my boss is snooping through my email

First, apologies for the ongoing issues with accessing my site for the second day in a row today. My web host has been letting me down in a big way, and I’m likely to be changing to a new service. Moving on…

A reader writes:

I have a supervisor who has taken it upon herself to go into my work email and send our main manager emails that she feels are a problem without my knowledge.

Example: When a bid goes out of my office, it is the duty of the person bidding to copy me on the email so I may find out how long the material required is going to take to ship. Pretty simple, right? Well, it didn’t happen and I found out from another employee. I processed the request and sent it to our main manager and cc’d the supervisor as a FYI since we just talked about it in last week’s meeting. Well, I received an email right back that he already knew about it because my supervisor had forwarded out of my email minutes before and didn’t even tell me!

I find it very odd that she is randomly in my emails and seemingly snooping for potential problems that I have a record of bringing to management’s attention when they arise. I always keep in good communication with my supervisor and manager on work-related issues and there would be no need for her to be snooping around emails. And this definitely is not the only “strike” against this woman on the weird management tactics. How would you approach this issue with her?

Someone looking through your emails to find problems is someone who doesn’t trust you to do your job properly, right or wrongly. (Wrongly in this case, it sounds like. But of course even if she had legitimate reason to worry about your work, this is far from the right way to handle it.)

As is almost always the case, the solution is to be straightforward. Say this to her: “Jane, you’ve been going into my email to look for problems, which signals to me that you have concerns that I’m not handling things correctly. Can we talk about your concerns and what you’d like to see me doing differently?”

One of two things will happen:

1. She’ll tell you about concerns she has, which you may not have known about. In this case, listen to her feedback with an open mind, no matter how ridiculous it is that she handled it this way.

2. She’ll tell you she doesn’t have any concerns and she’s just checking up without any particular impetus. In this case, say, “I’d love to feel that you trust me to do my job without looking through my email. Is there another way we could ensure that you have the peace of mind that you need that everything’s being handled? Is there a different kind of communication you’d like from me?”  She probably won’t have any suggestions, but this may be enough to shame her into backing off.  But if it doesn’t, and the snooping continues, you can always bring it up again when it happens next time — depending on how much this bothers you and how much you want to push it. (“Jane, I noticed you were in my email again and I’m confused about what you’re looking for in there.”)

She may never stop the behavior, and ultimately you can’t make her. But you can at least bring the issue to the surface and see if that curtails it.

{ 51 comments… read them below }

  1. Trudy*

    In addition to Ask a Manager’s great advice, I recommend a technological solution. Whenever you get up from your desk, lock your display. That way nobody can get into your computer without your password. (If you use Windows, hit the window key and the L key at the same time. When you come back, hit ctrl+alt+delete and enter your password.)

    1. jmkenrick*

      I’m guessing the OP’s supervisor has access to her e-mail remotely, even without the password or direct access to her computer. Many companies have the ability to monitor what employees are doing on their computers.

      Also, when you a lock a computer on a network, there’s usually an administrative password (that IT or a boss will have,) and they can use that to log-in as well. They don’t necessarily need the OP’s password.

    2. HRanon*

      lol. It is entirely possible (likely even- since the main manager did not seem either surprised or uncomfortable about this) that this supervisor has direct access, as jmkendrick points out. With corporate email, this is very simple to accomplish with either the correct access rights or a quick adjustment by the IT department. No computer monitoring necessary (although that is certainly possible too, and yes, entirely legal.)

  2. Your friendly neighborhood SysAd*

    Snooping is probably not the best word. If it was your personal email, then sure. But this is not your email, it is your employer’s.

    Reminds me of the t-shirt I once had that said: “I read your e-mail”

    1. Jamie*

      A fellow IT beat me to the punch – I was agree that snooping isn’t exactly the right word.

      If my boss goes through my purse, it’s snooping…I have a reasonable expectation of privacy even at work. No one should have ANY expectation of privacy on a work computer.

      That said I do think it’s a really bad way of handling this, and in my little world the forwarding from another users account is a policy violation.

      If some email needs to be accessed by multiple users then set up a department email which everyone can check. Otherwise, this reeks of either someone who is addressing concerns about followup in the worst way possible…or a micro-manager with serious control issues.

