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 5x7 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.