As you read this tale in management (mis?)adventure, consider what you might do along the way, then find out what really happened. The title is *only* the tip of the iceberg and is a powerful case showing how coworker gossip is as toxic as it is incomplete. 

Top Level Details You Need to Know:

  • The Pot: alleged, not proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
  • The Porno: of the human type, not food or real estate, and true!
  • The Productivity: varies, as it turns out – and that’s okay!

The Scenario:   Hostile Work Environment

Pier was studious, patient to an extreme. He took on the most difficult customers. Pier worked with them, sometimes hours at a time on the phone, as though he were working alongside them. Pier was the only person on the team who could somehow tolerate this level of intimacy.

Evan was very new to the department, just a year or two out of college. Evan was also very good with disgruntled customers, but with a clearly different style than Pier because he wasn’t so visibly affected by customer situations. To many on the team, this behavior appeared as though Evan “didn’t care” about customers, yet customers never complained about working with him.

One day Pier came to the manager’s office and asked to speak privately immediately about something he could no longer tolerate. When he stepped inside the office and asked to close the door, he began with a harrowing narrative about his personal work environment, and summarizing with this:

“I am really upset all the time. I’ve tried to deal with it, but I’ve had to go back on medication now for the first time in 5 years because of how bad it is here. I work very hard and yet I see Evan not working very hard at all. In fact, I notice he comes to work every morning reeking of pot smoke. And he also watches porno on his computer *all the time*! My pastor says I need to speak up for myself because you are not protecting me here. I can’t handle working around Evan anymore! He needs to be accountable for his actions!”

The manager was surprised at the details and shocked at how deeply affected Pier appeared to get before actually speaking up. It was clear that immediate action was required. The manager responded,

“No job should make anyone sick. I will look into this and figure something out to help you. I will deal with Evan. I’m sorry this is happening. This is serious. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.”

Manager’s Initial Strategy:

Immediately, a walk to Human Resources was in order. During that walk, the manager wondered what was going to be required. The HR director was visibly as concerned as the manager of the group, but had nothing he could readily offer:

“I’m sorry. We are overloaded with hiring here. We have no policy. It’s on my list, but we’re just not to a place to have time for that, yet. I trust you’ll be able to figure out something that we can use in the future. I’m sorry this is happening. Let me know how you handle it.

On the way back to her office, the team manager came up with two action points:

  • communicate work load
  • stop the porno at the office.

Reporting on the workload was the easy part. She could report on the whole group’s performance with a few statistics she already used on a regular basis.  What she wasn’t sure would be clear was that It was someone could have very low statistical values, yet perform a very important function in the department. Sometimes, clients just needed a lot of personal attention. To run well, the department needed to have at least a few people who could handle that level of intervention. On the other hand, she still needed to get help to the vast majority of customers who didn’t need a high level of intervention, but did need a timely response, particularly that first response to an inquiry.

The following table was a typical example of the stats she posted on her door. Employee’s only knew their personal number unless another employee willingly shared what his number was with other people. These numbers were unique to this report, so no one could look up the number here and find out about other people’s work.

Employee Total Closed Reopen
Evan 45 40 10
Most Senior 40 35 3
Average 25 19 2
Pier 8 4 3
Newest 5 0 3

The manager was also totally unprepared for Pier’s follow up:

I am a looser! I’m not doing much work at all! Am I going to get fired?”

The manager explained that Pier’s work was needed for certain customers and she could see and hear from other information sources. He didn’t need to worry about his performance. The fact that Pier took this one piece of data and extrapolated to even get to the idea he could get fired spoke volumes about Pier’s work life, however. So, in additional to expressing gratitude for Pier’s work, she suggested that he work on balancing work life more, so that he could sustain work here more easily.

Tackling the porno problem was another matter.

The manager had a *huge* problem with porno, personally. She felt extremely embarrassed to even say the word, much less address an actual issue with employees around it. She brought Evan into her office to discuss. She found herself blushing, sweating, and almost unable to speak.  The stakes felt very high to her, although she really didn’t know how this was going to go.

“Evan, I have to speak with you about a serious matter. Someone on the team has reported that you frequently view porno at work. You must stop doing this. You are an excellent member of the team. This won’t affect a performance review, but it is an offense worthy of immediate termination. As you can see from my reaction, I can barely talk to you about this.”

She was totally unprepared for Evan’s response:

“But those are customers. Sales told me that I needed to help them get up and running.” 

And it was true! The company had taken on a number of porno sites– full payment up front with a large forecast of future sales *if* customer service was adequate. They were focused on controlling access and making credit card processing bullet proof to run their legal, albeit offensive to most, enterprises – specialties of this company’s software products. Continuing to give porno sites customer support was demanded by the CEO, himself. The manager was simply going to have to deal with the employee “issues”.

The manager asked Evan how he felt about doing this work. Predictably, he said, he was okay with the situation.  With Evan’s agreement, she made Evan the point contact for all porno customers and hope that porno didn’t become a bigger basket of customers.

After these exchanges, the porno problem quite literally went away.

It appears that Pier’s complaint was very heavily steeped in his assumption that ease at work and porno went hand in hand with someone getting paid and not doing a fair share. He also started easing back his overall effort with individuals.

The company eventually got a harassment policy, overall but nothing to address when porno internet software is a customer’s business.

The pot “observation” remained an allegation, but once the workload was made transparent no more complaints from Pier, nor any complaints from any other staff member surfaced.

  1. What would you have done if you were in this cast of characters?
    • The Manager?
    • Pier, the harassed employee?
    • Evan, the harassing employee?
    • The HR Manager? The CEO?
  1.  What porno policy would you have created under these circumstances?
    • No porno from customer sites isn’t an option, but no other porno is
  1. What other courses of action could the players in this scenario have taken?
  • If a person has an issue with the behavior of a peer, should the process always begin with a direct discussion with that peer?
  • When one person’s idea of a hostile environment cannot be accommodated, what other kind of solutions can be pursued?
  • What happens when you, as a manager, feel uncomfortable with your directives from your manager(s)?
  • Is that different from when you, as an individual, feel uncomfortable with your directives?


The Four Agreements:

  1. Be Impeccable With Your Word.
  2. Don’t Take Anything Personally.
  3. Don’t Make Assumptions. ß Wow, did this ever keep happening!
  4. Always do your best.

What pieces of these agreements could be applied to this situation?

Fascinating side note: As it happens, scientists started the first internet wires across the globe, but the porno industry advanced not only the privacy strong internet encryption engenders that we all enjoy today, but the business of on-line porn also brought safe, private credit card purchasing over the internet to the forefront of web technology – something that generate industry wide standards we use today, including banks. Talk about taking the good with the bad!