HR rep insisted on reading my email, my manager has asked for brutally honest feedback, and more

It’s five answers to five questions. Here we go…

1. My HR rep demanded to read through my email

Today, the HR rep for my main worksite (but not the rep responsible for my for my division) came into my office, told me she needed to check my email immediately, and asked me to log in. She then sat at my desk, reformatted Outlook to her preferences, and read through my email. She then did the same with another of my office-mates, and then left. She said that this was an HR matter, and nothing to do with me personally.

I’m baffled. Is this normal? I assume that all my work emails can be accessed at any time, remotely, but I’ve never encountered something like this.

I’m a little concerned because she didn’t already have have log-in privileges for my workstation, and also that I didn’t get a chance to shut down other client-centered applications with sensitive information that this HR rep is not supposed to be privileged to view. Honestly, I was so taken aback by this that it only occurred to me in hindsight. What on earth is going on here? By the way, I never send anything personal from my work email, so I am completely at a loss.

I have no idea either, but it’s absolutely reasonable to ask about it. I’d start with your manager: “Jane came in today, told me to log into my computer, and then sat at my desk and read through my email. She didn’t explain why, and then just left. What’s going on?”

2. My manager has asked us for brutally honest feedback

My manager wants our team to give her a written evaluation and then discuss our feedback with her in a one-on-one. This is not something HR is asking of her, but something she wants to do to better herself. She wants us to be “brutally honest” and it will stay just between us. First off, who does this? Isn’t there a major conflict of interest here? How can I be honest with out her holding some sort of grudge? I’m the next manager down from her, so I’m walking on eggshells to be brutally honest. She is the person who would help promote me.

Is this common of managers? How do I respond?

It’s certainly not uncommon. In fact, good managers actively solicit input from their staff members, and some of them do it in the form of written evaluations or 360s. The key, though, is that in order to get candid, useful feedback, they need to have first established an environment in which people know it will be safe to speak candidly.

So, what do you know of your manager? Does she have a track record of taking feedback well? Or does she get defensive and shoot the messenger? How candid you can be will depend on that. But there’s nothing inherently outrageous about the idea itself.

3. One recruiter said the job is contract, but another said it’s permanent

My boyfriend is job seeking, and recently he was contacted by a recruiter for a six-month contract position for a company nearby. Although he’d prefer a permanent position, he agreed to a phone interview so as not to leave any stone unturned and on the off chance he might be able to sell himself so well they hire him direct.

The day before his phone interview, a different recruiting company called about the same job but he said it’s permanent. My boyfriend was honest, told him what happened, and asked this guy if he was sure it’s permanent, and the guy said yes. And afterward we found it on the company website and confirmed that to be the case. The second recruiter, being ethical, said he’d keep him in mind for other jobs since he was already working with someone else on that one.

My boyfriend decided to proceed with the phone interview as if he did not have the knowledge they really had a permanent position. He’s confident that the company and this first recruiter will be contacting him for an in-person interview. At what point should be mention his knowledge that they want someone permanent and to whom should he broach this with?

I’d reach out to the original recruiter and just be straightforward — explain what happened, and ask if she has any insight.

(Also, just to clear something up about that second recruiter: Because your boyfriend had already been submitted to the company by the first recruiter, that recruiter “owns” his candidacy there. The second one can’t submit him, and wouldn’t earn a commission if he got the job, even if she did submit him. So it’s not that she was being ethical by backing off when she learned about the first recruiter; she was just following normal recruiting practice. I mean, she wasn’t being unethical either — but I think you might have read something into that that wasn’t quite right.)

4. My boss won’t let me volunteer one day a week while I’m preparing to wrap up my internship

I’m OP 4 from this post. I have an update on my situation that I am unsure how to handle. I’m currently in a paid internship that ends in a few weeks, and I’m doing everything I can to enter this other company (that one I talked about previously) because I’m very passionate about the work they do. I was turned down for two different positions, but have made connections and have decided to try and get volunteer experience within the organization.

I have made (what I think is) a very reasonable request to my boss to take off one day a week to volunteer. He turned me down, saying that I he needs me around and that I’m invaluable. I know I don’t have any opportunities to stay, so this isn’t helping me. I’m very frustrated. I haven’t had much luck in the company that I intern with or anywhere else. I really think this volunteer experience will help me. How do I bring this back up to my boss without sounding desperate? What can I do?

If your position ends in a few weeks, why not just start the volunteering then? Pushing your boss on this after he’s already said no isn’t likely to go over well, and you’re really so close to your ending date that it doesn’t make sense to leave on that note.

5. Am I wrong to keep my boss in the dark about looking for another job?

I don’t understand. I do not see the benefit to telling your boss that you have a job interview or even a job offer before anything is set in stone. Yet when two of my direct reports told me this, my own boss thought it was the right thing for them to do. I myself have been applying for jobs and had an interview. Am I being unprofessional by keeping my boss in the dark?

Nope. It’s very normal to be discreet when job-searching.

If you happen to have the rare manager who has a track record of making it safe to tip her off when you’re starting to think about moving on, you might handle this differently — although even then, you’re not obligated to.

{ 205 comments… read them below }

  1. snuck*

    That first one? If it ever happens again? I don’t know the rules in your area, but here I’d raise an eyebrow and say “Of course I want to help you with that, let’s just get *my manager* in the loop because I’m not allowed to let people access my email without their knowledge” and then I’d pick up the phone/stick my head around the corner and squeal for help.

    I would NEVER give access to my email to anyone else without MY management chain’s approval. It sounds shady to me, she intimidated you into it by demanding it there and then, and probably knew she was doing something she shouldn’t have really been doing.

    1. Wilton Businessman*

      Sorry, it’s not your email, it’s mine (the company’s). Your company can look at any email that you send on their system without justification at any time.

      1. Enjay*

        When HR becomes the company they can look at whatever they want. Until then, my manager will be in the loop.

      2. Colette*

        They don’t have to do that at your desk, while adjusting your email preferences (!) and potentially being able to access sensitive information they wouldn’t normally have access to simply because you had it open on your computer.

        1. Wilton Businessman*

          No, they don’t HAVE to, but they can do it from your desk.

          Maybe we’re taking about a 15 person company where Jake, the inside sales guy, knows about computers and sets them up for the company. Maybe it was Jake getting let go that day and they needed evidence from somebody’s email?

          Is it the way it SHOULD be done? No.

          1. Melissa*

            Yeah, but there’s no verification that this specific HR person was designated to do that. Most systems have a way for IT to access email remotely.

          2. snuck*

            I suspect a company that has divisions, and HR reps for multiple sites has more than 15 employees.

            I also suspect that a company this large has policies around email usage, access and IT infrastructure that means searches like this could be done more professionally.

            It’s very possible that this “main site” HR rep has poor professional skills and was just circumventing (normal business everywhere else) protocols in an effort to resolve something with haste. And sure of themselves enough (diplomatic way of saying ‘up themselves’) to change email settings and then not return them (I understand changing the email settings because many email programs are messy and depending what she wanted that might be been the most efficient way)… What I don’t understand is why it had to be NOW NOW NOW and couldn’t go through the relevant manager.

