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Some 'News' Should Be Left at the Door

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 8, 2006

So how about this nasty scandal?

And yes, it's so salacious, I won't even reiterate the details here.

So does that mean you also shouldn't talk about it at work? Can you not talk about it at work? What about reading these instant messages that you received via an e-mailed link on your company computer? Or accepting or passing along stories about this scandal from your work e-mail?

When someone else has apparently crossed the line in a big news way, where do we, as workers, draw the line in discussing it?

"It's hard not to get into a conversation about this at the office," Brad Woodhouse, communications director for Americans United to Protect Social Security, a coalition of labor and liberal groups, said as he stood around a bar after work discussing with co-workers the scandal involving former representative Mark Foley (R-Fla.).

Welcome to this month's uncomfortable water cooler conversation.

"The line on what people discuss in the office keeps getting moved back," Woodhouse said. It doesn't matter what your political persuasion is either, he said: He talked about Monica Lewinsky and the infamous dress, too. "Now, we're willing to go farther. But that's not because of what happened at work but in life."

Connie Bertram, a labor and employment lawyer, said that when the Clinton-Lewinsky reports came out, she told her client companies that they had to let employees know that "just because something is news, that doesn't mean it's appropriate to talk about" -- at least on some level.

And while the nation's capital has been home to more than one scandal mating sex and politics, it by no means has a monopoly on salacious tidbits.

A little more than a week ago, a video made its way to the computers of Brazilian workers, showing a Merrill Lynch banker having a beachside hookup with Daniella Cicarelli, an MTV host and the ex of Brazilian soccer star Ronaldo. The video crashed computers on trading floors in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, according to news reports. It became the hot topic at work -- much hotter than the election of the Brazilian president.

The thing is, people will talk, particularly when our workplaces are also our lives, said Kim Kretschman, a legal recruiter in the District. "We're good friends outside of work too," she said of her co-workers.

But as recruiters, they also must get recent graduates ready to handle personal e-mail and conversations at work. "We prepare them," said Karen Snider, a fellow recruiter. Those personal e-mails and instant messages they were used to sending and receiving as undergrads don't work in the workplace.

Doug Herrema, a government employee, keeps his work and personal e-mails completely separate, so the Foley episode hasn't made its way to his work computer. But that's not to say it's ignored. "Obviously there is a lot of discussion about this." He is more of a listener than a discusser because he does not want to offend about those two touchy topics: sex and politics. "I am very cognizant of different sensibilities, especially during election season."

It goes beyond political scandal. Just because someone else said something doesn't mean retelling it is always smart.

Bertram, like many employment lawyers, points to the infamous "Seinfeld" case. Fans of the TV show probably remember the episode where the only thing Jerry can remember about his new girlfriend's name is that it rhymes with a female body part. After watching it, an executive with Miller Brewing Co. talked about it with a female employee. That employee felt uncomfortable and told the executive, who apologized. Then she filed a sexual harassment suit against him. It was not the first complaint of sexual harassment about him, and he was fired. (He later sued for wrongful termination and was awarded a large sum of money by a jury. That was overturned.)

That worst-case "Seinfeld" scenario could happen at a time like this, Bertram said. What if someone makes a joke about the congressman's e-mails? Or maybe someone who is sensitive to the topic is offended when he or she overhears a conversation about the details. Or maybe discussing it in the office will start a partisan fight. "It's not like you can't talk about current events in the workplace, but you have to be careful," Bertram said. "It could come up in a harassment type of context."

Human resource directors do think this could be a prickly time. "There is a risk that the fallout from this could be potentially offensive to someone in an organization," said Kathy Albarado, a human resources consultant and president of Helios HR.

She remembers a time when employees at her former firm were talking at work about a "Seinfeld" episode. (Sound familiar?) People who overheard the conversation thought the topic was inappropriate and told Albarado, the head of human resources. She had to go to the people who were having the conversation to ask them to stop. Offending co-workers "wasn't their intent," she said. "They just thought it was funny."

So what's a company to do?

"I think people need some good, common-sense rules," particularly about forwarding e-mails about the salacious news, said Pete Snyder, chief executive of New Media Strategies. "Just because something's news doesn't mean it's socially acceptable. If it revolves below the belt, it's probably not good sense to send it on."

The fact is, even though the details of the Foley news are something most people would normally not speak openly about in the workplace, people will continue to talk about it. It's news, it's big and it's on a lot of people's minds.

"Everybody's talking about it. The hope is they're talking about it by saying, 'That's inappropriate and I wonder what happened. I wonder how this is going to impact Congress,' " Bertram said. "I think there are lot of legitimate things to talk about."

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