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I work in IT at a university in the US. I was recently told pictures would be taken of the server room for promotional material (e.g. shown on university Websites and displayed at conference presentations) and they would like myself and others in the pictures. I dislike having my picture taken and do not want to be included. This happened once in the past and when I declined to have my picture taken my boss at the time refused and forced me to do it anyway. By "forced" I mean simply didn't take no for an answer and pressured me into getting into place for the picture.

My questions are:

  1. Can an employer in the US force an employee to be involved in this?

  2. When a boss doesn't seem to even acknowledge "no" and "I would rather not" as a valid response to being asked to do this, what should I do?

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  • As Joel answers, the US' at-will employment means that an employer can ask you to do most anything that isn't downright illegal and fire you if you decline. Likewise, they can't force you because you also have the right to summarily resign. The legality of the request is a question best asked on the Law website while the question of what you should do is covered by the question @JoeStrazzere linked.
    – Lilienthal
    Sep 15, 2015 at 15:57
  • Do you have a "serious" reason (eg. protected witness, victim of a stalker/harasser/abusive relationship, member of a minority or group that suffers harassment) or you just feel uncomfortable with the idea of being in a picture that will be made public? Sep 15, 2015 at 17:24

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Technically no one can "force" you to do anything in the employment world. However, in all likelihood your employer would consider stepping into the picture to be categorized as part of your job duties as outlined under the catch all "and other duties as assigned" (a common part of most job descriptions). The failure to comply with your job duties would be considered a "fire-able" offense, although I really can't imagine any employer exercising that heavy of an option over something like this.

What it really comes down to is a personal choice for you. What will be damaged if you refuse to be in the picture? Your reputation, your relationship with your coworkers and manager/supervisor, and perhaps your loyalty to the company (university in this case?) could be called into question. If you're unwilling to participate in a simple photo opportunity for some promotional material, how willing are you going to be when it comes to something that's a Really Big Deal™? To many people this kind of photo is a common every day thing. We live in a world where social media feces is ubiquitous. By abstaining from the picture you very well may be self-ostracizing. And to a career this can be ultimately catastrophic.

If it's just about your personal anxiety levels, I would honestly recommend you find some way to deal with it and just hop in the picture. Throw up a gang sign, look annoyed, wear a burger king crown. If you pretend to have fun you might just have some by accident (blatant movie line theft).

If it's something deeper than that, you might try explaining privately to your manager what exactly the problem is. Most people tend to be sensitive to an individual's special needs. If it's a religious issue bring it up, if you have a sensitivity to it bring it up, if it's a privacy concern make it known. Be very clear about the levels of anxiety this causes you.

Otherwise, buck up and smile for the camera.

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  • To add technically speaking a workplace is "public" domain. Taking pictures of people in public is legal and I would imagine a company taking pictures of their employees working is considered in the same realm.
    – Dan
    Sep 15, 2015 at 14:18
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    @Dan: That depends on the company probably. Since most companies have many private areas this may not be the case. Large companies (Microsoft and Apple come to mind) have very strict photography policies, so I'm not sure "public domain" qualifies for this. Truthfully I don't know though. Sep 15, 2015 at 14:20
  • A server room is almost certainly not a "Public place" - however taking photos of your own company property is fine. Personal image rights become an entire separate question though...
    – Jon Story
    Sep 15, 2015 at 14:50
  • @Dan It's an interesting topic to explore but would be best served by asking over at Law SE, few of us here have the experience to judge such legal matters.
    – Lilienthal
    Sep 15, 2015 at 15:52
  • @Lilienthal True. What I meant by "public" domain is that you are outside of your home. Of course areas within your company aren't open to the public but the fact is you are outside your home and you really can't expect privacy especially at a work place. But then again, I'm not a legal expert.
    – Dan
    Sep 15, 2015 at 18:34
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To expand on one point in @Joel Etherton's response. One relatively easy way out might be to object on religious grounds. Note that you do not have to disclose your faith, nor does the boss have a right to force you to disclose it.