            Part of me feels the HR rep was fishing for something that they weren’t sure existed. HR can get all this stuff through their IT support, or via the employee with manager approval in my opinion. Who knows what storm will blow up, and land (unfairly?) as a result of these actions? A HR rep who acts like this probably also will dump people in the crud.

          3. Colette*

            They can, but it think it’s reasonable to question whether a fellow employee who shows up at your desk claiming to have approval to read your email actually does have approval. That’s actually safeguarding the company’s interests.

      3. Maggie*

        Where I work we have to get clearance from a manager before we are allowed to give a colleague access to our mailboxes because of sensitive information in public sector projects.

        What strikes me is why the HR lady did not have access from her own desk if it was all above board, or work via the IT desk if it was a serious HR issue being investigated.

        1. kozinskey*

          Yeah, that’s what seems weird to me. If the company needs to monitor peoples’ email, why don’t they have a system set up to do that without interrupting others’ work? I feel like this is fishy and the manager needs to know.

        2. Liane*

          “…work via the IT desk if it was a serious HR issue being investigated.”
          *This* is the first thing I wondered about. Yes, the company can look at email and *Everything Else* on “your” work computer that they in fact own. Even advice columnists who aren’t very good with workplace issues, unlike Alison, get this one right all the time.
          But, it’s my understanding that if a company is investigating things, they have IT pull it up, probably from their computers and above all, don’t make a big public show of it.

          1. Adonday Veeah*

            The only thing I can think of is that they may have to to go around IT for some reason. But you’re right, even in that instance, the public show is very odd.

            Yep, something’s off here. OP, you definitely need to follow up with your manager on this, to make sure your HR person is not out of line.

            And, Alison, can we add this to the follow-up list?

            1. Elizabeth West*

              Yes, follow-up, please. I’m not part of the IT Crowd, but there should be a way for HR to see what they need to see without all the dramatics. I am dying to know what is going on now.

              1. Mister Pickle*

                I know we’re not supposed to “pile on” here, but – yes, I hope we get a follow-up. The OP has added a few comments downstream – right now my best guess is that some exec at the site made an email boo-boo, attempted to recall it, and then recruited HR lady to do “clean-up”. Heh, it strikes me that this could make a decent plot point for a murder mystery / thriller. I’m still trying to catch up on The Blacklist – actually, The HR Lady and The Manager would be good names for Blacklisters:

                HR Lady: “Quick, I need to look at your email!”

                OP: “Umm … okay, just one second …”

                HR Lady (pulls a P-90 out of her bag and slaps a magazine into place): “Oh, never mind …”

        3. Bea W*

          Exactly, IT is able to give access to whatever mailboxes people need access to in order to read through email. No one has to literally sit at someone’s desk to do this. That’s the bizarre part, that and the fact that she didn’t give any details, just demanded to go through people’s emails at the physical locations.

        4. A Non*

          I’d assume that she either didn’t know IT could do that, or didn’t want to wait. That’s still a really rude (and strange) way to handle it.

      4. neverjaunty*

        “Your company” can. “Every employee of your company”, no. Especially if it means looking at company information their job classification doesn’t permit them to be looking at.

        1. Sarah Jane*

          Exactly. Now, imagine if we could just access HR inboxes when we felt like it. The whole situation here is just bizarre: the public nature of it, the two members of staff who were targeted, changing the Outlook settings…

        2. Purple Jello*

          Right. There is access to information from my computer that my boss does not have authorization to view, let alone an HR employee. There could be security and export control information that the HR person does not have clearance/authorization to view. She/he sits in my chair and starts looking at stuff could be a violation of various agreements, regulations and laws.

          And changing my Outlook settings? Where is IT in all this? I’m thinking there was something fishy with the IT person/department.

      5. LQ*

        But it’s not YOURS it’s The Company’s. The fact that she came over to sit down at a desk. Unless she’s the sole owner of the company (and since she works in HR we can assume she isn’t) she shouldn’t be doing that. Getting the authority to go in and read them? Yup. Demanding to sit down at someone’s desk? Nope! It smacks of back channel and trying to do something she shouldn’t be. Looping in the manager is a great idea here. There should be correct channels for this. Especially since if something is being investigated creating a stir is usually not ideal.

      6. Mike C.*

        You realize that some of us deal in sensitive or export controlled data, and having some random HR rep sit down and start reading email before said sensitive data could result in violations to various export control acts, right?

        Why do you think this is such a simple matter?

        1. Bea W*

          This is the case with my job (though not specifically with export control acts but I’m in a heavily regulated industry with access to sensitive personal health data). You can’t just sit down at anyone’s computer and start going through their stuff. Our IT people actually can’t even log on from boot. They can get in from the Windows log in screen, but they can’t get in through the initial log in screen, the name of which is escaping me. We handle sensitive data. There are things I am allowed to see that I can’t even share with some of our cross-functional team members without going through my manager who often has to consult with the legal department.

      7. alma*

        You’re not addressing what was actually said. snuck said they would want to loop in management to be sure it was actually company business and not just a random employee going off the rails. At no point was it argued that the company shouldn’t be able to look at company email.

        1. Jeanne*

          Yes. I think that would have been an excellent idea to let your manager know. You’re not denying anyone access. You’re just making a phone call. And the manager is part of the company too. These days a company can read your email without sitting at your desk.

          And why would she change Outlook settings? I would have changed them right back.

          1. Elsajeni*

            I’m guessing what the OP means is that she moved the various panes around to her own preferred viewing configuration — kind of obnoxious to do on someone else’s computer, especially if you don’t change it back afterward, but I can imagine someone doing it just to make it easier or faster to find what they’re looking for. (That doesn’t make the rest of the situation any less weird, though!)

      8. Observer*

        Who says that the HR rep is actually doing something for the company? The way the HR rep did this, in fact, raises strong suspicions that she was NOT doing something authorized for the benefit of the company. Snuck is totally correct – her manager, or someone up the chain needs to authorize this. There is no way that HR should have carte blanche access to everyone’s email, much less all of the client data that might be sitting on someone’s desktop.

      9. A. Nonny Mouse*

        HR wanting to see an employee’s work e-mail is fine. However, this HR person crossed the line when she:

        1. Booted the employee off of their computer, forcing them to stop work.
        2. Accessed the employee’s computer while there was private client information on the screen. If these people work in healthcare, that’s a HIPAA violation. It could lead to a hefty fine for the company, and at some organizations, is a fireable offense.

        1. A Non*

          I’m not a HIPAA expert, but my impression is that fines only result when client information has been leaked outside the organization or the client’s been harmed. An internal employee seeing client data – while it’s supposed to be kept to a minimum – isn’t considered a breach.

          1. NowProwl*

            I believe it’d still be a HIPAA violation as the person accessing it (HR) does not need to have access to medical information in the first place.

            1. A. Nonny Mouse*

              Correct. If you don’t need the PHI to do your job – and HR never needs PHI – you are not to look. Period.

          2. Anonsie*

            There are different types of violations, and anyone in the hospital accessing patient information they had no reason to access (even accidentally) is indeed a violation. You can only access PHI if you have an explicit patient-related need to do so, and/or you have institutional regulatory oversight of your work (like with a quality improvement project or research).

