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One of the secretaries in my lab is regularly forwarding spam emails entitled "Recently opened vacancies at [fake recruiting company]", apparently thinking that it's relevant to us PhD students. To put things in context, there is no doubt whatsoever that this email is spam and not genuine.

I would like to tell her to stop, because that scummy company has already gotten all of the emails in my lab (thanks IT department for putting them all on a single, publicly available page), so I get them, but gmail correctly classifies them as spam. However when she forwards them, they don't get marked as spam (she usually sends important messages).

I am aware of this previous question. However, I think the power dynamic is sufficiently different enough to warrant a new question. Indeed, she is not a "coworker" in any meaningful sense: the accepted answer to the other question starts with "Since you are a peer".

But although we do work in the same lab (in my countries PhD students are regular employees of the university, with a work contract, a salary, etc), we have a completely different hierarchy, I don't think I know clearly who her superior is and it's probably someone in the central administration, and while I do interact with her from time to time she might as well live in a different world. Besides as a PhD student I'm still half-seen as a student and requests are not necessarily taken seriously.

What (if anything) can I do in situation?


To clarify the question: we are not "peers" in any sense of the word. She is of the administration, I am a researcher. She has been in the lab for probably decades, I have been in the lab for two years. I use "vous" when speaking to her, she uses "tu" when speaking to me. And so on. I believe this makes the question different from the proposed duplicate.

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    Despite your impression that the situation is different, when you're talking about two people working for the same organisation, you are essentially colleagues and even though you work under different hierarchies, you seem to essentially be peers. I don't see how answers here would be truly different.
    – Lilienthal
    Sep 12, 2016 at 6:23
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    @Lilienthal Then there is something specific about either French culture or academia, because neither I nor any of the few other PhD students I asked would ever refer to someone from the administration as a "colleague". If this means something to you, when I talk to them I use "vous" and when they talk to me they use either "vous" or "tu" as they prefer. If this means nothing to you, maybe you can't understand how the situation is different.
    – user57352
    Sep 12, 2016 at 7:07
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    The French definition of "colleague" is "One who, inside a private or public institution, has the same function or duties as another". In English it is "one of a group of people who work together". Would you like me to change the tags of my question?
    – user57352
    Sep 12, 2016 at 7:09
  • You're talking about the classic definition of "collègue". Modern usage has expanded to also refer to colleagues in the common English sense where I believe French traditionally favoured "confrère". As per Larousse: "Personne qui travaille dans la même entreprise, dans le même établissement scolaire qu'une autre." I believe English has a similar history with "co-worker". That normally implies a closer relationship (i.e. someone on my team) though in practice they are now used interchangeably.
    – Lilienthal
    Sep 12, 2016 at 10:39
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    Terminology aside, the question linked talks about colleagues in the broad sense so also applies to your situation. The advice given there is not specific to someone of equal standing in your team. Finally, keep in mind that this site doesn't traditionally deal with the nightmare that is Academia, though this problem isn't specific enough to move to Academia.
    – Lilienthal
    Sep 12, 2016 at 10:39

3 Answers 3

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Take an appointment - better yet, make a group appointment - with the chairperson of your department, explain the situation to them(*), and have them ask the well meaning secretary to stop.

You don't have leverage let alone authority over the secretary. By going to the chairperson, you are enlisting someone who has authority over the secretary.

(*) as Jane S. suggests: bring some evidence that the emails are spam with fake recruitment companies.

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I would ask myself why I think this is a problem. Unless she is forwarding 50 of these day it's the work of a few seconds to filter them out without even opening them. One of my email accounts gets a bit of spam because I don't really filter it, but I just delete them as a matter of course. It barely interrupts anything.

If I was getting a huge amount from her and wanted to make something of it, I would inform her that an email is spam and ask her politely to check with her IT support since there might be a problem with their mail filters. After a few of these she might get the message.

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    -1. I disagree; it's a few seconds * number of people on the mailinglist. Even if it wasn't a waste of time, it's reflecting badly on the secretary and exposing the mailinglist to fishing/social-engineering attacks. I don't think this is something one should just ignore.
    – RJFalconer
    Sep 12, 2016 at 15:11
  • I wouldn't ignore it, if that was my role. But since it isn't I got my own job to do without worrying about everyone else's. Could save everyone a tiny effort if I met them at the door each morning and carried them to their chair.
    – Kilisi
    Sep 12, 2016 at 16:07
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    @Kilisi - Agreed. Many "how do I deal with" questions can be answered with "just ignore it and move on with your life". Not every problem needs a big solution. Sep 12, 2016 at 16:44
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I would absolutely take up the point with her personally, and if she didn't listen escalate to HR and to your IT department as well - definitely any network admin or security guy if you have one.

Her shooting off spam should be against any IT guidelines just from a Best Practices standpoint, one day someone is going to open the email and either let themselves hit with a social engineering attack (as that is all it is), or a more sophisticated attack vector (beyond the scope of this .SE).

She is putting everyone in more danger, and is going to give your net admin a huge headache as well, by forwarding all of that spam.

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