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A colleague uses a wallpaper manager which cycles through his collection of desktop wallpapers, a seemingly unending collection of tattooed women in lingerie. There is no nudity but the images are definitely sexualised in that the models all have large breasts, pouting or touching themselves, you get the idea.

I'm not a prude but I do find this to be somewhat unprofessional; although it may not technically be explicit content, it's the objectification of women which is distasteful and disrespectful. His screen is clearly in view of female co-workers during the day.

My colleague is a good developer and a decent guy, and we have a fine working relationship otherwise. I don't want to harm this good relationship by trying to resolve this issue in the wrong way.

Should I:

  • Speak directly to him myself? How can I tactfully do this?

  • Mention my concerns to HR and let them deal with it on my behalf?

  • Ignore it and mind my own business?

  • [Your suggestion here...]

Clarifications: It's a minor distraction. I don't have a moral objection to the images but it's not the time and place for them - perhaps it gives the office a slightly sleazy atmosphere. I would rather simply ignore than sully the professional relationship with my colleagues, but if it can be stopped without anyone feeling like their freedoms have been impinged upon that would be ideal.

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    Ooookay folks, while this is a topic everyone has lots of desire to input on, keep comments on topic here - asking for more information about the question/seeking clarfication/etc. – enderland Apr 27 '15 at 12:50
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    Please clarify whether you, personally, have a problem with it. While it may be somewhat unprofessional to have sexy women set up as a wallpaper, we all have to work with people who have different opinions on what is OK and what is not. – JohnEye Apr 27 '15 at 15:42
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    Not sure if this would be relevant or not, but what sort of line of work is the company going to be engaged in. The relevant answer might shift a bit if the imagery is expected in the line of work. – anonymous Apr 27 '15 at 18:29
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    Is there a chance of customers/clients/business partners getting to see these backgrounds? – Jan Doggen Apr 27 '15 at 19:44
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    @rob: for example, computer games companies sometimes end up with massive wall-sized posters of animated women (and more rarely men) in poses and clothing that the same company wouldn't dream of tolerating in a photograph displayed in the workplace, and that a bank wouldn't allow programmers to display in animated form either. – Steve Jessop Apr 28 '15 at 16:49

13 Answers 13

171

A long long time ago when I first entered the professional work place I had swimsuit models as my desktop background. I honestly didn’t think anything of it as it was similar to what you'd see on the cover of a sports illustrated magazine.

One day my manager came by my desk and said: “You might want to change your background to something else.” Simple, to the point and without any drama but I got the message and immediately changed it. Since then I’ve been far more aware of things like this.

I wouldn’t go straight to human resources. It could be that this person is really just clueless—I know I was at the time—and just pointing it out might cause them to realize the mistake. Try a simple statement like “Hey, some people might take your desktop in the wrong way.”

If that fails, then mention it to his manager. Again, keep it simple. For example: “Hey, I wouldn’t want Bob to get into any trouble, but he has a desktop background that might not fly with some of the other employees.”

If—for some odd reason—that fails, then any next step is up to you. You could certainly escalate to your manager—assuming it’s a different person—or human resources if it is the same person.

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    Dead on, they may be clueless. I had the exact some thing happen to me, except it wasn't swimsuit women, it was violent video game pics. I was young. They directly told me to change, no reason given, just as an order. I never even thought anyone would thing was bad. I've had default Windows backgrounds for the past 20 years – Dan Shaffer May 26 '16 at 15:59
  • // , In rigidly controlled, petty, beige corporate environments, or those infested with the Twitterati, it's usually best to use IniTech logos for both desktop and screen saver: duckduckgo.com/?q=initech+logos – Nathan Basanese Jan 30 at 6:07
38

This person needs to know sooner rather than later that this is not office appropriate. This type of thing could land him in a big HR mess with him being accused of creating a hostile workplace and thus sexual harassment and if that happens, the company could choose to let him go. He needs some awareness of why this is big deal and why he needs to stop immediately. It is in his best interest that he stops before someone chooses to formally complain.

