my boss says we shouldn’t be friends with former coworkers

A reader writes:

My new boss reprimanded me for emailing five coworkers that a former coworker was in the hospital. The former employee had asked me to let them know. He had worked with these people for over ten years and had been the “go to” person for our staff. Many coworkers, including my new boss, had confided in him on personal and job-related matters. He had lunch with these coworkers regularly and seemed well liked. Come to find out, this ex-coworker had criticized my new boss when she took the new position. My boss sternly told me that coworkers are not friends and that I was out of place for sharing the news of my former coworker’s hospital stay.

Was I out of place in letting a few coworkers know about his life-threatening condition? Do most people share my boss’s outlook that coworkers, past or present, shouldn’t be considered as friends? Just curious. By the way, this office has the most drama of any place I’ve ever worked!

No, you were not out of line in letting your coworkers know about your former coworker’s condition. And no, most people do not share your boss’s outlook that coworkers shouldn’t be friendly (let alone not let them know of someone’s life-threatening condition — jeez).

Given the context you shared about this former coworker criticizing your boss, I have to wonder whether she’s really anti-workplace-friendship across the board, or just in regard to this guy. But in any case, her stance is wrong-headed — and it makes her look terribly insecure.

When managers try to control their employees’ contact with other people — especially former employees — it’s generally because they’re worried that they’ll be influenced against the manager or the workplace in some way. But managers who are confident that they operate well and treat people kindly and fairly don’t need to worry about that kind of thing — if they’ve hired sane and reasonable employees, those employees will be able to form their own conclusions about the manager and the workplace, based on their own experiences. They’re not generally “poisonable” because they have their own first-hand experience to draw on. And if a problem does somehow develop out of contact with a former employee, a good manager will address the problem — not the contact itself, which frankly is none of their business.

So it’s a bad, bad sign that your manager wants to try to control this contact. I’d proceed with caution with her.

{ 50 comments… read them below }

  1. Good_Intentions*

    Wow, OP, I’m sorry to learn that your manager at this drama-filled workplace is choosing to behave in such an insecure manner.

    I commend you for following through for your former co-worker and sending out emails to the five other colleagues. Being in the hospital is a serious situation and is worthy of notification to long-time friends and co-workers. You did the right thing!

    By the way, maybe you should consider this incident a red flag for your manager’s moods. S/he may have some interpersonal communication issues and be unable to accept constructive criticism in a professional setting. It’s just one way to view it, so take it with a grain a salt.

    On a different note, I truly hope that your former colleague is doing OK. He sounds like a friendly and knowledgeable person.

    1. ew0054*

      I second that. I worked at a company where I had become friends with someone who ended up getting the axe. The boss threatened to fire anyone he found out to be in contact with the person. I don’t think that would be legal and we still email each other to this day.

  2. Anon*

    Goodness that sounds awful and crazy. I’m a shy person and will take a lot of stuff from people… but being told who I can and can’t associate with is not something I would never accept.

    In a business environment, I would have kept it polite and respectful but I would have told that manager that it was none of their business who I kept in contact. I’d let them know that according the employee manual, email although required to remain professional, was still open to any use I deemed appropriate.

    I’d make sure to pointedly bring up the past co-worker’s hospital stay to a senior exec who liked them – mentioning that I sent an email to a few people already.

  3. Steve*

    The only thing I would add is that I would not your company email account or your company landline to communicate with the ex-coworker. I am AMAZED how so many people use their corporate email account for personal stuff (in fact, that should be the focus of an entire article, as to the many reasons it is a horrible idea)

    But yeah, trying to ban your personal interactions is waaaaay out there.

    1. Anon*

      This is a little extreme. It is totally normal to use company e-mail for something like this. While the policy may be that you can send NO personal e-mails, courts have upheld that employers need to be, well, reasonable in enforcing the policy.

