A reader writes:
I’ve been working for the same company for about 3.5 years now, but a year and a half ago I was promoted to a more interesting, more lucrative position. This job is still at the assistant level, but I’ve been fortunate enough to be working under a woman who has been very kind, generous, and helpful. She has really been more of a mentor than a boss. She has given me opportunities to try things that were above my pay grade, and I’m proud to say that I’ve really flourished in the role. I get things done well, on time, and under budget.
But then I had a meeting with the executives about a week ago. My mentor and I have contracts that are up for renewal at the end of the month, and they told me in this meeting that they’re so impressed with how I’ve grown in the position (and they said they’re concerned about my mentor’s performance) that they’re seriously considering giving me her job and only hiring her back at part-time … or possibly not at all.
So … do I mention this to my mentor? She is my friend and my confidante, but since everything said in this meeting was vague and nothing official was offered, I feel uneasy saying anything at all. Plus what if the execs change their minds? They said they were going to have a meeting with my mentor, but it’s been over a week and nothing has been scheduled.
WHAT DO I DO?! Do I warn her? Do I sit tight? And if they offer me the job, do I take it? It would be a huge step up for my career, but I don’t want to burn a bridge with my mentor.
They put you in a tough position by sharing their thoughts with you before they’ve made any decisions. And if they end up keeping her after all, you’ll now know things you probably shouldn’t really know about your boss (the performance problems and how close she came to losing her job). Plus, they’ve risked you getting your hopes up about getting promoted, which really isn’t a smart thing for them to do in case it falls through … unless they’re actually already planning on all of this and only presented it as a “maybe” to you to test the waters and gauge your interest.
In any case … It doesn’t sound like you have permission to share what you were told with your mentor. It sounds like you were told in confidence and you’re expected to keep it private. That doesn’t mean that you’re bound by that, of course; you could still decide to tell her. But you’d need to be aware that you’d be breaking a confidence and possibly harming your own prospects with your employer, because if they find out you shared this with her, they’re likely to question your ability to be discreet with information in the future (which is usually a huge strike against someone when they’re being considered for a management role, now or in the future). And you might think that it’s unlikely that it will get back to them, but if your manager feels compelled to talk to them about what she learns from you, you probably won’t be able to contain it.
So whether or not to tell comes down in part to whether you value your relationship with your mentor over your own career prospects with this company, and in part to how seriously you take confidences that are shared with you in the expectation that you’ll keep them to yourself.
If it sounds like I’m pushing you toward the path of not sharing it … I am. That’s because part of having a job is handling sensitive information discreetly and not sharing things that it’s clear the people who sign your paychecks didn’t mean for you to share, even when it’s hard.
As for whether to take the job if it’s offered to you, would you accept it if you didn’t feel it was being taken “from” your mentor? If so, a good mentor wouldn’t want you to turn it down. She might feel weird about it, but she wouldn’t expect you to say no simply as an act of solidarity with her. And if she did, then she’s not much of a mentor.
(Also, keep in mind that you’re not taking the job from her; she’s being removed from the job because of performance concerns. You’re not lobbying to steal her job away; you’re a bystander.)
But that’s just an abstract argument. If despite this you’d feel like a traitor or won’t be able to sleep soundly at night if you accept the job, then it’s your prerogative to decide that it’s not for you. You’re allowed to turn down a promotion, although doing it can sometimes limit you in undesirable ways in your present company. But you’re still allowed to.
(However, keep in mind that turning the job down might not preserve your mentor’s job; it might mean that your company brings in someone else instead.)
This isn’t an easy situation. As you sort through it, keep in mind that the business conventions governing these situations are different than social/friendship conventions, but remember too that it’s fine to make the decision based on what you can live with.