Frankly your manager is just as much at fault because he should have had this conversation the very first day the pics went up. Letting it go on makes the company responsible as well for any potential harassment complaints.

There are a couple of things to do. First check your company HR policy manual and see if this type of thing is addressed, it is an easier discussion if you have a reference for why it is inappropriate. Next go to the guy and tell him that the pictures do not seem appropriate for the office, that you find them distracting. Then point out that if someone decides they are creating a hostile work environment, he could be in for having to defend himself from a sexual harassment charge and that you are trying to let him know so he can fix that. Make sure you are clear to him that you are not going to do that but you are trying to do him a favour.

You could go to the manager first and ask him to talk to the guy, but that is escalating and it feels a little like being ambushed when the boss comes to you about behaviour your coworkers are complaining about and none of them have said word to you. That seems to me to only be appropriate if you feel there is some physical danger in bringing up the subject. Otherwise, it is just cowardice.

It sounds as if your whole office needs to understand the legalities of what is and isn't sexual harassment and what constitutes creating a hostile work environment. Every company I have worked for in the last 30 years does this training every couple of years. (I have to admit the year the trainer decided to show us sexual harassment by actually harassing women in the class was quite memorable and very uncomfortable and annoying) If yours does not do the training, perhaps you need to suggest it to your HR department.

21

Option 1:

Speak directly to him myself? How can I tactfully do this?

Approach your co-worker at some opportune time - perhaps out of the office, at lunch or over a beer after work, and mention that you're wondering if he's ever considered that his wallpaper might compromise his professional demeanor. Don't make it about offending other people, which might put him on the defense, but about his own professional image. He appears to be quite unaware of the possibility that he's damaging himself, and you'd be doing him a big favor by giving him a heads up.

Once you've done that, you need to stick with Option 3:

Ignore it and mind my own business

You're a developer, not HR or a manager whose job it is to concern themselves with the company's professional image, or others being offended. As long as it doesn't directly interfere with your own work, "Let It Be". If someone with a legitimate personal gripe or appropriate authority takes up the matter, so be it. If not, then not.

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    Why would any employee be unconcerned with the company's professional image? Don't you want your company to succeed? – David Conrad May 27 '16 at 12:54
  • @DavidConrad - Explained. Please read answers before making comments. – Vector May 31 '16 at 2:43
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    Huh? That's why I wrote my comment, because I read your answer. It's wrong to think that only managers and not all employees should be concerned with the company's image. – David Conrad May 31 '16 at 8:41
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    You didn't say read it again, you said read before commenting. Any employee with an attitude of, "I just work here, I can just turn a blind eye to problems in the workplace, it's somebody else's problem" is a bad employee. – David Conrad Jun 1 '16 at 17:57
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    @DavidConrad - Any employee who doesn't understand their role and the concept of delegation is a bad employee. Who are you to determine what's called a "problem in the workplace". You do not determine company policy and culture. Keep your judgements about company policies to yourself unless asked, or you're the one in charge of such matters. You didn't say read it again, you said read before commenting. So sorry. LOL – Vector Jun 3 '16 at 5:44
21

Dealing with your specific situation.

First, you might want to talk to your co-worker directly. Just say something casual but to the point like, “Your desktop wallpapers look cool, but do you think they are right for the office?”

If he doesn’t respond then, you need to contact your manager but also mention it in writing in some way. Such as request a meeting with your manager, state something like, “The guy is cool but those desktop images he has… I’m no prude, but this is an office and it's potentially alienating to other coworkers.” Be sure to follow up to that meeting with an email acknowledgement saying, “I’m glad we met to talk about that developer and his desktop images.”

Now if that doesn’t resolve it, then go to human resources and be prepared to give them a basic timeline of the actions you took to discuss this issue. Also, I wouldn’t make a life or death thing with human resources, but rather present it as an FYI. Make it clear you are not complaining but you would like to alert them that this is a risk.

