Dear Lifehacker, I have an arsehole friend who sent me an email titled "Funny Joke" and it turned out to be a photo of two senior citizens having oral sex. I opened this at work, and apparently I was the funny joke. Fortunately no one saw the image, but what if they had? How can I avoid getting in trouble or worse? Thanks, Accidental Pervert
I can say from personal experience that this is always a very awkward problem. If you work for a bad company it might even be unsolvable. Nevertheless, let's discuss your options.
Prevention Is Better Than Cure
When someone sends you an inappropriate image during work hours, it's always better if you have a chance to stop other people from seeing it rather than explaining it away. While you can't stop your friends from sending embarrassing emails, you can take measures to prevent yourself from accidentally displaying them at the office:
- Disable Images: Most email applications -- both for the desktop and web -- allow you to turn off automatic image downloads so nothing shows up without your explicit permission. Gmail does this by default (until you approve a sender manually), and so do many webapps. Many offices use Outlook, however, which offers the most control. Just follow Microsoft's instructions to block images from an individual, an entire domain, or everyone.
- Use Parental Controls: Embarrassing content doesn't always come in the form of an image, but rather a link in an email. You can't always tell where a link will take you, so if your IT department doesn't prevent it you can turn on Parental Controls (instructions for Mac and Windows) to prevent inappropriate content from loading. If it can't load, it can't embarrass you!
- Sort Out Personal Email: If you're really paranoid, you can use your respective email app to create rules/filters to move any non-work email out of your inbox and into another folder automatically. This will keep you from looking at it until you know you can go somewhere private. This might be a little annoying, but if you're really concerned it's a simple option to implement. Just follow these instructions for Outlook, Apple Mail and Gmail.
Obviously the only surefire solution is to not allow your personal life to enter the office in any way, but we're trying to be realistic here. Filter out as much as you're comfortable with, as the more measures you take the more hoops you'll have to jump through to get things done. Pick what's right for you and don't overdo it.
Acknowledge And Apologise
I was sent a dirty picture at the office once and it resulted in a far more embarrassing situation, but I managed to keep my job. My friend sent me an email with a subject that said "NSFW: Does this look like Jon?" I was going through messages during a meeting and deleting irrelevant ones, all while my laptop was hooked up to another monitor.
When I got to his message, he'd sent a picture of a former friend of his engaging in anal sex. He wanted me to know if I thought the guy looked like that friend or not. Naturally, I freaked out and quickly closed the laptop just in case anybody could see over my shoulder. Because the external monitor was hooked up to the laptop, everything migrated to that screen moments later, facing the entire meeting. The pornographic photo was front and centre. I immediately ripped the power cord out from the monitor and it disappeared before anyone noticed. Well, except for my boss.
I spoke to my boss after the meeting to apologise and explain the situation. Being a reasonable human being, she understood the error and forgave me. All it took was acknowledging that I knew putting porn on my monitor during a meeting was a bad thing and that I didn't want it to happen again. After all, an employer really only has cause for concern if you purposefully put pornographic imagery on your work computer. It displays poor judgment in most offices, so if it's there by accident you shouldn't have to worry. Just use the prevention tips mentioned earlier to make sure it doesn't happen again.
Take A Trip To Human Resources
Human resources isn't a catch-all department for problems, but if the situation turns sour and your manager/boss doesn't accept your apologies, HR may help. That said, don't rush down immediately after it happens.
If the accidental porn angered your boss, take a moment to calm down. When you go to your office's HR department, you want to appear calm and level-headed. If you're nervous or erratic, it will seem like you did something wrong. Be confident and know this was a mistake. Tell them you're concerned about your boss' reaction, you don't want to get anyone in trouble, and you just need a mediator to resolve the problem amicably. When you make a reasonably request in a calm and collected manner, it's hard to turn you down -- even if the situation involves porn.
For those without an HR department, try to find someone higher up on the food chain in the company that you can trust. If this person holds more power than you, trusts your judgment, and is respected by your boss, they will make a good mediator so you can have a civilised conversation about the incident.
Ultimately, however, once the porn has been seen it cannot be unseen. If you're caught, any explanations you provide may fall on deaf ears. Some companies just aren't very understanding. Hopefully you don't work for one of those. If you do, you better hide that porn well.
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