      1. Steve*

        Thank you for proving my point… it isn’t extreme, it is just common sense. In America, anything you send or receive from your corporate email account can be read by the company, if you’re properly informed of this (in a paragraph buried in your employee handbook). A great example of this is somebody who was communicating with her lawyer through her company email account, said some things she shouldn’t have and tried to get those emails treated as inadmissible due to attorney-client privileged… tried being the operative word.

        1. fposte*

          Your statement’s a little overbroad–the courts have actually found that not everything becomes kosher for employer use just because it’s on the office network (at issue in this case was passwords of personal email accounts), and an advance policy didn’t get the employer out of it because it contravened federal law. But I agree that people generally believe they have more privacy than the law really does provide in these cases. Here’s an interesting brief overview of some recent stuff, including the lawyer-client privilege thing you mention:

      2. Steve*

        And as a side note… I would love to know what court rulings state that employees have the right to send non-business related emails from their work email accounts.

          1. Anon*

            Mea culpa. I was thinking of this, but it looks like it has since been overturned:


            In any case, I don’t expect privacy when I send e-mails from my work account. I expect my employer to be reasonable about enforcing its policy.

            To be clear, I mean personal in the “non work related” sense, not the “something I’d be embarrassed that my employer might see” sense. Any employer that is going to take disciplinary action every time I send my partner an e-mail about what time I’ll be home after work or a question about dinner has seriously messed up priorities.

            1. SweetPotatoPie*

              This made me laugh…my husband e-mails me every single day to ask what’s for dinner.

          2. ARS*

            I know of very few companies that outright forbid company email for ANY personal use and the companies that I know of that do I generally consider to be a little crazy. For one, what constitutes personal use? Is it when I communicate with a coworker about anything non-work related? So I would need to email said coworker about thing A and then log in to my personal account to email about thing B? Yeah…no.

    2. Jamie*

      Just my take on this, and the POV I used when I set policy about this…I am with you 100% that there should be zero expectation of privacy on company computers/network/other devices…none.

      You’d be hard pressed to find someone more in the “if you don’t want your company to be able to see it then do it on your own time and own device” camp. (although that would be a long and stupid name for a camp)

      However – do I care if people shoot their sister an email about what time they are meeting for brunch on Sunday? Or sending a confirmation email to their kid’s school about the parent-teacher conference, or any of the hundred innocuous emails we send when in the ancient past we’d pick up a phone.

      If it’s not interfering with productivity and it assumes no risk to the company then I’m pretty cool with that. Just the way I would be if you had to pick up the phone and schedule a doctor’s appointment.

      Salaried people in my industry work long hours and work consumes a large portion of our lives. For an example I response to an email from one of the accountants last night at 10:45 as I was brushing my teeth to get ready for bed. I didn’t mind, but if my company would come down on me for shooting a quick email to my husband reminding him to take our son to the orthodontist…well it works both ways. If they had a problem with me doing that on their time, guess what questions I won’t be answering on my time?

      We can argue about whether or not it’s good that there isn’t always a clear delineation between work and personal lives for many of us – instant availability has eroded the “off work” time…so it behooves employers to understand that and make sure the consideration flows both ways.

      Besides, as IT I’d sure as heck rather someone use their work email for netflix than open up permissions to check personal email so they can download unsecured crap from all manner of people from their personal accounts.

      As long as people understand that nothing is private, I think some flexibility is good for both employers and employees.

      1. KellyK*

        Salaried people in my industry work long hours and work consumes a large portion of our lives. For an example I response to an email from one of the accountants last night at 10:45 as I was brushing my teeth to get ready for bed. I didn’t mind, but if my company would come down on me for shooting a quick email to my husband reminding him to take our son to the orthodontist…well it works both ways. If they had a problem with me doing that on their time, guess what questions I won’t be answering on my time?

        We can argue about whether or not it’s good that there isn’t always a clear delineation between work and personal lives for many of us – instant availability has eroded the “off work” time…so it behooves employers to understand that and make sure the consideration flows both ways.