Understanding at the broader context of the field you work in.

That said—and this might push some buttons on some people—but tech environments tend to be sexist. I am not saying that is good, but that is what it is; some tech workplaces don’t explicitly accept misogyny as company policy but it is definitely tolerated/ignored/blind-eyed in many places. So your desire for basic gender respect might fall on dead ears at best with others; possibly result in you yourself being considered a whiner/complainer at worst. Which could lead to you being made uncomfortable, harassed yourself and possibly dismissed. You might think in the year 2015 organizational nonsense like that does not exist, but humans can still be tribal and boneheaded in the workplace.

For example, 20 years ago I got a gig as a bench tech for a local PC shop. The place was innocuous at first, but after I started I was shown the “blow closet” which is a ventilated room used to clean out dusty equipment. Every surface of the walk-in closet was covered from wall to ceiling with pinups and nudes. I’ve worked in tons of places but this was even worse than most mechanics nudies and pinups on the wall. That along with some other bizarre behavior on a part of the staff made me go home and just quit the next day. The nudes on the walls alone did not do this, but a general environment of disrespect made me reconsider this shop as a potential employer. And for the record, I know they are still in business at the same location with the same owners and same culture 20 years later; need to let that sink in a bit.

Which is all to say, complaining is fine and good but don’t forget all workplaces—not just tech shops—have their own, unique culture that you might never change. And any attempt to change an environment that is so overarching it is ingrained in the employer itself will just make your work life harder. So be ready to look for another gig if that happens. If anything, staff leaving due to unwelcome behavior is one if the main ways—outside of legal action—for a company to change it’s culture.

14

Though this video is about a far more severe example of the issue you face, the conclusion reached by the presenter is applicable to your situation:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QaqpoeVgr8U

The relevant quote is:

If you become aware of any individual degrading another, then show moral courage and take a stand against it. No one has ever explained to me how the exploitation or degradation of others enhances capability [...] The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.

You've said that this behaviour is distasteful, unprofessional, demeaning, objectifying. It is not improving business in any way and may be hurting it. And yet you keep on walking past it, so as to not raise a fuss.

So far you've considered distasteful, unprofessional, demeaning and objectifying behavior acceptable. If you think that it's not acceptable, stop walking past it. Show moral courage; tell your colleague that you find his behavior distasteful, unprofessional, demeaning, objectifying and bad for business. If that fails to produce results, escalate. Any well-run HR department is in the business of keeping the company from being sued and getting bad press; it will not take much to escalate it.

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    You have ignored the OP: I don't want to harm this good relationship... ; I would rather simply ignore than sully... "The standard you walk past is the standard you accept." No. Everything must be seen in perspective- leave righteous indignation out of it. Relations with a co-worker are also part of every "standard". Who's to say that being confrontational and playing "morality cop" when it's not your job will not be more detrimental to the workplace than the behavior itself. I should down-vote this answer but since I have posted an answer myself, I will not. – Vector Apr 28 '15 at 22:07
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    it will not take much to escalate it Why does escalation have to be the remedy? Fostering an atmosphere of moral indignation and promoting escalation for everything one finds distasteful is a great way to destroy a working team very quickly. – Vector Apr 28 '15 at 22:11
  • // , Remember, de-personalization is the best way to avoid anything anyone might find objectionable. – Nathan Basanese Jan 30 at 6:14
12

Some people simply do not realize that something is wrong with what they display at work.

A friend of mine, financial director in a very large company, had someone in his staff (a woman) who was also an amateur artist. One day she brought to their office a big male nude of hers (they were several in the office). The anatomy was very visible.

My friend panicked on the "freedom of art vs. nudity at work" but found a solution: he put a huge cactus just in front of the painting, effectively hiding the matter of panic.

The day after the nude was gone, replaced by a boring landscape.

EDIT following a helpful comment. This answer shows another way to deal with a case where someone may not be aware that they did something wrong: give them the chance to back off by heavily hinting that there is something wrong, prior to a direct discussion, HR and the rest of the nuclear arsenal.

