Dear Prudence

I Saw My Co-Workers’ Private DMs Mocking My Weight

They don’t know Zoom sent me their chat transcript. Should I tell HR?

Hands typing on a laptop open to Zoom
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Simon Hattinga Verschure/Unsplash.

Slate is now asking those who read the most to support our journalism more directly by subscribing to Slate Plus. Learn more.

To get advice from Prudie, send questions for publication to prudence@slate.com. (Questions may be edited.) Join the live chat every Monday at noon. Submit your questions and comments here before or during the live discussion. Or call the Dear Prudence podcast voicemail at 401-371-DEAR (3327) to hear your question answered on a future episode of the show.

Dear Prudence,

I recently hosted a Zoom call for my work team. At the end of the call, I was sent the transcript for the meeting’s group chat, as it contained some important notes. I was also accidentally sent the transcript for a private chat between my co-workers “Lisa” and “Natalie.” I thought we were on good terms. We’ve grabbed drinks outside of work and exchanged holiday cards last year. But during that brief chat, Lisa told Natalie it looked like I’d eaten “all of [my] quarantine food already.” She added that if she ever weighed as much as I did, she’d kill herself. Natalie replied with laughing emojis. While I’m not sensitive about my weight, these comments gutted me. I feel humiliated and wish I’d never seen them. I’ve subsequently had a brief “Enjoy your weekend!” message from Natalie. I don’t think either of them realizes I saw their chat transcript. I’m hesitant to contact HR because a) I dread other people seeing the transcript, b) I hate conflict and disruption, and c) I don’t want Lisa and Natalie to lose their jobs. But I don’t know how to move forward without addressing this. Should I go to HR?

—Ridiculed Over Zoom

I’m so sorry your co-workers said that about you and that you had to see it. I think bringing this up with your own supervisor and HR is critical because your company will continue holding Zoom meetings in the near future and likely sending out a lot of chat transcripts, so it’s important that everyone involved knows just what “private” means on that platform and adheres to the same respectful, professional standards in a private conversation as they would addressing the entire team. Obviously “private doesn’t really mean private” isn’t the only reason people shouldn’t speak cruelly about their colleagues’ bodies at work, but it’s still important. You also don’t need to make yourself feel responsible for any consequences they experience as a result of their behavior.

It’s also worth bringing up with HR for your own sake. You have a right to expect your colleagues to treat you with dignity and respect, and this degrading, dehumanizing insult makes working together extremely difficult, if not impossible. I can understand why you’d blanch at the prospect of showing this to anyone else and why part of you wants to just smooth everything over, pretend nothing happened, and avoid disruption. But I think the pain and anguish you’d feel during each meeting, wondering if your co-workers were mocking you again and if so whether you’d be forced to read the transcript, would simply be too much to bear.

Help! My Boyfriend Acted Carelessly and Got COVID-19.

Danny M. Lavery is joined by Monika Tomsinski on this week’s episode of the Dear Prudence podcast.

Subscribe to the Dear Prudence Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Dear Prudence,

Several years ago, at the start of my second year of university, I was assigned to look after a girl in the year below me. She sent me a note that said she was sorry if she had been distant, but a friend of hers had recently taken his own life and she was struggling with it. My only response was when I passed her in the street and she asked if I’d received the note. I said I had and that it was OK. It was a fleeting, public interaction. I was freaked out and didn’t know how to deal with that level of distress. It’s obvious now that she was asking for support, which I didn’t give her. I failed her, and it’s weighed on my conscience ever since. I want to apologize, but I’m worried it would be selfish to do so many years later and would dredge up a painful episode in her life she probably doesn’t want to dwell on. Do you think an apology would be appreciated? Or is it more responsible to live with regret and try to make sure I don’t let other people down in future?

—Long-Overdue Apology

I don’t think an apology, even years after the fact, is wholly selfish or instrumentalizing. You were a second-year college student informally mentoring a first-year college student. You were avoidant and a bit vague in your response at the time, but you weren’t cruel or punitive, and you weren’t a close friend of hers who suddenly pulled away. If you’re able to get in touch with her, start by asking whether she’s open to hearing an apology from you. If she’s available, you can tell her what you told me: that you’re sorry you didn’t offer her support after she told you her friend died, that you wish you’d been able to acknowledge your own uncertainty of how to respond rather than freeze up in the face of it, and that you hope she’s doing well now. Don’t try to apologize for more than your part or assume more responsibility than appropriate, and don’t go into any conversation assuming how she felt. It may have been a relative blip for her, it may have weighed heavily on her mind, or it may have fallen somewhere in between. If she’s uninterested or nonresponsive, then back off without berating yourself further.

Dear Prudence,

One of my closest friends just told me that her live-in boyfriend was laid off due to COVID-19. She was also recently furloughed. She would never ask for any sort of financial assistance, but I feel so guilty, since I’m lucky enough to still be working. Is it appropriate to let her know that I’d be more than happy to loan her and her boyfriend some money for rent? I don’t want to cross any lines or insult them, but I have the money to loan and don’t want my friend and her boyfriend to have to worry about their rent on top of everything else.

—How to Give Politely

It’s wonderful that you want to help your friend! Before you say anything to her, ask yourself how much money you can comfortably spare and how long you could last without having it repaid. What if both of them are out of work six months from now? A year from now? I don’t say this to dissuade you from offering them a loan, simply that you should figure out what you can spare, and for how long, before suggesting it. If you’d absolutely need a loan back in a few months, perhaps it would be easier to offer them a smaller amount as a gift. Lending money to a friend when they have a job already and some hope of repaying you in the near future looks quite different from lending money to a friend who doesn’t know when they’ll work again.

Don’t worry too much about offending her when you bring up the possibility. Just say, “Please let me know if a loan would be helpful for covering rent for [however many months you can afford]. I would love to help if I can, but I don’t want to overstep my bounds.” There are a number of free templates available online for drawing up a personal loan agreement, and it’s wise to put things in writing, not because you assume things are going to sour, but so you’re both clear on what’s expected of you. Lending money to a friend is no time for squeamish avoidance, and if you can outline in your agreement how you two will handle things if they can’t afford to repay you by the original deadline, there’s less chance you’ll be surprised or hurt should things change in the future.

You can also offer to help your friend organize with the other tenants in her building, if she lives in an apartment; to put her in touch with any mutual aid or tenants’ rights groups in the area; or to help her research other options. She’s far from alone right now and may be entitled to more protection and financial help than she realizes.

Catch up on this week’s Prudie.

More Advice From Care and Feeding

My daughter and her friends are at various stages of the adolescence process. There are a group of them I drive regularly to various (nonsports) activities, and only one is tall enough to sit in the front passenger seat, so she is always next to me. She consistently smells extremely bad. I’ve been surviving the drives by keeping the windows open, but winter is coming, so I need another solution.

Obviously, I’m not going to bring this up directly with the girl. I am friendly with her mother, who is very nice and is a good parent, but has a hard time keeping on top of details; I’m not really surprised that she hasn’t noticed this and/or is letting it go. The mother also has somewhat low self-esteem, and I’m very reluctant to bring this up with her, because I know she’ll be terribly embarrassed.

As far as I can tell from interactions in the car, the girl is doing fine socially; either the other girls don’t notice or care, or for all I know, half of them stink just as bad, and I only notice her odor because she’s consistently sitting right next to me.

Am I right to think that I shouldn’t try to address this at its source? And if I am right, what other solutions are available to me? Should I dab scented oil under my nose before these drives? Hang some sort of strongly scented decoration in the car? Somehow neutralize my sense of smell?