        2. Kyrielle*

          Yep. I sometimes work with data protected under CJIS rules, and it actually could be criminal (on my part) to let someone look at it.

          Luckily, I rarely actually see it, and only when connected to a client site. So I could always say, “Whups! I’m connected in to a client; let me disconnect from their systems so that the email server can be reached.”

          Of course, first I’d have to wonder why HR flew to my office to look at email, and possibly ask if I could speak with the head of HR to confirm that it was okay.

          But a plausible scenario would be if IT was 1-2 people and were the people under investigation, I’d think. (Not plausible at a company like ours with a larger IT group, I wouldn’t think.)

      10. another IT manager*

        If that’s the case, they take their permission slip to IT, who checks the slip, and then they can read the email at their own computer. Sitting down at the OP’s desk just sounds shady.

        1. Kyrielle*

          Unless it’s a small company with 1-2 people in IT, and IT are the folks under investigation. Even so, I’d cross-confirm with the head of HR or *someone* that it was authorized.

      11. Vicki*

        It’s not “yours” either. It belongs to the company. And even though a corporation is a “person” in the eyes of the law, I doubt the law sees a single HR person as the embodiment of the company.

        Your manager can ask IT to look at your emails.
        One HR rep. requesting you log in for them? Too unusual to be reasonable.

      12. Not So NewReader*

        Yes, it is the company’s computer but in some cases the information is not theirs. I know of cases where the employee must be fingerprinted and sometimes pass a test before being allowed near the computer. One place I know of the person who cleans cannot clean near the computers without being fingerprinted.

        I don’t think OP has a situation this serious. But I think it’s a good example of the computer itself vs the information on the computer. There could be rules/laws regarding the information that trump HR or anyone’s ability to look at the contents of the computer.

      13. Daniella*

        I agree you should not have anything secret from “the company” on your computer, but there is often information that is confidential and not to be passed round at will. I remember a guy at my last job who was dismissed for online gambling but the IT equipment was examined by the head of IT with 2 company directors present – not by an HR rep (I was working in the directors’ suite at the time so I know how it was done). The computer was also removed from the open office. This makes me suspicious that the HR rep was not following proper procedures whatever she was doing.

    2. Bea W*

      Back in the day, when we still hired people into perm positions, we could have multiple jobs posted some being perm and some being contract/temp. Different agencies would handle different postings, and agencies that did temp/contract only seemed to know about those positions and not about the others. This actually happened while I was last job hunting. My group was looking for one temp/contractor positions and one perm at the same time, 2 separate postings. They also did not post the temp positions on the company site, just the regular ones. So the only posting on the company website was the one perm. I wonder if that’s what’s happening there.

    3. CreationEdge*

      As an IT guy, we’re always telling users not to disclose their passwords, even to IT. Logging in for someone else to knowingly use your credentials is as bad as telling them your password.

      Each company should have a policy regarding how emails can be accessed by management, but it shouldn’t be by making an employee log in for another employee.

      I would assume this HR rep was willingly or unknowingly circumventing a policy, or taking it upon themselves to institute a new one in the absence of a formal policy.

      Regardless, I would recommend bringing the incident up with your management, to see if that’s how situations like that are to be handled in the future. You don’t want to be complicit in someone else’s violation of policy by remaining unaware of policy.

      1. I think this should be anon*

        Well, the better IT people are. The IT department where I work has actively _required_ me to give them my password each time I get a new machine so they can stage it for me properly under my login. (Never mind that I am technical and they could send it with the software installed and unconfigured, if that’s the best they can manage, and I could set it up.)

        The one time I wasn’t available (on vacation when the hardware came in), they re-set my password, used my account, and shipped the new laptop with my new password taped to it.

        …I’ve been ordered to comply with this by my boss, and in any case I need hardware upgrades now and then, but really?

        First thing I inevitably do after one of these is done, is change my password. Which isn’t required or enforced by IT. Once it happened right after I’d changed my password; you can’t change twice in 24 hours and I couldn’t update again until the next day.

        I know our IT department are trustworthy, but this really really bugged me, because the security vulnerability of it being known is just this little mental itch until I can fix it.

        (The time I had to repeat the password slowly four times before the IT employee repeated all characters back correctly, however, was comedy gold. Yes, I have it memorized, and no, I don’t have it written down, and yes, that’s my password. For…a few hours more, until you tell me my laptop has shipped, and then it will be something else!)

        1. Judy*

          At my last company, when they needed to do that, they would make a throwaway password. (Many times CompanyNov14 ) They would tell me to reset it when I got the new system.

        2. A Non*

          Ugh. Passwords taped to laptops. *Shudder* I have sent emails to my entire organization yelling at them NOT TO DO THAT.

          (I worked for one guy who kept a notebook with user’s current passwords. I didn’t work for him long.)

          1. Jenna*

            The last place that I worked was VERY careful with network and information security. I have a feeling that there’s going to be something at NextJob that will make me twitch.

        3. Jamoche*

          I’m a software developer and my manager won’t let IT set up our computers anymore, after the time we got brand new computers that couldn’t run the older OS version that IT had blessed and they installed it anyway.

    4. A. D. Kay*

      Someone upthread mentioned a potential HIPAA violation if the workplace is in the healthcare industry. It is probably a violation of Sarbanes-Oxley as well. Anyone with SOX experience care to chime in?

  2. fposte*

    #4–were you asking to rearrange your hours so as to have a day free or to genuinely work fewer days for your current org to go work, albeit unpaid, elsewhere? The latter could actually exceed the bounds of a reasonable request, so it wouldn’t surprise me that a boss would say no to that.

    (And is the other place a for-profit? Are you sure it’s legal for them to have volunteers if so?)

    1. anomnomnomimous*

      That was my thought, too – this person’s concept of “very reasonable request” seems pretty skewed. One day a week is an awful lot of time to be taking off.

      1. John*

        Agreed. Just because the current position isn’t leading anywhere is not a good reason not to fulfill your commitment.

      2. Zillah*

        I would agree, except that I believe the OP’s current position is an internship. If it’s unpaid or paid by a stipend that doesn’t cover the FT work the OP seems to be doing, I can see why she might feel that way.

        1. Zillah*

          Ah, I misread it. Yeah, OP, I don’t see this as a super reasonable request, and I’d caution you about volunteering in hopes that it will lead to a job in that company.

          1. OP #4*

            Yes, it’s legal to volunteer there. I already have filled out the paperwork and such. The internship is at a for-profit. I decided to rearrange my hours and got it worked out. It’s really frustrating.

            1. MK*

              It may be frustrating, but I think you are making it more so for yourself, by getting into the mindset that your manager is deliberately obstructing your career. I don’t know how reasonable your request actually is (one day a week sounds a bit much to me, but I guess that would depend on many factors), but it’s not crappy on your manager to refuse to rearrange his own team’s work so that you can volunteer somewhere else. Also, you come across as totally dsimissive of the value of the internship, the purpose of which was never you getting a permanent job there anyway.

            2. AvonLady Barksdale*

              If your internship has a set end date, the request you made wasn’t super reasonable, especially since it’s paid. You agreed to intern during a set schedule, and your manager expects you to be there during that schedule. There are so many reasons why they can’t or won’t make you permanent, and that doesn’t discount your value as an intern.