      At least the supervisor is doing her own dirty work and not pawning it off on IT. There is nothing that will lull a good admin into a coma faster than being forced to read other people’s email. (Excluding the rare exception when it’s a former employees email and they were fired for spectacularly bad behavior – some of those emails can be funny.)

      1. fposte*

        Which actually makes me think the sitcom solution here is for the OP to forward every passing note from her email to everybody and add text claiming it’s from her supervisor :-).

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I maintain it’s snooping! I mean, when you’re a kid your mom is entitled to go through your stuff, but it’s still snooping. The legality isn’t at issue here; the reasonableness of the behavior is.

      1. Anon*

        How can it be snooping when the emails belong to the employer? You can’t snoop through what belongs to you. That’s like IT pulling your work computer and going through it. It might bother you, but they have free reign when it belongs to the company. Don’t most companies outline this in a policy?

    3. Anonymous*

      Reminds me of the t-shirt I once had that said: “I read your e-mail”

      Did you have a matching one which said: “— Begin PGP Message —“

    4. The gold digger*

      I had to clean out the emails of terminated employees once and wrote this after a few days of it:

      Don’t write anything you wouldn’t want your boss or your mother to see. Do you know how hard it was for me to hit “delete” instead of reading the whole saga of why this couple was going to marry or not marry and why she was acting the crazy and her past abusive relationships and even though this was supposed to be the good sex room, he better not do it? (I didn’t read all of it which is why this does not make sense. I had to read enough to know it wasn’t work related. Actually, once I figured out this was personal, I just deleted everything from that email address because I just did not want to know. I did not.)

      Moral of the story (and there is more) is get a hotmail or a gmail account for your personal stuff and your porn:

    1. Non-USA*

      … in America, maybe. Try looking at someone’s e-mail in Switzerland or Germany and see how quickly the authorities show up. At least in other countries, privacy of the individual is still respected.

      1. Richard*

        It’s legal in the UK too, assuming that you sign a document agreeing as such when you join the company, which pretty much everybody does.

        1. Anonymous*

          Its using a work – owned email address and using work -owned IT equipment. They don’t have to make me sign anything to say they can – they own it.

          1. Richard*

            Possibly true, however there are understandably legal concerns when it comes to monitoring employees in the workplace: From a legal standpoint, it’s much better to ask for permission than forgiveness, so that if anyone attempts to raise legal hell later on, you have a document with them knowingly agreeing to sign away their right to privacy, rather than assuming that they know that IT systems may be monitored.

  3. OP*

    Snooping may not have been the best term but micromanaging is definitely an issue here. I’m definitely not worried about legality, of course it’s legal. However, I was hired to do a job and the job is done well according to performance reviews, customer comments ETC. I will never understand micromanaging it must be exhausting for the micromanager. Thank you for the feedback! I plan to take the straight forward path and hope it curbs the behavior!

    1. Mike C.*

      I think you need to schedule meetings or ask questions to your supervisor by sending yourself (and only yourself) emails. After all, you know your supervisor will get the message, right?

  4. Anonymous*

    Does the OP have a friend in the IT department? In that case, it should be easy enough to send an email to the boss’ boss along the lines of “Thank you for warning me in advance of Jane’s imminent firing. I will work to make the transition to the new manager as smooth as possible.” The IT person can see to it that the email is never actually delivered, but instead simply left for Jane to read – and that as soon as she has read it, the email completely vanishes from the system and all backups.

      1. Anonymous*

        If the message never leaves systems over which the IT person has physical access, it can disappear forever. I’m not saying that disabling all the logging would definitely be easy (e.g., you not only have to turn off logging, but also delete the message in the log stating that logging was disabled), but with full physical access to all systems, it can be done. This sort of thing is axiomic in computer security.

  5. Liz T*

    snoop   [snoop] .
    verb (used without object)
    1. to prowl or pry; go about in a sneaking, prying way.

    There’s no #2 for the verb. Nothing in there about ownership or legal rights, it’s all about the manner. This is definitely snooping.

    1. Anonymous*

      The fact that the manager was going into the account and forwarding emails, rather than tracking the OP’s usage and confronting her with it, suggests micromanagement, not snooping. There is a difference.

      Don’t confuse definitions with connotations. The word “snooping” certainly has a connotation of “wrongdoing”, and the comments that it’s a misleading term to use are valid.