This has nothing to do with tolerance for harassment - in some workplaces people feel very relaxed (even if such places are made up according to some...) and just make the genuine mistake to feel like at home.

  • Common sense answer. +1 – Vector Apr 28 '15 at 22:19
12

Based on your comment:

  1. I suspect that women in the office might find it sexist, but they may not be assertive enough to mention it. If the women had desktop wallpapers of muscly firemen or whatever their idea of an ideal male body was, I'm sure there are a few men in the office who would be uncomfortable seeing that everyday too so I can empathize with that.
  2. For me personally, it's distracting - because I also appreciate tattooed busty women, but not while trying to focus on code!

You have no idea how other people feel, what you do know is:

it's distracting - because I also appreciate tattooed busty women, but not while trying to focus on code!

So the best course of action is to go up and say:

"Excuse me co-worker, your sexy lady wallpapers are a little distracting, think you can tone it down a bit at work"

If that doesn't work, tell the same to your manager, not theirs - always follow the chain o' command.

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    “You have no idea how other people feel…” In general, one can assume in a professional work environment, pictures of half-naked women touching themselves might not be appropriate and might be alienating to other women and men. It’s not hard to figure that out. – JakeGould Apr 27 '15 at 15:46
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    @JakeGould what I was saying is that companion based on others perceived feelings is dishonest. – user9158 Apr 27 '15 at 21:06
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    I personally dislike it if someone choses to offend people in my presence. Even if I only believe that these people are likely to be offended, without proof, I still dislike it. So I would be offended by the behaviour. Putting me in a position where I'd have to silently agree with offensive behaviour or put myself on display by speaking up is offensive to me. – gnasher729 Apr 28 '15 at 15:50
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    @gnasher729 I think you're making things more convoluted than necessary. If you see behavior you perceive as offensive for whatever reason, you're the one offended. If you think maybe someone somewhere could be offended, but you aren't sure, you aren't offended, you're just trying to be sensitive to other folks' sensibilities. Oh, and being somewhat patronizing by assuming that they can't speak up for themselves if they actually are offended. – ColleenV Apr 28 '15 at 16:07
10

In the United States at least, such a display on a work computer could open the company up for harassment/hostile workplace litigation. If you are located in the US or a place with similar laws, you may want to point it out to the person before HR gets involved.

Many years ago, I shared an office with a male co-worker (I'm female) - we were both engineers. He had some "pin up" girl posters up on his desk. When American Express ran a a full-page ad (in Scientific American, no less) showing Olympic speed skater Eric Hayden wearing nothing but a small speedo and skates, I pulled it out of the magazine and put it up on the wall over my desk. I caught a bunch of the guys in my workgroup clustered around the picture, joking about how inadequate they felt. Then our boss came in and all the posters came down.

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    This exactly. A place I worked at had genuine pornographic posters right next to my desk. I said I didn't like it and they laughed. A gay friend gave me a centrespread of Playgirl and I pinned it up. Within 30 minutes the boss came round and made us take all nude calendars down. – RedSonja Oct 30 '15 at 11:47
7

I vote for option 3.

The office is not a magical dead zone where human consciousness is transformed. You don't step through the walls and suddenly become a different person. Neither does your colleague. Nor do the rules of social interaction and what you can/can't control substantially change, at least not unless we're talking about matters that clearly and directly affect the performance of the business, or which violate laws.

Would you walk into a shop and ask the shopkeeper to take down any shelf-displayed magazines with female models on the front cover? If so, fine.

If not, "ignore it and mind [your] own business"! It's a free country* and everybody has a right to be offended.

 

* I checked your profile, and I live in it too.

