Should you fire someone for fat-hating texts? (Probably not.)

I recently read this Ask a Manager post about a woman who was fired over private text messages. Basically, a retail employee was on her way home from work, texting her boyfriend to complain about the fat woman sitting next to her. Her words were “the fat cow sitting next to me is taking up half my seat as well as hers AND hasn’t heard of deodorant.” Unbeknownst to the employee, a customer was sitting behind her, recognized her from earlier in the day, and took it upon herself to take pictures and pass them to the employee’s boss with a complaint about the employee’s behavior.  The employee was fired, and the store manager won’t let anyone from the store give her a reference. She wrote in to Ask a Manager to ask who was in the wrong.

On the whole, I think Alison’s answer was very reasonable:

Most of all, your employer. It’s no one’s business what you write in private text messages to other people in your personal time. You had a reasonable expectation of privacy in sending a private text message, and they’re wrong to fire you over this.

The woman behind you was out of line in reading over your shoulder, photographing your phone, and sending it to your employer. She shouldn’t have been looking at a stranger’s phone in the first place, and she must have had to make a point of trying to see what you were writing; it’s not like it was forced into her line of vision and she couldn’t help reading everything you were writing. (And even if she hadn’t been able to help it, the polite thing to do in that case is to pretend she didn’t see it — she doesn’t get to comment on, let alone photograph, someone else’s private messages just because she happened to be able to see them on public transportation.)

But your employer is worse. The woman who emailed them was a busybody, but they’re the ones who actually fired you over this. They’re totally in the wrong.

But for what it’s worth, you yourself aren’t coming out smelling like a rose here — and not because of your actions in this story, but because of your commentary on it: You have a pretty gross attitude toward overweight people. Your comment about your store manager at the end of your letter is rude and out of line. That doesn’t change the fact that you didn’t deserve to be fired for what happened, but you’re going to lose a lot of sympathy in life for talking about other people that way, and rightly so. Your boyfriend might be fine with you calling people “fat cows” (although he shouldn’t be), but making a snarky and insulting comment to a stranger (me) about your boss’s weight says to me that you’re out of touch with how kind people talk to and about each other (or possibly that you’re young enough that you haven’t learned it yet). So: Be nicer.

I agree that private text messages that don’t involve anyone from work are not something you should get fired over. I also appreciate that Alison called out the letter writer’s attitude toward fat people.

And yet, I also feel like her manager, on seeing those texts, was put in a pretty awkward position. The texts themselves were none of her business, but the manager herself is also fat (at least by the employee’s description). So, now she’s gotten a glimpse of her employee’s nasty attitude toward fat people and she can’t unsee that just because the texts weren’t meant for her. I wouldn’t want to manage someone who had that level of contempt for any group that I’m a member of, whether it’s women or fat people or whatever, because it’s fairly likely to spill over into work.  Not just for them, but for me too. I’ll admit, it would be hard to deal fairly with this woman if I were her boss, and I understand wanting her gone.

I don’t think firing her was the right call unless it was part of a larger pattern of snotty or sizeist behavior, and if it was, her boss should’ve made that clear. But at the same time, I think it would’ve been totally reasonable to sit her down and say that the comments were out of line, she’s not being disciplined for them because they’re private, but that if she shows that attitude in a work context, or in a way that would be associated with work, she will be.

Where her boss really steps out of line is in refusing to let other store employees give her a reference. That goes from a reasonable desire not to manage someone who doesn’t respect you into petty and vindictive, and it’s definitely not okay.

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