. Pretend you never saw it.
posted by klarck at 3:27 AM on March 12, 2008

The humane thing to do is to give it to her; it's clear someone is trying to harm her, and you can't know how far that person might go; she needs to be aware. The smart thing to do would be to have a quick chat with a lawyer about how you should do that, just to make sure you're covered for any weirdness.

I completely understand the impulse to ignore it entirely, but I wouldn't, since there may be real danger involved... And as well, you don't know where it goes from here. Maybe the nutcase is only after her, and won't ever bother you again. Or maybe they'll decide to involve you further... who knows how much further? Maybe the next thing will be cooked photos of you... Maybe her jealous husband sent it because he doesn't want her working, and might eventually decide that you are the villain in this story. Chances are, none of this will happen, of course, but you would certainly rue the shredded evidence if it did. Speak to the lawyer, and don't keep the employee in the dark.
posted by taz at 4:04 AM on March 12, 2008

i would let her know, just because there may be things going on in her personal life that this may shed important light on. my guess is it's from the husband--if he's jealous enough that -you- know about it, then he's probably got other issues as well.

i like your plan. i would be kind about it, though. people in abusive relationships don't need anyone else making them feel ashamed.
posted by thinkingwoman at 4:32 AM on March 12, 2008

However you choose to address it, I don't agree with those who suggest either shredding it or handing it over to the employee. Unfortunately, this is something you've seen and a weird something at that. You need to keep the letter, or at the very least consult a lawyer about it. This wouldn't preclude you telling your employee about it, and showing it to her, but you should make sure you keep the original of the letter.
posted by OmieWise at 6:08 AM on March 12, 2008

She deserves to know.

I say this as somebody who has a friend who experimented with Internet dating. One of the people she met turned out to be a grade-A asshole, and when things didn't work out he screencapped her photos from the dating site and created a bogus account on an I-want-sex type site with her pictures, the personal information he'd gleaned from their few dates, and her friends-only e-mail address.

She only found out when she started getting an avalanche of lewd e-mail in her supposedly secure mailbox. This had long-lasting and scarring effects on her, but nothing compared to what would have happened if she'd been unaware of this and it had somehow escalated into letters to her friends, employers, etc.

It is entirely possible that this is some vindictive nut that is out to ruin her life, and that you are not the only person to receive these sorts of letters. If her church leader, daughter's Girl Guide troop leader, mail delivery person, etc. etc. are all getting this hate mail and nobody tells her, she could have her life disassembled without even knowing why.

So: yes to lawyer first, then to talking to her. Maybe yes to calling the cops and saying you have received some disturbing correspondence about one of your employees, just to see if they have gotten any similar complaints recently.
posted by Shepherd at 6:21 AM on March 12, 2008

My vote is for telling her. But I'd do it outside the building. Talk to her over lunch or coffee or in the parking lot after 5:00. That would demonstrate that the whole thing is separate from the workplace.
posted by booth at 6:49 AM on March 12, 2008

another vote for telling her. having seen a crazy anoymous letter writer in action, it is possible other places she is involved with got letters also. if you still have the envelope it came it, give her that also. i would want to know- can't fight battles you don't know are going on.
posted by domino at 7:32 AM on March 12, 2008

Nthing the 'tell her' sentiment.

One thing that hasn't been mentioned yet - you say she's the public face of your company, or at least public-facing.

Does the printout show her as using her real name? Have you tried googling her name to see what comes up? I also believe what she does outside of work is her business, with the exception that if she is a public-facing person and if you google her name and she shows up on InternetWhores.com, that could be cause for concern for your company. (And again, maybe her name does show up on those sites and it may not even be her, but someone trying to sully her name..) but it's worth looking into.
posted by MarkLark at 7:48 AM on March 12, 2008

I believe you must tell her.

It's conceivable whoever did this will attempt to harm her in other ways, including physically. If it comes out later you didn't tell her about this letter, she (or her heirs) might come after you under the theory that failing to tell her deprived her of an opportunity to protect herself.

You are not the only one who knows about this letter, by the way, the person who sent it does (and in a small town, the postal workers may have noticed this unusual letter and remember putting it in your box), and may confess to sending it later, potentially putting you at risk of various difficulties.
posted by jamjam at 8:37 AM on March 12, 2008

I can tell you what I'd do—Consult a lawyer with employment law experience. Both for her and for you—you don't want to do anything actionable, and you want to be able to provide your employee with some reasonable advice. That discussion with a lawyer should inform how you disclose this to her, but you should, ultimately, disclose it to her. This is one of those areas where communication has to be both clear and precise, especially because I imagine that an anonymous creep won't stop at sending in this letter and will probably end up with legal proceedings against them. You want to be able to document your professional handling of this should you ever be called further down the line.
posted by klangklangston at 10:58 AM on March 12, 2008

As far as I'm concerned this issue transcends employment law and falls squarely into the category of "being a decent human being." And with that in mind, I say "tell her." Give her the letter. She has a right to know there's a nutter on her tail.
posted by adamrice at 12:47 PM on March 12, 2008

As far as I'm concerned this issue transcends employment law and falls squarely into the category of "being a decent human being."

When the lawsuit is filed, "being a decent human being" will not be one of the allegations or causes of action.
posted by The World Famous at 12:50 PM on March 12, 2008

My vote is for telling her. But I'd do it outside the building. Talk to her over lunch or coffee or in the parking lot after 5:00. That would demonstrate that the whole thing is separate from the workplace.

Uh, yeah. Right. Corner a female employee in a dark parking lot after nightfall, and then hand her an envelope full of naked pictures of herself. There's some crackerjack advice right there. No jury would convict for sexual harassment in such a case, because it's so obvious you were just trying to be a decent human being.
posted by ikkyu2 at 7:49 PM on March 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Definitely tell her you received it, give it to her, and specifically say that you've made no copies of it, but if any more arrive, you'll hand them over.

Call your staff in (her too) and tell them this: "Alice has a stalker, who is has sent a nasty letter to me and may send some to you. If you receive any, kindly put them in an envelope and give them to Alice directly, or if she is not here, to me. Do not leave them lying around or make copies. The matter is not to be discussed outside the company without my and Alice's permission. I'd prefer if you kept it completely to yourselves and don't even talk to family and friends about it, as it is quite likely to lead to legal action and I don't want it getting any more complicated than it has to be or involving anyone else than it already has. I especially don't want it affecting the business, or anyone's position here. I value all of you as staff members and expect you to behave with maturity and discretion."

Privately, tell her this: "I'm not going to ask if it's really you, or if you're really into putting up exhibitionistic photos of yourself on the internet. I only consider this my business as much as it affects the company. So if it is you, I'd like you to consider how you might deal with someone recognizing you from it, and especially if that leads to any sexual harassment, or people making trouble for you or for us generally. If you need any time off to talk to the police, or if you need anything from me to get restraining orders to keep someone away, let me know."

The general public recognizing her shouldn't be a big deal anyway; you can reasonably expect the occasional guy to look at her with the "haven't I seen you somewhere" look, and that's probably it. If someone mentions it to you, just say "Yeah, we know. Her business, not mine." and leave it at that.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 8:22 PM on March 12, 2008

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