        Yes, definitely. An employer that wants to mandate “no personal business on company time or equipment” should think long and hard about the ways in which it asks people to do company business on personal time or equipment. You want me to check email at home, on my personal laptop? Then don’t complain when I take 2 minutes at work to email and ask my husband if he wants me to pick something up for dinner.

        Even for people who aren’t “always connected,” there’s a certain amount of personal business that it’s only feasible to get done during business hours. Like calling your doctor’s office–sure, you could use your lunch break, except frequently they close for lunch. It’s better to use your personal cell than tie up a company line, but that assumes you actually have reception (and that you have a cell for that matter).

        (The above was a generic “you” as my employer is really good about personal use of computers. They ask people to be reasonable and use good judgment—what a concept!)

        1. Jamie*

          It’s all about remembering that employees actually = people. And the vast majority of us are not out to screw our employer, we’re just trying to juggle work and our lives as best we can…and sometimes there is a little bleeding of one into the other.

          1. Is it a security threat?
          2. Is the employee getting shit done (to quote an old post)

          If the answers to those are no and yes, respectively, then really weigh whether it’s worth drawing a line in the sand for nothing.

          1. Anon*

            Yes, that’s the point I was trying to make. I would not expect privacy on the work network, I just don’t care if my employer sees the type of personal e-mails that I send (Hi honey, I’m gonna go to 5:30 yoga tonight, so I won’t be home until 7).

            The only disciplinary actions I’ve seen for personal use of internet involved pornography.

    3. KayDay*

      Also, this wasn’t an entirely personal email. This was a former co-worker making a request from an employee. In many cases a former employee will only have their former coworkers’ business emails. I would find it (and have found it, because it’s happened a few times) totally normal to have an ex-coworker email me at work.

      1. SCW*

        Exactly! I think that passing on news of former coworkers is not really personal–I’ve gotten tons of e-mails about past employees who have died, were sick, current employees who had babies, got married, were promoted. None of which were really related to my work, but which really aren’t personal business. Typically I don’t know who this person is, but I just consider it normal. It is strange in this circumstances because the boss flipped out. Personally I think it would be much stranger if I received an e-mail from my personal e-mail about someone I only knew through work!

      2. Cassie*

        It still is a personal email, though. Yes, the former coworker used to work there, but that was in the past. I know some companies and gov’t entities won’t allow any personal-type emails being sent through work emails – even stuff like arranging a quick lunch or anything. (My office doesn’t care).

  4. AdAgencyChick*

    GOOD LORD. Your manager is nuts. If you’re a good manager, you have nothing to lose by having workers be friends as well as colleagues — in fact, it’s often a bonus if an ex-coworker decides the grass wasn’t really greener and decides to come back because of relationships built at the old office.

  5. Jamie*

    I know of a place that when someone is let go or leaves they are persona non grata to the point where HR checks Linkedin connections and strongly advises people to unconnect immediately.

    Trust me – once people get out no one goes back…so they tend to reconnect once they’ve moved on. But still – it’s ridiculously invasive and out of line.

    Someone once told me that people who last there are the ones able to develop Stockholm Syndrome – the ones who can’t learn to love their captures make an early exit. The person who told me this was the Dir. of HR.

    There are some places out there you just do not want to work.

    1. LL*

      Industry secrets? That’s the only rational explanation I can imagine, and even then the company is sending the msg that they don’t trust their employees.

      1. Jamie*

        No secrets – just crazy control issues from the top down. IMO it’s a useless attempt to keep people from realizing how nice it is to work elsewhere. They also took it VERY personally if you chose to leave.

        Same HR person told me that everyone who left that she knew of ended up much happier and making at least 50% more.

        If HR can’t even cheerlead for the company there’s a problem

        1. Sasha*

          Sounds a bit like my last job. I left because of such control issues. At one point they tried to prevent us from having Facebook accounts, and mandated we were never to touch Facebook at work. My boss told us the administration wanted to ban FB accounts altogether, as part of being employed there, but realized they would have an uprising. And that same boss chatted with her friends on FB all day at work. Yeah, lots of reasons why I left.