              I see that you got it worked out, and that’s great, but in the future, you should hang on until your internship term is over. I speak from experience on this one; I had an unpaid internship that I took to complete my master’s (technically it was paid, since I got credit) and had to start job-hunting when my internship was over. I loved the organization and really wanted to stay on, and they liked me a lot too, so I worked out a new schedule AFTER my official internship was completed.

              I once had an intern who saw her schedule as flexible and even optional, since she was “just an intern.” Nope. We expected her to be there during set hours and she decided she needed to do other things. That intern asked for reference letters for three years and always got turned down. Don’t be that intern!

            3. Amtelope*

              But a paid internship isn’t necessarily flexible. You shouldn’t expect to be able to rearrange your hours to suit you, any more than you would if you had a non-internship temp job. You should assume the hours are what they are, and I certainly wouldn’t bring up the idea of this schedule change again with your boss after you’ve already been told no. I’d hate for you to burn your bridges with the organization you’re interning for (and possibly lose this boss as a reference) for the sake of a volunteer gig.

            4. fposte*

              Ditto to the above. I understand, OP, that it was frustrating that you couldn’t easily get what you want, but it was also frustrating to your manager to hear that you were trying to get out of a contracted stint with them to work for somebody else.

            5. Anonsie*

              Was there any expectation that your hours could be moved around as long as you were working the total hours expected for a week/two week period?

              I ask because my internships were like this (though unpaid). You committed to a certain number of hours per week but if you needed to be gone for some reason during your regular times in, you had to reschedule that time for another day beforehand. If that’s the sort of arrangement you have, I wouldn’t interpret that to mean you can rearrange your hours for whatever– our requests for moving hours around were always heavily scrutinized, and this definitely wouldn’t have been allowed.

  3. K*

    #5 – You are totally free to look for other jobs and you certainly don’t have to tell anyone about it until you have an actual offer. If you have a bad boss they might decide to fire you before you’ve found something else.

    1. Jeanne*

      It’s not just firing. Since you’ve been looking, of course you don’t need raises, promotions, training, important projects. If you look and don’t get hired, you’re now stuck with a job that sucks. I always say be discreet.

      1. AdAgencyChick*

        YES, this. I’m not managing anyone right now, but when I did, I was always told what the percentage target was for raises company-wide. If I gave someone more than that, I had to give less to someone else (or else convince my own boss that everyone on my team were such rockstars that he should give the low or no raises to some other team). So if I know someone has itchy feet, I’ll give her raise to someone else.

  4. Seal*

    #4 – If your internship is paid and has a specific end date, I suspect your boss is having you work on specific projects that can be completed during that timeframe. Working fewer hours or leaving before your internship is over might leave projects undone or put your boss in an awkward position with their boss. Worse, it might jeopardize your chances of using your boss as a reference for future employment. Surely you can wait a few weeks until your internship ends to pursue what sounds like a mere possibility of volunteering elsewhere.

  5. Elizabeth the Ginger*

    #1: it seems extra-weird to me that the HR person adjusted the Outlook settings to her own preferences while on the OP’s computer. Unless these were minor adjustments – like increasing the zoom level if her eyesight’s not as good as OP’s – that seems really presumptuous. My landlord has the right to come into my apartment with warning, but it would be a huge overstepping of boundaries if she reorganized the books on my bookshelf when she did.

    That detail makes the rest of it feel fishier to me. It could be that the HR person had a legitimate reason for looking at the email, but since the preferences issue makes me question her boundary-recognition skills…

    1. AnonyMouse*

      Yep, that’s actually the part that stuck with me the most too, weirdly enough. I know some people are really intense about preferences like that and get confused if they’re looking at a version of Outlook that doesn’t have the settings they want…but all the more reason not to mess with someone else’s! But I think Alison’s advice is spot on, hopefully bringing it up with the manager will either provide a reasonable explanation or put a stop to random email checks like that.

    2. sr*

      This didn’t strike me as odd at all, more a case of one person who is not the most comfortable with Outlook’s various settings (OP) and another person who needs to have the windows in a specific setup to quickly read the messages. She/he might have it set up so you have to double click the message to read it, whereas the other person thinks its easier to hit the down button and read the messages in the panel. Could even have been organizing it by sender instead of date. We simply don’t know and the fact that OP didn’t specify indicated to me that s/he her/himself did quite get what happened or how to fix it back.

      1. Nancie*

        I’m quite comfortable with Outlook’s settings, and I’d certainly be complaining if someone sat down and started messing with them. And if the HR person needs Outlook set up the way she likes it, that’s all the more reason that this should have gone through IT. Then she could have proxied into the OP’s mailbox from her own PC, where she wouldn’t have to mess with somebody else’s computer.

        1. snuck*

          All I can think here is that the HR person was trying to find something swiftly, and without more information from the OP I’m left wondering if it was a simple as changing the header bars, sort by ‘from’ and then find the emails from a particular person. That technically is changing someone’s settings (and while really easy to do could be intimidating to someone who has never had to set up or alter their email settings in any way) and maybe the OP didn’t know how to change it back.

          I get the impression that HR was trying to quickly look for something … the super quick sleuthy way. It might simply have been checking that an all staff email actually was sent out at a day and time (and that another staff member was on the invite list for it or whatever) and important to an immediate issue (maybe a staff member was claiming they hadn’t gotten XYZ and there was a battle royale going on over it) and quickly resolved this way, but then why couldn’t the HR Rep ask a manager to see the same… Or get permission… And put the outlook settings back I assume!

      2. Melissa*

        Just because it’s more expedient to read the messages using a certain set of preferences, though, doesn’t mean that the HR person should come in and reorganize the way OP has it set up. She’s only going to be on there temporarily to look for something specific, so there’s no real need to change things unless the current settings make it impossible to find what she needs (doubtful).

        1. catsAreCool*

          My thought is, if you change someone’s settings on their computer, you need to change them back to what they were.

        1. Kathryn*

          Heh. I use a kneeling chair at work. No one screws with my chair. Or uses my computer, since that involves sitting in my chair.

            1. Adam*

              It’s another sort of chair designed to promote healthy posture. It has no back and instead you sit straight up with your knees bent in front of resting on another pad. It’s sort of like kneeling in a church pew only more upright.

              1. Elizabeth West*

                Yeah, it straightens out your spine. I tried one once and really liked it, but I don’t know if I could sit in it all day. I can’t leave my knees bent like that.

          1. Melissa*

            I bought my husband one of these because he used to kneel in a folding chair and lean his chest over the back of it. He loves that thing. I don’t get it, as I always feel oddly folded up in the chair.

        2. JB*

          I am now thinking of a very old They Might Be Giants song. “The thing that bothers me is someone keeps moving my chair.”

    3. A Non*

      Where I live (WA state) landlords are legally required to give 48 hours notice before entering apartments. Even they don’t get to walk in at any time.

  6. Mister Pickle*

    #1: hard to tell, but i wonder if she was looking to see if OP had recieved something? My overactive imagination is wondering if HR lady accidentally sent sexy time pics of herself to some mailing list – and so she’s bluffing her way onto people’s computers to delete them!