You can simply say your religion (or more ambiguously, 'spiritual tradition', or even more ambiguously, 'belief system' or simply 'beliefs') discourages/prohibits having photographs taken and displayed publicly, so you do your best to abstain from such offers. I had colleagues who did this, both in formal (university event photos) and informal (happy hour photos) settings without much difficulty or consequences. But don't wax over it completely -- you need to communicate the strength of your conviction on the matter so it is understood that it's a non-negotiable for you.

If the boss is a reasonably normal person they will go along and not make a big deal out of it. If they persist into pressuring you, simply say you will not take the picture, thank you very much and go back to work. Short of physically dragging you (which would be considered violence and would be illegal), they cannot force you to take a photo if this is clearly extraneous to your job description (which it is for most IT jobs).

One important factor is to exercise good tact and have this conversation in private and in advance, to avoid the situation of publicly opposing the boss's authority under time pressure (e.g. when lining up). This way the matter can be settled without your or the boss experiencing any social pressure one way or another (to stand one's ground or to comply) and everyone saves face. Make sure you are polite in your interaction with the boss, and focus the issue on objective grounds of a practice that applies to a tradition that you belong to, rather than your own personal subjective feelings. Make clear to the boss that this is a matter of principle and that you really appreciate their sensitivity to these matters. While at it, you might also want to mention/request that your reason for refusal not be advertized broadly to the team, and cited as a 'personal reason'. If your boss is a decent person they will simply say "OK no worries" and everyone moves on with their day.

One more suggestion: be brief. Pretend you are talking to a customs agent at a border crossing -- that is, make a point or answer a question very clearly and concisely, without saying anything extra.

Your request can and should be limited to a couple sentences:

"Hi ____, do you have a quick sec? I wanted to bring up something in regard to the upcoming group photo for promotional use. I generally avoid having pictures of me taken for public use due to some personal considerations and beliefs. I would appreciate your understanding and hope it's OK if I don't join the group on this activity. [end with an affirmation, not a question.]"

This way, you only need to 'engage' religion etc. if the boss presses the matter. There is a good chance they will not, and what you have said would be sufficient. If they do, object on religious grounds with a short 1-sentence elaboration. Again, you do not need to go into any additional details. If your boss is naturally curious that's their problem in this case. Be firm but polite. If they choose to pressure you further, repeat that you will not be in the photo and that you have nothing more to add in this case. Say "Thank you for your understanding," and go back to work.

If all goes well, you should be able to sit out the photo op, and the boss should be able to get over it in a reasonable amount of time and life can proceed as usual.

One snag here is if you happen to be an outspoken atheist. God help you then. ;) Good luck!

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    I think lying is a bad idea. It will catch you out one day. It's best to be up front and honest for your reasons. The OP's employer will either accept that or they won't. Making up stories just means there's something you're going to have to remember what you said later.
    – Jane S
    Sep 15, 2015 at 21:50
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    that's a terrible answer, lying is never a good idea
    – Kilisi
    Sep 16, 2015 at 6:23
  • How is this lying? If you sincerely hold these beliefs, it's not lying. Maybe the answer suggested lying originally, but how it reads now is fine. If you are sincere then I see no problem with this approach.
    – Brandin
    Sep 16, 2015 at 11:59
  • @JaneS et al. In constructing this response I relied on three principles.The first is cost-benefit. Moral arguments are never clear-cut and the trade-offs must be considered to arrive at the best solution. In this case, the benefit of avoiding having a picture taken seems to outweigh the negligible, if any, amount of harm from providing a plausible, albeit possibly inaccurate, rationale for doing so. Secondly, withholding/masking the truth may be morally justified when it is necessary in order to protect oneself from harm. My answer holds water on these grounds.
    – A.S
    Sep 16, 2015 at 13:03

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