      1. Katie*

        The term snooping is more about secretiveness than wrongdoing…although people are usually secretive about behaviors they feel on some level are wrong.

    2. jmkenrick*

      Concurred. But snooping is often associated with something you could get in trouble for, although that’s not the case here. I assume Friendly SysAd and Jamie jumped in because they wanted it to be clear that this isn’t illegal behavior, even if it is questionable judgment.

      I wonder if there is a legal term for ‘snooping’ where it isn’t appropriate (like if my boss hacked into my personal e-mail or something.)

      1. Jamie*

        That’s exactly why I jumped in – it’s just kind of a knee jerk reaction as every IT has at some point been accused of snooping when we’re just doing our jobs.

        But I totally understand the context in which Alison is using it – and it fits.

        Definitely agree on questionable judgment in this case – at best.

  6. Jeremy*

    (Note: Off-topic for this post, but relevant to your opening comment)

    I hope you know that server outages are something that can crop up with ANY provider. They’re generally pretty rare, but if you stay with one long enough, it’s almost guaranteed to happen to you. Our company site was knocked offline for a couple of hours last year due to flooding at our host’s data center, for instance (not with Dreamhost here).

    I’ve also worked with Dreamhost for another project (a very large, heavily trafficked blog), and we had lots of issues at the outset due to some poorly optimized code on our end that was overloading our server (incidentally, this also took down some other sites that were on that server – another potential hazard for your site if you aren’t on a dedicated server).

    We ultimately changed to a new provider, but had the same issues. But this time, the support staff for that other company was VERY helpful in tracking down and helping solve it, even though it was on our end. The only real difference between the two was the customer support we received.

    That’s a valid reason to change, and based on what I saw on Twitter, might be a good reason for you to consider it. I just don’t want you to delude yourself into thinking that the outages are something unique to Dreamhost. If you’re changing simply because you experience a couple of hiccups, well, be prepared to change again (and again, and again…).

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I totally agree, and thanks for saying it. What’s driving me to leave in this case isn’t the downtime itself but the way it was handled — with little communication, and continually telling me that the problems were fixed when they clearly weren’t. I know every company will have problems, but what really matters to me (and ultimately makes me stay or leave) is how they handle those problems. That’s why I’m looking into switching!

      1. Rachel*

        Because I can’t get off this hobbyhorse, even though it is none of my business, I hope GoDaddy is not a host that is an option you are considering. :) Their mismanagement of their support of (and then bungled “oops I guess now that we’re losing business we don’t support it”) SOPA was the last straw for me. The CEO also likes to kill elephants.

  7. Lee L*

    I would also mention to your boss when you confront them about this issue that you also look incredibly stupid in front of your client. I have had this happen to me before, and when you talk to your client and they tell you that your boss did your job behind your back, the customer/client looses all faith in the company.

    I have worked in situations where we used CRM software to manage customer accounts and we paid special attention to adding notes for EVERY customer interaction to avoid just this kind of “doubling up” so we didn’t look like incompetent fools.

    Also, sending an email pretending to be someone else in the company strikes me as being against policy, if they even have one.

  8. Richard*

    Also in IT here, echoing that yes, this is completely legal.

    But likewise, it’s not illegal to stand behind them all day at the workplace and watch everything they do either, but that doesn’t mean that either is a reasonable or efficient way to manage your employees.

  9. Emily*

    Snooping (or whatever you want to call it) is bad enough, but I’m appalled that your boss would forward emails as you (or does she sign her own name? Either way, if the email comes from, any recipient could reasonably assume OP is the sender). I’m not looking for unlawful behavior, but signing someone else’s name to an email certainly sounds unethical.

    1. Diana*

      Since the main manager knew the e-mail came from the supervisor I don’t think the supervisor is sending it as the OP.

  10. Diana*

    What struck me as odd is that the main manager got the supervisor’s forwarded e-mail just minutes before the OP’s forwarded e-mail. To respond that quickly makes me wonder if the supervisor gets all e-mail sent to the OP in her in box, sees it come in and responds immediately. It does seem that the supervisor isn’t giving the OP the chance to do the job and creates double work (both OP and supervisor forwarded the e-mail) and could create a question in the main manager’s mind about why she’s getting double e-mails.