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    This discussion has been continued in The Workplace Chat. – Monica Cellio Apr 29 '15 at 15:26
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    I do not want to discuss it I want it noted that there are issues with this answer. – IDrinkandIKnowThings Apr 29 '15 at 16:05
  • But what about this... perhaps I can change something and it only slightly affects me – Adel May 17 '15 at 19:04
  • "not unless we're talking about matters that clearly and directly affect the performance of the business, or which violate laws." Something like this could definitely constitute a hostile work environment. An office is a mix of public space and private, but the private belongs to the employer not to the individuals. An individual has no right to free expression that treads on the employer's rights or as it perceives the rights of fellow employees. – TechnicalEmployee May 26 '16 at 16:35
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    @TechnicalEmployee: Not in this country. The UK is free. The USA may be different (i.e. less free). – Lightness Races in Orbit Jun 3 '16 at 20:10
6

You have several questions. The first is "Should I act?", and, if yes, "To whom?" and "How?".

Firstly, the very last option you gave is your first go-to answer:

Ignore it and mind my own business?

When in doubt, it ok to wait and try to figure out if it really is a problem or not.

For me, I determine if it's a problem for me or the business. The only clues you give regarding how it affects you are the following:

I do find this to be somewhat unprofessional ... the objectification of women which is distasteful and disrespectful.

So does it harm you or the business? If you have clients, customers, or investors coming through then yes, it's clearly a business issue. If you've heard or seen negative reactions from your female co-workers that suggest this is affecting them, their work, or making their work environment worse, then it's a business issue.

You probably aren't in a good position, otherwise, to determine objectively if the displayed images are truly denigrating. You have an opinion on the matter, certainly, but it may be that everyone else in your office has a different opinion where this isn't a problem. So I don't think you can generalize - in the absence of walk-throughs of the office area for other business professionals outside the company, you may not have much objective reason to suggest that he shouldn't have those images on his screen.

There is one possible resource, though - does the company have a dress code? It's reasonable to suggest that any displayed images within the office environment roughly meet the company guidelines for the same reason they apply to oneself. If one of your co-workers chose to come into the office and work in their underwear and it violates office policy, it's reasonable to suggest that similar images should violate office policy.

Beyond that, if you aren't personally affected, and you don't have a good basis or foundation to suggest they change their wallpaper, then you should probably ignore it.

Assuming you've decided to pursue this, and see it as important to the business or yourself, then how you approach it depends on the foundation for your claim.

In general, first approach the co-worker. Tell them what you've observed, and why you believe it's inappropriate. Indicate that if they disagree, then you'd like to go with them to an appropriate authority within the company to help discern the best choice for the company.

The most important thing is to avoid a sense of judgement. It's not that the activity/images/interest are wrong, but that the time and place require a high standard for whatever reason you've founded your claim upon. Make it about the images, time, and place, and not about them or their preferences.

Being able to be objective and using company or industry manuals or stated standards is important here.

If it's just a personal distaste and distraction, mention it to them, again without judgement. Use "This makes me feel..." and "I am uncomfortable..." statements which reflect your feelings, rather than "That content is ..." statements which subjectively judge the content.

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    Given that I've received two downvotes, comments on why specific points of this answer should not be followed would be appreciated. – Adam Davis Apr 27 '15 at 16:54
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    I didn't DV, but my guess is that the idea that someone can't object to an unprofessional environment is the problem. It doesn't matter if the pictures are denigrating. They are the same as a screen saver of hunting trophies or projectile vomiting or squirrels mating. The content is inappropriate for the environment. – ColleenV Apr 27 '15 at 20:22
3

In some office settings, that might be considered 'okay', but it would have to be a very casual office setting, and one where clients won't be coming in and seeing said wallpaper. If that's the case, it may be very difficult to get anyone to listen to your complaint, and you should approach this issue with that in mind.

More than likely though, your office is not that casual, and it may be that your co-worker doesn't realize it. And even if it is that casual, your own individual comfort level should be enough to bring it up to the co-worker.

As others have said, bring it up to your co-worker first. Try not to be confrontational - just mention that the wallpaper is unprofessional, and is making you feel uncomfortable, basically exactly what you told us about them here.

