I’m going to criticize a professional advice columnist again. Here’s the letter in today’s Dear Abby:

DEAR ABBY: I am writing on behalf of my friends at work. We have a co-worker, “Madge,” who had a stillborn baby last year. It was tragic. Our problem is, she keeps a photo of the deceased infant with its little eyes sewn shut on her desk in plain view, so that if we must interact with her (we have an open cubicle layout) we have to see it.

Is this appropriate? Ninety percent of the employees here are women. Most are appalled. Others say, “Well, it’s all she has.”

Madge is expecting again, and we are rooting for her and the baby. However, in addition to all this, she is mean and gossipy. Madge tells everyone what to do and how to do it — which is not in her job description. I hope that when the baby arrives she will soften and not be so bitter. But, Abby, how on earth do we blow off that photo? — APPALLED IN THE MIDWEST

DEAR APPALLED: While a person’s desktop is usually private territory, I agree that the photograph you describe is inappropriate in an office environment. Because Madge feels the need to keep the picture of her stillborn baby close, it should be kept in her purse with other family photos, or in her desk drawer.

How very sad that poor woman must be. The person who should deal with this delicate problem is the boss or the supervisor.

If a manager came to me with this situation, I’d ask the following questions:
1. Are other people allowed to have pictures of their family/friends/children on their desks?
2. Would this picture be appropriate if the baby had lived? (Granted, the eyes woudn’t be sewn shut, but otherwise is it appropriate–size, placement, etc.)
If the answer to both these questions is “yes” then there is no way I would ask “Marge” to remove the picture of her baby.

I think the real key here is in the author’s last paragraph: Marge is “mean and gossipy” and “tells us what to do.” This is not about a memento of a lost baby. This is “we don’t like Marge. If it was Carol in this situation, we’d understand, but Marge is a jerk.” I’m surprised (well, not really) that Abby missed that part. Volunteered information that has no relation to the topic at hand is usually the most important piece of information.

The manager needs to address the Marge as a jerk issue, but not that picture. Granted, if she has it in a portrait size frame you can ask her to have a smaller picture to be more in line with the rest of the department (but it needs to apply to everyone–no pictures bigger than 5×7 or something). Chances are if all goes well with the new baby, the new baby’s picture will take precedence over the deceased baby. But if not, deal with it.

UPDATE: I found an entire discussion the topic at Etiquette Hell. It was an interesting read.

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6 thoughts on “Re-Advising

  1. I beg to differ. While I agree that issues with Marge’s personality need to be addressed, I don’t think applying the standard that “it’s a family/friend photo” is accurate. If the coworker was a male who had a sexy picture of his wife/SO in his cube, there would be no doubt this would be asked to be removed if someone raised an objection (and in open cubicle environments, there should be no expectation of privacy). Why would this be different, just because it’s an emotionally sensitive subject matter? I feel for her, but the photo can be viewed as disturbing for a lot of people (Hello, it’s a dead baby!) and if she’s expected to work and interact with those around her, it is not appropriate.

  2. I agree that it would totally creep me out, but the problem is treating people fairly. If there is no policy against it, you can’t ask someone to take it down without risking problems.

    I might mention to her that some of her co-workers are bothered by it, but I wouldn’t ask her to take it down.

    I still think the real problem in this situation is that the co-workers don’t like her. It’s amazing how little you’ll tolerate from someone you don’t like–and how much you’ll put up with from someone you do.

  3. While I agree people tolerate more from those they like…people also are quickly exiled to outsider status by such inappropriateness.

    This person is almost certainly quite aware of how uncomfortable it makes people and she has made a statement to them by keeping the photo up.

    I would think the problem would need to be addressed simply for workplace moral, and really find it disturbing that companies have to allow anything outside of espionage or attendance. I think this is more than “we don’t like you” – it really is subtle confrontation. People don’t persist in doing things that make the majority of people uncomfortable otherwise.

  4. Do you really think Marge knows it makes others uncomfortable? Of course, I haven’t seen the picture. But, if you are a grieving mother and this is the only picture of your baby, it may not cross your mind that it creeps other people out.

    I just hope that it’s not a situation I encounter in real life.

    I do be Abby gets a bunch of letters about it, though. I’ll be interested to see what others say.

  5. That is my personal opinion.

    In American culture death makes everyone uncomfortable, and I think women in particular are especially sensitive to this topic. We all fear loosing a child very deeply.

    My own family has a penchant for taking photos at funerals. I never really got it. Even when we lost a very young family member. Those photos were never displayed anywhere.

    Let me pose the question another way. If Marge had photos of an older family member at a funeral in an open casket – would you feel uncomfortable? Or say a dead pet.

    Personally I find death a very private matter with the people who knew the decedent. But that is just me.

    I think that Marge was quirky and became an outsider then perhaps became passive aggressive to the co-workers.

    I’m not trying to diminish her grieving, but I think it also creates an unhealthy work environment. Her need for non-closure doesn’t trump the needs of the rest of the co-workers who may even find the photo slightly traumatic.

  6. Madge tells everyone what to do and how to do it — which is not in her job description.

    Who has that in their job description?

    Those of us who do not even have an official job description must look with envy upon those who do. =)

    The picture problem disturbs me on many levels. I won’t comment, not being a woman, for fear of inadvertantly offending.

    FHL, not re-choosing identity as he glares at the screen

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