    Kinda unlikely … but ya never know. I’d advise OP to keep her ears open for gossip. (No, not really)

    That said: I would definitely bring this up to my mgmt, both to let them know it happened, and to get guidance on what to do if this person tries to do it again. It’s likely a corporate culture kind of thing, but at the company I work for? HR lady would meet with some rather firm resistance if she tried that. In almost 30 years, I’ve never heard of such a thing.

    1. Mister Pickle*

      One other thought occurs to me: OP, when you bring this up with your manager, make sure to tell her how the HR lady basically bullied their way onto your computer (which is what it sounds like happened). And if necessary, remind your manager that you really don’t know the “rules” for this kind of thing. My point being: I don’t know where you work or what it’s like, but I surely hope your manager doesn’t somehow turn this around and make it your fault. Call me paranoid if you will – but if your manager sucks, they may surprise you by laying blame on you, because “you should have known better”. Which is total BS, of course, but – be prepared.

    2. Mister Pickle*

      Oh – drat, I apologize for following myself up twice – it occurs to me: Outlook has a mechanism to recall email, I think? I wonder if HR lady (or someone else) sent out an email to a group, then recalled it, and she was doing a quick spot check to see if the recall worked?

      Did HR lady seem nervous at all while doing this?

    3. MissM*

      I kinda thought something similar – that maybe the HR rep accidentally sent a confidential email to someone she wasn’t supposed to, and went to delete it. (I have gotten into trouble before with Outlook’s auto-complete feature, since my boss’s name starts with the same three letters as the company CEO. Ack!) While Outlook has an email recall feature, it also sends a message to let the recipient know that the email was recalled.

      1. danr*

        If the email has been opened recall doesn’t work, but you get a message listing the addresses that it failed for.

    4. BadPlanning*

      I was thinking the same thing — HR had a reply-all fail or something and wanted to do some spot checking to see what went out. Or someone else of importance did and recruited HR to help fix it. Or someone in IT did something so someone felt they had to read emails live? Still, seems weird.

      1. Mister Pickle*

        It’s weird, but having slept on it – it makes sense. In theory the IT people at the company may have everyone’s machine set up for remote login – but HR may not be set up to use it, and in the end, if you’re working to ensure that a “mistake” email Never Happened, you’re not going to sleep easy until you’ve actually sat at some employee terminals and seen directly with your own eyes that the offending item is one.

        One thought: OP, I assume that Outlook has a Search function? Did HR lady use it? Did she clear it afterwards?

    5. ...*

      Except you miss the part where the HR person then read through all her emails. She wouldn’t need to do that to recall a mistakenly sent email.

      1. Traveler*

        They never said they read through all her emails. They just said “read through my email”. That’s too vague to know how many emails they read.

        1. ...*

          Right, but it doesn’t matter if they read through some or all or most. The point is, if it was to check to see if an accidentally sent email was recalled or to delete it, the HR person wouldn’t need to open and read through ANY of OP’s emails. They would just to search for the one they sent.

      2. Mister Pickle*

        Well, yes. But I don’t think the HR person was attempting to recall the email from the employee’s computer – I’m not sure that’s even possible. I think the HR person was looking to see if the email, despite being recalled, might have somehow still existed on OP’s system.

        Also, given how HR lady said the higher-ups at the site knew about this, I wonder if it was one of them who sent (and then recalled) a ‘bad’ email, and asked HR lady to follow up?

        1. Jasper*

          Yes, but it still wouldn’t require the HR person to read any of the emails. The fact that the HR person was reading through emails is a strong indication that a mis-sent email was not the issue.

          1. Elsajeni*

            I don’t think it is. If someone sat down at my computer, opened Outlook, and started scrolling slowly down the list of messages looking at the senders and subject lines — even if they didn’t open any messages other than whatever was open when they got there — I’d describe them as “reading through my email” or “looking through my email.”

  7. AnonyMouse*

    #4: I know this wasn’t your question and you may have already thought about this, but I’d read Alison’s advice about dream jobs if I were you ( It sounds like you’re really interested in the work this company does, and that’s awesome, but from the outside looking in there’s a lot you may not be able to tell about what it would be like to work there day to day. I mention this a lot because I’m prone to idealising what it would be like to work for organisations or companies I admire, and this advice has really helped me keep a good perspective.

    I only bring this up as a comment on a basically unrelated question because you’re asking about doing things like (if I’m reading your question right) reducing your hours at a paid internship that’s about to end to go work unpaid for another company. This might be a reasonable request or it might not, depending on the terms of your internship and the workload, but rightly or wrongly it definitely is the kind of thing that would annoy some supervisors, especially if you bring it up a second time. It’s probably not worth burning that bridge (a potential reference who’s actually managed you and thinks you’re invaluable) to volunteer for another company that’s already rejected you a couple times, even if it seems like a perfect fit from the outside. You could still end up there, but I wouldn’t go about it this way.

    1. majigail*

      I have to say too, that we often have people volunteering at my place thinking it will lead to a job. In the agency’s 40 some year history, volunteers have been hired on twice. I don’t think we’re incredibly unusual. The good thing is that the agency will get to know you, the bad thing is that the agency will get to know you. Obviously, I don’t know the OP, but I do know going into volunteering with a mindset of getting a paid gig out of it rarely goes well and ends leaving the volunteer with a lot of resentment.

      1. Koko*

        It’s true. I hate to say it, but a rejected job applicant who comes on as a volunteer might very well be establishing themselves in the eyes of the company as someone whose work isn’t worth paying for. Much like Alison often advises that if you’re interviewing for a reach position as a Director you might undermine yourself if you tell the interviewers that you’d also be open to the Associate position they’re hiring for. It makes them think, “She must not really be Director-material if she’s willing to take an Associate position.” Similarly, if you were twice-rejected from a paid position and then agreed to take an unpaid one, it could make them think, “She must not be qualified enough to get paid work in this area if she’s willing to take an unpaid volunteer gig.”

        1. Anonsie*

          Yeah, and most everywhere I’ve worked or volunteered with has a policy that they don’t want to cross the two. Hiring volunteers is done in some places, sure, but a lot of organizations avoid it because they want the volunteers there to really be there for that purpose.

        2. MsM*

          OP, if you’re still around: I work for an org that has hired several volunteer leaders for outreach positions, and I still wouldn’t recommend this plan. I might be impressed with your dedication…until I called your supervisor for a reference and found out that you arranged that one day a week at the expense of your responsibilities to his organization. Not everything I’d need you to do is going to further the mission in an obvious or exciting way, and I need to know you’re not going to flake out on me because you’re not feeling fulfilled.

  8. Cheesecake*

    OP 5 If it is not a special case, i am not sure why your boss sees it a “right things to do?”. I see it as a very silly and demoralizing thing. It is like telling your better half “well, at this point i am going to start searching for another boyfriend and i will let you know once i find one”.