  11. Long Time Admin*

    “I processed the request and sent it to our main manager and cc’d the supervisor as a FYI since we just talked about it in last week’s meeting. ”

    It could be your supervisor saw your emailing the main manager as going above her (the supervisor’s) head. If you’ve done that before, your supervisor might think you’re trying to get her in trouble with the main manager. Your supervisor might think that, instead, you should go through her, not over her.

    That doesn’t make her any less a poor supervisor, but it could explain this particular incident.

    1. OP*

      I did think about that however she isn’t the manager for the offending party so that is why I sent it to the main manager and copied her.

      I honestly have hashed this over so many times about why she would do this. I appreciate the perspective so much! It’s far too easy to get wrapped up on this sort of stuff.

  12. IReadTheirEmails*

    I work for a company that requires the management staff to monitor employee emails. As a manager, I am required to read these emails – despite how I feel about it.

    I try very hard to not let it be a micromanaging situation. Instead, I use it as an opportunity to encourage employees when I see great emails that go out. Additionally, it has allowed me to work my staff on their communication skills.

    The toughest thing is that not only do I get my staff’s emails (coming into a dedicated inbox in real time), but so does our CEO who does micromanage. Sometimes I will intercept an email that I see specifically because I know that if we don’t get a situation resolved before the CEO sees that email that there could be hell to pay.

    It’s not a part of my job that I enjoy, but it’s a requirement of the position I have so I try to put the best spin on it that I can. I let employees know as soon as they are hired that their emails and calls are monitored and try to explain how it will work.

    1. Anonymous*

      A number of years ago, a friend of mine came up with a text generator. You fed it a few sample pieces, and it compiled statistics on word usage, and used that to generate random text. The text was pretty good grammatically, yet was (obviously) complete garbage (I recall the examples created when the input texts were his thesis and the King James Bible as being particularly amusing). I’m surprised that none of your employees have come up with a similar program, and set it to email each other every five minutes.

  13. Anonymous*

    Just an aside…is there any possible way that she was BCC’d on a couple things which led to you believing that s/he was snooping?

  14. OP*

    Anything’s possible and she could have been Bcc’d on the email for all I know, although I sort of doubt it. However, again, I would want to know why? If I was handling something incorrectly then I would want to be told directly. She’s never said anything to me or any of the other employees (good or bad) about how any of us handle our work so we don’t know where we stand with her. All I personally have to go off of (recently anyway) is the feedback from my customers which is positive. Her behavior is very perplexing to me.

  15. Anon from 11:30*

    If she was BCC’d on the email it’s not her doing…someone may have looped her in, thought she should have been looped in, etc, and she may not have realized what was going on. I’d just hate to see a mountain made out of a molehill.

    I’d approach this from the standpoint of “I was embarrassed when I forwarded the email to X to find out you’d already done so. Is there a better way we can communicate so it doesn’t happen again? I’d hate to have us doing double duty and seeming like we’re not on the same page.” Then listen as she explains. Maybe she was BCC’d and didn’t realize it. Maybe she’s reading all your email. You’ll find out after approaching it in a non-aggressive/non-whiney way.

    From there, ask for some feedback. That you’re flying a little blind and would love to hear any feedback she might have on how you’re doing and ways maybe you guys can steamline things.

  16. Anonymous*

    My take on this is that the person who is ‘snooping’ should be copying in OP to the forwards and explaining why they are taking this action.

    Also the person should be discussing with OP why they feel the need to constantly monitor their workflow and emails and why they aren’t coming to OP in the first instance if they feel something is wrong.

    However, I have to say this is completely legal, just that the person doing it is handling it badly.

  17. holly*

    The truth. If it’s their computer system and their computer and you work for them—on their computer system and their time—the company bosses have the legal right to access any and all stuff. Ugly, but true. We’re employees, not owner operators.
    And, I wouldn’t even begin to read or print anything personal from the office computers. With the personality you’re working with, don’t think she won’t browse through anything personal that goes through the company system. She’ll also use the excuse it was on company time. People have gotten fired for that. Try to deal with her verbally as much as possible, plus keep a hand written journal to document any out of the ordinary problems or communications . And, don’t leave it in your desk at work. They own that too!!!

  18. Alex*

    I would definitely research your companies email policies prior to sending emails. Even if your employer doesn’t have an email policy, it still probably has the legal right to read employee email messages sent using its equipment and network.

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