our employee was the victim of a sextortion scam — did we mishandle it? — Ask a Manager

A reader writes:

I volunteer on a staffing committee in my mainline Protestant church. Our employee in a role focused on young people self-disclosed that he had taken and electronically sent an inappropriate picture to someone who he believed to be a 27-year-old woman, but who he only knew online. He became a sextortion victim and disclosed it to us when requests for money ramped up in combination with threatening to release damaging evidence to his employer.

We took this seriously — sought legal advice and also encouraged our employee to seek his own legal advice and report the crime to the police. Legal counsel first advised us to immediately terminate him, which we were uncomfortable with because he was a self-reporting victim of a crime that happened outside of work. We worked with legal counsel to devise a safe return to work plan, including eight weeks of paid administrative leave to seek therapy and legal assistance. We crafted a social media policy and a code of ethics policy which did not exist prior. We offered him the opportunity to return with a six-month probationary period dependent upon signing and agreeing to those policies, submitting regular reports from his therapist, and having sufficient adult support for all events so as to never leave him as only one of two volunteers (a minimum of three, when the typical requirement is a minimum of two).

After returning, he repeatedly butted heads over what he saw as unfair requirements. He felt our response was overreacting and the stipulations for volunteers at higher numbers was onerous. It felt like I was working harder to keep him in his job than he was. It turns out I was. We did not know that before agreeing to return, he’d decided not to remain beyond a few months. He returned with a plan to wind down his work and leave on his terms. We entered in planning on seeing transformation and growth. Obviously, we had mismatched expectations and goals from the start.

We terminated him after 3.5 months because he was railing against the boundaries and safeguards in place and not performing up to the standard we had set. We provided two weeks of pay at termination, which were not legally required.

Seven months later, he released a 6,000-word public blog and series of TikTok videos disclosing his transgression, and detailing his paid administrative leave, his return to work, and subsequent termination from his point of view. He calls out several “flags” he experienced: 1) We denied him an annual raise at the time of his return to work, 2) he was “scolded” (i.e., provided feedback that wasn’t glowing) about how he performed relevant parts of his job, 3) HR and his boss met together before their weekly status meetings (required as part of probation) which felt like ganging up him, and 4) we required him to sign policies and receive therapy reports, which made him feel like a criminal.

I am wondering if I’m that far out of line with workplace norms. I feel we treated him fairly. We provided paid leave for him to deal with the mental and legal consequences. We provided a second chance, albeit with some strict boundaries and milestones to be met. I did all I could to offer a path to stay and honestly, he had already decided not to stay long term. He paints us as having treated him unfairly in his blog, which is read by many members of our community. I write to you to see if you think that I did him wrong so I can learn for the future.

I appreciate that you’re asking because, yes, I think your organization did him wrong. Significantly so.

He was the victim of a crime. He didn’t solicit a minor or expose kids to inappropriate material or flash people on the street. He sent a nude photo of himself in what it sounds like he believed was a consenting adult relationship. Now, maybe there’s more to it than that — but based on what you’ve described here, he was simply the victim of an extortion scam. (And since it was a scam, I’m betting the recipient explicitly requested that photo, which is typical in that type of scam.) You yourself call him the victim of a crime!

So what was his crime that resulted in all these consequences — the administrative leave, the new supervision requirements, and, especially, the reports from his therapist? In particular, the latter is highly, highly intrusive, and not something an employer should ever require — but especially not when someone has been victimized.

Your letter reads as if this employee transgressed in some serious way and can’t be trusted around kids now. You say you hoped to see transformation and growth. Transformation and growth from what? Again, he engaged in private adult conduct with a consenting adult, and then was victimized. (When I first read your letter, I assumed he must have sent nude photos to a minor, but it doesn’t seem like he did.) The appropriate response from you as his employer was support and sympathy — some time off for legal help if he needed it (typically that would mean an afternoon or two; eight weeks of mandatory leave makes no sense). Nothing warranted directing him to seek therapy, let alone the other measures put in place.

I assume the fact that you’re a church accounts for the response, but even in that context this is overstepping. I assume your organization must think adults sharing private photos consensually is a terrible sin … which is a framework I fundamentally disagree with, but giving it a good-faith shot: Do your employees sign any kind of moral code of conduct agreeing not to engage in private sexual behavior with other consenting adults? If so and if this violated that, then either fire him or treat it like any other conduct issue, which presumably would mean issuing a serious warning and being clear that any additional offenses would jeopardize his job. All the rest was excessive and misplaced, both from a management point of view and from a human one. If he didn’t agree to any kind of moral code of conduct, then you don’t have standing to police his private sex life. If you want that standing, you should be very, very clear about the outside-of-work conduct you require and ensure people opt into that before you hire them. (I’d argue it’s an overstep regardless, but if nothing else an employer owes its employees transparency about it.)

But if you’re asking me to assess this from an employment/management perspective: The organization was in the wrong, it treated him as a criminal when he was a victim, and he was right to take issue with what happened.

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