    1. Brenda*

      I don’t think it’s necessarily the right thing or wrong thing do to, but it’s not inherently “demoralising” and can make sense to tell your managers early in particular situations. I think it depends a lot on why you’re leaving – you’re going back to school, you’re moving too far away to continue working there, you want to move into a different field, you want to move up and there’s nowhere to go at your company. Depending on the reason and your relationship with your boss, it might make sense. If your reason is “I don’t like it here” or “I don’t like you”, then it’s probably not a good idea to tell them early. A good manager should know that people will not stay forever, and appreciate getting the chance to plan more than two weeks in advance. My boss at my previous job knew for a full year that I was planning to leave to move to another country and go back to school, and she also knew that she was the only reason I stayed with that company for so long.

      1. Cheesecake*

        But OP is not talking about people leaving to study/travel/leaving to another country. This is something very different. We are talking about leaving one job for another job. Obviously you should raise concerns to managers during your review 1on1 etc about moving to different field/moving up/general concerns. And then you see if something changes. And if not (or your are still unhappy no matter what), you start searching for something else. Again, it is like in relationships. I can say “that is bothering me, what shall we do?” but I can’t say “well, this is bothering me and i am going to find someone else, hold on here while i am searching”. It happens like that but you are not announcing it.

        1. AvonLady Barksdale*

          I think it depends on a lot of things, like job level, experience, and relationship with the boss. Where I used to work, sales assistants were encouraged to apply to other positions, both external and internal, after about two years, and their bosses used their own networks to help. I applied to a couple of positions in other departments while I was there, and I was advised to inform my boss; with one boss, she was initially encouraging and then ended up holding it against me (she kinda sucked), and with another, he told me he didn’t want me to go but he would support me in any way he could, and he did. I didn’t get that job– dodged a bullet there– and my boss never held it against me.

          When it came time for me to really leave because things had gone sour for various reasons, I told no one. Each time I started job-hunting, I weighed whether to tell anyone. It’s very much a, “know your team” thing, but I don’t see it as inherently demoralizing.

    2. Graciosa*

      I don’t think I would equate job searching to telling a current love interest that you’re hanging around only until your search for the next one pays off. This is business. People are supposed to progress in their careers. I don’t expect employees to remain true to their first job until death finally parts them from their beloved employer.

      I do recognize that there are bosses who react to employee departures as a betrayal, so I can understand the thinking but I don’t agree with it. In the long run, having employees develop additional skills and move on (hopefully up) to new positions is one of the most rewarding parts of management. Making it safe for employees to share this information with you allows you to do a better job of helping them – and plan for replacing the role when necessary – and helps you develop a reputation as the kind of manager other high-performing employees want to work with.

      I think the OP should be proud for creating that kind of environment for his or her team, and pleased that the OP’s manager recognizes that. Whether the OP’s manager has done the same is a question for the OP to answer.

      1. Cheesecake*

        It is business, this is exactly why noone is obliged to share plans with anyone else, as long as these plans are not concrete.

        Maybe my perspective is different for the following reason: in Europe notice period is 2-3 months (can be more). Finding a job is also not a week-worth exercise. So i simply can’t imagine hanging around a person who simply wants to leave….for half a year. And also, what happens if s/he doesn’t get a job or decides to stay?

        Again, yes, it depends on a team/boss/company/circumstance. Yes, good boss sees when employees sort of gave up. But saying “i am going to search for another job” out loud is wrong.

        1. Koko*

          It really depends on the nature of your relationships in the company, as others have said. I once told a boss I was considering changing jobs but was also open to staying if some changes could be made to my position. She brought in a few higher-ups to see what could be done and they presented me with several options including making some changes to my existing position or allowing me to keep working indefinitely while I job-searched and they advertised for a replacement for me (who I’d be able to train if I stuck around that long). They all wanted me to stay, but also genuinely wanted me to be happy and didn’t want me to stay if I’d be resentful or unhappy. The VP assigned to our division even offered to tap into her own network and serve as a reference to help me get a job more in line with what I was looking for.

          Obviously, I was incredibly lucky to have such supportive bosses who wanted to work with me to find a solution that worked for me, whether it took me away from our company or not. Nobody here thought it was “wrong” for me to be honest and give them a heads-up so they could have a chance to retain me or at least have more time to look for someone to replace me if I did decide to leave. But I’ve also worked at places where I never would have dreamed of admitting that I was unhappy or considering leaving, because I didn’t trust that my bosses would have cared enough to try to retain me or to help me in my search in any way.

    3. Jen RO*

      Last time I job-searched, I told my team lead. She knew I was not happy in that job (she wasn’t particularly happy either) and she supported me, meaning that I didn’t have to make up doctor’s appointments, I could just tell her I have an interview. I am now a team lead too and I will support any of my reports if they decide to tell me they are job-searching. I’d rather know and be prepared rather than being blindsided. I would not *expect* them to tell me, but I wouldn’t hold it against them… even if the job search didn’t end up being successful.

  9. Mister Pickle*

    #2: yeah, you need to be careful with this. You’re going to have to rely upon your own judgement regarding how thick-skinned your boss is. Hmmm … I think I would probably come up with maybe 2 items max, and be really careful to make the items *constructive* criticism.

    1. GrumpyBoss*

      Given that the OP was concerned about a resulting grudge, I agree. I’d limit to a few items, and make sure that the ratio of positive to constructive is skewed.

      1. MissM*

        I’m wondering if the OP’s fear is specifically because the boss is the type to hold a grudge, or because the very idea of giving feedback to a boss seems scary to the OP. I would think that if the boss is taking it upon herself to seek out feedback, then she is probably going to be fairly open to constructive feedback and I wouldn’t be overly worried. I mean, jerk bosses generally don’t ask people for their opinions, KWIM?

        1. GrumpyBoss*

          Mine did. And by “brutally honest feedback”, he meant “kiss my ass and tell me I’m wonderful”.

          In my experience, jerk bosses are incredibly insecure.

          1. Jazzy Red*

            This, absolutely.

            You know that portal to hell that has a sign, “abandon hope all ye who enter here”? That’s what “be brutally honest with me” means.

            OP, be very, very careful.

          2. AdAgencyChick*

            Sigh. Seriously. Sometimes the lady doth protest too much.

            I also think that the best managers are self-aware enough to realize that asking for identifiable feedback from people you have power over is going to put those people in an awkward position, *even if the manager is good.* I’ve known one manager in my life to whom I would have given constructive criticism to his face. Maybe — MAYBE — a second. It takes a lot of time and observation to develop that level of trust, at least for me.

            1. AdAgencyChick*

              I should have finished that by saying — the best managers are self-aware enough to draw the conclusion that they should try to seek feedback in a way that feels safer for the direct report — either trying to anonymize it somehow (granted, that can be hard to do) or asking for feedback from peers rather than direct reports.

          3. Not So NewReader*

            The word choice is what sets up a caution flag for me. Too many times, I have heard people say they want total honesty and then they cannot handle it.
            Conversely, if OP is the sixth brutally honest person in a row, the boss could become worn down by the steady flow of criticism. And the boss could switch to overload on OP.

        2. MK*

          Not necessarily true. Few people have an objective opinion of themselves; this boss may be assuming that negaitve feedback will be scarce and only about minor issues and there is no knowing how she will react to a list of complaints. Also, she may be sincere in asking for “brutal honesty”, but she is probably overestimating her ability to receive it graciously.

          To be frank, this request rubs me the wrong way. The manager-employee relationship is an unequal one, with the manager having power over the employee. Pretending it isn’t so is hypocritical.