        2. Anonymous*

          Same HR person told me that everyone who left that she knew of ended up much happier and making at least 50% more.

          Why was the HR person still there then?

          1. Jamie*

            Looking for a way out and being bitter in the meantime. They’ve since moved on – I hope to happier circumstances.

  6. ChristineH*

    I’ve sometimes wondered whether it was appropriate to maintain friendships with former coworkers…good to know that it is indeed okay.

    OP – I hope your coworker is doing better.

  7. anon-2*

    It can’t be too professional of a place if they don’t want you talking to co-workers.

    Sounds like a bunch of junior high kids “you can’t talk to him/her, because we’ve all decided to not talk to him/her anymore. Freeze out!”

  8. Jill*

    I don’t see this as a privacy issue at all. Any reasonable employer understands that you’re a person first and an employee second. Anyone that works full time essentially “lives” with their co-workers 8 or more hours a day and sees them more than their actual family-family and would understand that you tend to forge relationships with co-workers that go beyond “fellow drones”. Any reasonable employer would, therefore, show some leeway for stuff like this.

    Furthermore, any reasonable employer would rather have an environment where current and former employees CARE about each other rather than one where it’s every guy for himself.

    I thinkt this manager blew what was just a little FYI message all out of proportion.

  9. Not So NewReader*

    So I guess a boss driving by a person’s home to see who is visiting would be out, too, right?

    Yep. I have seen that one.

    Recently, I have seen (by more than one company) bosses doing drive-bys to check out the condition of the employee’s residence. It is supposed to tell you something about the employee’s ethics.

    Back to OP, I have seen that one a number of times, too. Depending on the strength of your upper management you might be out of luck. The boss can do whatever and it is okay by the PTB.
    As everyone here has suggested, keep the personal life stuff out of email. Remain vigilant because you might see more of the symptoms of insecurity.

    I often remind myself “The work place is not the same as a democracy.”

  10. two times*

    I once had a boss that ordered me to no longer have contact with a former co-worker….even during my off hours. I laughed in his face and promptly reported it to HR. It took some time but they were finally able to get rid of him

  11. Elizabeth West*

    This manager is an idiot. When my former company lost an employee last year (he passed away in his sleep), we were all invited to the funeral. I did not go–I dislike funerals a great deal and knew I would have gotten too upset–but was told that the company’s former owners did. They also sent a condolence card to work.

    I thought it was nice of them to attend, because the employee had worked for them for quite a long time. If our new owners (a large global conglomerate) had complained about that, they would have gotten the rough side of my tongue. I wouldn’t have cared if they fired me.

    1. pidgeonpenelope*

      A coworker’s dad died. We were invited to attend his dad’s funeral and even our boss went. She drove me to the funeral. Some bosses are just good like that.

      1. Linea*

        Yep, some bosses are really good like that! Both my boss and my boss’ boss showed up to my Dad’s funeral, even though I had only been working there for four months at that time.

  12. pidgeonpenelope*

    I also disagree with the boss. She has no say in who you are friends with outside of work. I would, however, agree that you should be friends with your coworkers. By all means, you should be friendly and you should enjoy the company of your coworkers but there’s a line that should be drawn. I think this because if you or they get promoted to a position where they are now your superior, it’s going to make work very awkward if not hard. This also goes for office dating… it’s just no go.

  13. Starwatcher*

    I had a boss once that was apparently terminated and the other current management strongly suggested that we don’t try to contact them in any way shape or form. Could they legally do this? Could there be anything that they could do to us if we had done so?

  14. Mike*

    If my manager told me not to be friends with someone who left my company, I would tell him flat out that he has no business telling me whom to be friends with. I’m a strong enough employee and I’m outspoken enough where I feel secure in standing up for myself, even with the higher ups in the company.

    If you don’t have that sort of security, I would approach your human resources department to see if they have a grievance procedure. Your boss telling you that you can’t share details of a former co-worker’s medical condition is beyond the pale.

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