If it persists, you may want to mention it to the manager, especially if you know that others feel uncomfortable about it too but haven't spoken up - consider asking, since if it is offending your female co-workers, it's definitely worth bringing up.

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    I think that equating casual with unprofessional is not a good idea. Just because unprofessional behavior is tolerated in some workplaces doesn't make it OK. Is it OK to bring a poorly behaved dog into a casual workplace? I don't think so, because it's a distraction from work. I sympathize with folks that want to bring their personal passions into their work day, but it's just not good business if they are the source of any drama, distraction, etc. If nothing else, it gives coworkers reasons to exclude you, conciously or not, that are unrelated to your skills and ability. – ColleenV Apr 27 '15 at 19:43
  • @ColleenV Even if it's unprofessional, some small businesses prefer to do work that way. I mention it more to catch the fringe case where it is a small business where such things aren't even thought about (and since the question asker mentions a very small number of workers, it's possible) – Zibbobz Apr 27 '15 at 19:48
  • I get your gist, which is why I didn't DV. I think that the size of the company doesn't matter even though it's less likely to have a big impact. Just because most people are ok with the unprofessional environment doesn't make it OK. I think it's like the broken windows theory. Environment affects attitude. – ColleenV Apr 27 '15 at 19:58
  • @ColleenV Oh I agree that it shouldn't be tolerated, but it does affect whether or not you'll be listened to - which is why it's important to consider when making a complaint. I've edited the question to make that a bit more clear. – Zibbobz Apr 27 '15 at 20:00
3

If I understood correctly, the thing you have a problem with is the objectification of women which is distasteful and disrespectful . So in my opinion the first thing to do is to find out whether he perceives that in the same way, which he probably doesn't and that's probably his reason for keeping those wallpapers.

F.ex. you could wonder whether a female colleague possibly having desktop wallpapers or calendars with sexualized images of half-naked "macho" men with firefighter helmets or such would trigger for you a sense of distasteful and disrespectful objectification of men. If it doesn't, this could help you feel that maybe the guy doesn't perceive anything discriminating or distasteful or disrespectful in his wallpapers.

Then, if you actually do get this feeling that he doesn't perceive his wallpapers as disrespectful or such, you have the option of approaching the situation by calmly telling him something like "Look, I'm sure you don't perceive your wallpapers as disrespectful, but I do, and I believe others do too, so it would be great if you could use different wallpapers". This is much better than just saying "your wallpapers are distasteful and disrespectful, please get rid of them", because this would basically imply that to some extent he is distasteful and disrespectful and doesn't care, and this would be a conflict risk.

Then if this person reacts like "I don't care, I keep my wallpapers" (which is unlikely since he is a decent guy), it would mean that there is a deeper inter-colleague relationships problem in your working environment, and by the way at that point he will be knowingly hurting colleagues so it'd be now on him and the implicit pressure he might feel might at some point lead him to change wallpapers spontaneously.

2

This one is difficult to answer, because it is a borderline situation.

The screen saver itself will affect different people differently. Someone will think it is cool. Someone will think it is a bit childish but not care about it. Someone will find it slightly offensive but not worth starting an argument about. Someone will find it deeply offensive. The thread starter seems to be about at category 2. For myself, as described I would be about category 3.

That's how it affects individuals. But we are not alone in an office. There are other people working there, there may be visitors. Not to forget there are relatives at home - I seriously wouldn't like anything in the office to happen that I can't tell me wife about without upsetting her. If there are other people who are negatively affected by this, and especially if there are people who will not speak up for themselves, then we should do something.

I would first assume that the guy doesn't want to affect anybody badly, and isn't aware that people might be offended. Now the person in question is a man. Since it's a man, you have to be direct. If you say "I think it's cool, but..." a man hears "It's cool". If you say "I don't mind, but..." a man hears "Nobody minds". So the minimum you say is "I don't like it. It's objectifying women and I don't like it. You really should pick a different screen saver". Then of course there is a huge range of possible reactions to that, and you go from there.

protected by enderland Apr 27 '15 at 15:22

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