          1. Graciosa*

            You’re right, the relationship isn’t equal – which is why the manager needs to make a real effort to create an environment in which employees can safely provide this type of feedback.

            Good managers who are not doing all that they could to help their employees be productive and successful (or worse, actually doing something to make it harder) want to know. Not because it’s a trick, or to punish anyone, but to try to fix it. This is the manager’s job. Asking employees what they need is not hypocritical – what better way is there to get the information?

            Unfortunately, there are bad managers out there, so yes, employees probably need to test the water a bit and figure out whether a specific manager is trustworthy – but please give a manager a chance before assuming bad management.

            1. MK*

              However, I think that even in an environment where the employees feels it’s safe to offer feedback, they wouldn’t feel comfortable being brutally honest; people just don’t talk to their boss like that. And, if they did, the boss would at the very least feel awkward and, well, who wants their boss to feel awkward when thinking of them? It’s one think to first establish a relationship where your employees know they won’t be punished for bringing up unpleasant things and then ask them directly for feedback. It’s another the say “Be brutally honest! I can take it!”.

          2. kozinskey*

            Yeah, this request seems destined to end badly for someone (or a lot of people). If my boss asked for “brutally honest” feedback I would clam up real fast for exactly the reasons MK points out. It seems like a request that comes from a place of insecurity to me, and I worry how this manager will take it after her entire staff tells her exactly what they think. (Or, even worse, 99% of the staff keeps their mouths shut and one person tells the manager exactly what they think.) And anyway, constructive criticism would be a lot more productive than brutal honesty.

            1. Artemesia*

              I had one boss for whom honest feedback would have been fine and he in fact valued my blunt advice. Every other one said they were open to feedback but all were incredibly defensive when receiving even the hint of it. I remember the last one who earnestly asked why people were not participating in meetings but they basically ridiculed the answer. I would never give honest feedback to a boss who asked this if one had the slightest concern about grudges. If there is a behavior that could be changed that is quite specific and doesn’t go to the heart of the person’s character or overall personality — maybe — i.e. if there is an easy fix somewhere, sure — but otherwise tread carefully here.

          3. Mister Pickle*

            There are all kinds of bosses out here. OP is simply going to have to make a judgement call. Here’s a not very helpful exercise: picture your boss, then picture Jack Nicholson shouting at him, saying “You want the truth?! You can’t handle the truth!” Does this scene “work”?

            Regardless, if it were me, I’d pick a couple of slow-ball items that can be phrased as constructive criticism. Make sure you’ve got a suggested fix: “I think it would be more effective if we held the team meeting on Tuesday morning because [reasons].” Feedback is also about letting someone know what they’re doing right, so maybe think of one or two “way to go!” kinds of remarks. Don’t go overboard on this, though – your lips should at no time come into contact with his ass.

            Then sit back and observe, not just how he takes your words but other people’s words, too. If he’s vindictive, then you know that now. On the other hand, you may find that he takes it all in stride – which goes a long way towards (to misquote Alison) establishing an environment that supports feedback and constructive criticism.

            I understand the power imbalance aspect of this. And some people “can’t handle the truth.” But I long ago came to the realization that finding out the things I’m doing wrong is the only way i’m going to learn to do them better.

            And there’s two sides of it: the person asking for criticism has to be able to handle it, and the person supplying the criticism can’t just use this as an opportunity to pull on their spiked boots, kick ’em in the crotch, and them jump up and down on them.

    2. Cajun2Core*

      There are ways of being brutally honest while still being polite. You can say such things as:
      1. “I think I better way to do X is by doing ABC”.
      2. “I totally and strongly disagree with you on Y but you may know something that I don’t.”
      3. “The way we are doing Z, is causing a ton of problems (and list the problems), is there a reason why we don’t do them DEF way”.
      4. “You probably don’t realize this but at times you can come off as a bully especially in this one case. Maybe if you tried explaining it this way, people would be more receptive”.
      5. “You can often be inconsistent in how you want us to handle things. For example, company policy states that at all employees must may for their hotel when travelling and get reimbursed. However, occasionally, you tell us to put the hotel on the company credit card. To me, I don’t see any pattern. Is there a pattern and if so what is it? (Real life issue I had to deal with once)
      6. “You can often be inconsistent with some policies and procedures and it can be quite confusing and frustrating. How about I write down what I perceive to be the standing policies and procedures, along with all of the exceptions, and we go over them to make sure that I understand everything correctly” (another real life issue)
      7. “Just yesterday, you told me that form “XYZ” had to be signed by “Big Boss” but today you told me it didn’t. Can you explain?” (Another real life situation. Turns out that person “A” who turned in the form the day before had abused the system, so my manager wanted the “Big Boss” to be aware of everything that person “A” was doing. It was not normal for the “Big Boss” to sign these forms).
      8. “I know you don’t care if people like you or not, but you probably don’t realize that people fear you. Further, you probably don’t realize that people spend hours and redoing paper work and some people are in near panic attacks, trying to figure out exactly how you want the paperwork filled out. I am one of those people.” (I do need to have this conversation with one of my co-workers.

      You can be blunt and tell people what they need and want to hear but it can be done in a tactful way.

      Good Luck!

      1. Koko*

        Some of these are landmines. Telling someone, “You come off as a bully,” is likely to make someone defensive. I’d focus on objective behaviors that make them come off that way and skip the baggage-heavy, subjective label of “bully.” “When you reprimand one of us in front of others, it’s embarrassing for the person being reprimanded and uncomfortable for the rest of us. I think we’d all feel more comfortable for disciplinary conversations happen one-on-one.”

        Similarly with your #8. For some reason, people who are comfortable saying, “I don’t care about X,” bristle at being told, “I know you don’t care about X.” People don’t want to be told what they do or don’t care about. They know how they feel and resent being told by someone else how they feel, whether it’s accurate or not. I’d go with something more like, “I try very hard to fill out my paperwork correctly, but without clear and consistent guidelines, it’s difficult. I take great pride in my work and I’d like to be able to give you work that’s correct the first time I submit it. Not being sure what’s correct from one day to another is a great source of stress. I’d love if we could establish/go over what the standard procedures are, and what the exceptions are to those rules.”

        1. Jazzy Red*

          Some of them are landmines?? Almost all of them are landmines!

          My gut feeling is that someone higher up than the manager said something to her that was negative, and now she’s in an anxious mood (what else am I doing wrong?). What she wants to hear is that she’s doing NOTHING wrong, except maybe that she wore two different shoes to work one day.

          I’ve been burned, backstabbed, and lied to by too many bosses in my long career to trust one who asked for brutally honest feedback.

    3. Arjay*

      Yes, and I keep going back to the thought about how there is honesty and there is brutality and they really have nothing to do with each other. This situation calls for very gentle honesty and only about concrete things that the boss can fix somewhat easily.

      1. AnonyMouse*

        “There is honesty and there is brutality and they really have nothing to do with each other.”

        I really agree with this point. Sure, sometimes you’re dealing with someone who honestly just can’t get feedback through their head without hearing it in the plainest possible terms, but normally that’s not the case. I definitely think “brutal honesty” gets played up a bit too much, like you’re not *really* being honest if your feedback/criticism isn’t hurtful in some way…in reality, I think you can make plenty of points perfectly well and perfectly honestly without being brutal about it. And this is especially true when you’re dealing with your boss! You can talk honestly to someone while still being tactful.

    4. PEBCAK*

      You can also make them more about yourself/your relationship with that manager.

      For example, instead of “you micromanage and drop by my desk all the time with stupid questions,” you say something like, “I’m not always prepared to give you a full picture of my work, maybe we could plan a weekly meeting to discuss the status of my projects.”

  10. Alliej0516*

    #1, I wonder if maybe there is something on the legal side of things going on. At a previous job at a large company, there was an anti-trust lawsuit that one of the manufacturers that we represented was involved in. HR did have to forensically go through the email accounts of everyone who may have touched anything regarding the parties involved, although that was done very differently. Maybe this HR rep was trying to head off something like that? On the other side of things, I’d check the sent file to make sure that she didn’t send out anything in your name or forward anything to her own email (although I know she could have easily deleted that after it was sent).

    1. Natalie*

      Any legal issue shouldn’t require someone to sit at your work station. It wouldn’t even be that effective – you wouldn’t be able to see emails that had been deleted by the user but were possibly still archived on the server. I’m also assuming there’s some kind of documentation process that is followed when looking for evidence in emails.

    2. neverjaunty*

      But if there were a legal issue, OP would have been told and likely would have gotten a directive not to delete certain emails.

      This really sounds like the HR person was just plain nosy.

    3. Judy*

      Whenever I’ve been party to a (safety, patent or purchasing) lawsuit, HR had nothing to do with it. Legal would send out a do not destruct notice for all information to anyone affected. Legal would contact us and make special copies of our hard drives through an outside vendor. Legal and the outside law firm handling our case would come interview us.

      1. jag*

        There are lawsuits other issues other than safety, patent or purchasing. Even some that HR might have a stake in. Employment-related, discrimination-related, etc. I’m sure you can think of some others.

        1. Natalie*

          But HR probably wouldn’t be doing the actual document retention, regardless of the type of issue. No matter what type of legal issue, it’s going to get kicked over to the legal team.

        2. Observer*

          Sure. But I would still say it would be highly unlikely for it to be handled this way. For one thing, in the case of a lawsuit, there would almost certainly have been a “do not destroy” notice sent out, if hr and / or legal have any level of competence. And, no one in their right minds does document retention by sending HR reps to check people’s email at their desks. If you DO need to do that for some odd reason, it’s not going to be an HR rep.

          1. Judy*

            Yep, generally there’s an email from legal “Do not destroy notice – spout design”. Then within the month, someone from legal contacts you and they have some outside team do a disk image of your entire hard drive, and copy any paper you have about that issue. Then you get interviewed about what the process to do the design was, using your disk image as “evidence”, largely interested in dates and decisions. If you mention that Wakeen was helping on that design, and he wasn’t on their list, then he gets on their list too, and a notice is sent to him immediately. Eventually, you might be deposed if the legal action goes that far and you have pertinent information.

            I’d guess that any lawsuit, even the employment related ones would have the same overall plan. Let people know they need to not delete things, quarantine their documents, interview, then depose. It’s all about the legal team and the external law firm hired to handle the case, not HR.

        3. Judy*

          Even the ones that HR has a stake in, they are the people the legal team would be gathering information from, gathering documents from, questioning while preparing the case, deposing with opposing council. They are not driving the case. I would doubt that they would be searching other people’s email for X, Y and Z. The legal team would pull up their emails (from their disk image) and ask them to find email X, Y and Z.

    4. A Non*

      Sitting down at someone’s workstation and going through their email is the opposite of forensic investigation, though. Even if the HR person’s intentions were good, if there’s a legal dispute that action is going to look like a cover-up.

  11. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*



    IT giving authorized users access to any email accounts in the company is easy. If I had nothing better to do, I could have all of my employees email boxes added to my Outlook and read them all day long. While we don’t do that with employees who are still here, we absolutely do that when some employees leave so we have access to their email history with customers and vendors. It’s not fancy snoopy technology, it’s just being added as an authorized user, five minutes.

    So, whut?

    That’s one clueless HR rep. Her first call should have been to IT, even if she didn’t know how easy it is, ’cause she should be thinking “How can I check out this situation discreetly?” IT would then be responsible to make sure the necessary level of management authorized the email check. Levels of security, people! You can’t just walk around demanding people’s log ins and their desk chairs.

    If she thinks that she did was a good way to handle the situation, I think she picked the wrong profession. If people above her think it was okay, they are just as wrong.

    1. Aunt Vixen*

      Right? Where’s Jamie? I would have expected to see her pinballing off the walls by now over this one.

    2. MaryMary*

      Yeah, and this is why I think the HR person did not have a good reason to go through OP’s email. Or at least, a reason IT would approve. Maybe she was just checking that an accidental email was recalled properly. Or maybe she thinks her boyfriend/husband is sending flirty emails to her coworkers. It doesn’t seem on the up and up to me.

    3. LBK*

      Seriously, even in Lotus Notes (the worst email system in the universe) it’s a matter of seconds for me to delegate access to my inbox to someone else. I can’t imagine it’s much more complicated for an administrator to do the same on my behalf. This was just all around bizarre and poorly handled.

  12. OP#1*

    She told me that the top brass for the building knew she was doing this, so I was extra-intimidated. As soon as she left, though, I suspected this was unauthorized, because of course a call to IT could have given her access for any legitimate inquiry.

    And my manager was on a conference call as this happened, so no immediate appeal for help was possible.

    But she and this HR rep are buddies, so I’m not sure she would have had my back in this regardless.

    1. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

      Given the position she put you in, I understand why you didn’t refuse her but IT people everywhere are getting the shakes and hives from this. (Where’s Jamie? There’s Jamie, in the corner drinking green tea to calm herself. Wait, is that a flask I see?)

      Anybody demanding your log in is not okay. It’s not okay. It’s the IT dept’s job to protect the security of the company and it’s not okay for anybody to tell anybody else “give me your log in now”.

      1. JMegan*

        Exactly this. If it was a legit request, it would have come from someone higher up the org chart, it would have come with advance warning, and it would not have involved anyone sitting down at your desk.

        She bullied you, OP. I don’t think you did anything wrong – and given what you’ve described here, I probably would have reacted the same way. But I definitely think you should escalate this, because the whole situation stinks. If you don’t trust your manager to handle it appropriately, could you take it to her manager? Or an IT manager if you have one, or legal, or a director. But please do talk to someone with the authority to do something about it, so they can stop it from happening again.

    2. Karowen*

      Knowing that they’re buddies makes me wonder if your boss thought that you and the co-worker were emailing about her and enlisted her friend to check it out. That may be my experience with awful bosses speaking, and either way it’s still totally unethical, but it’s a thought…

    3. jag*

      “She told me that the top brass for the building knew she was doing this,”

      This either makes it OK (if true) or very very bad if not true. If not true, it means HR lied to you. Explicit lying is very bad news in any organization.

      “Given the position she put you in, I understand why you didn’t refuse her ”
      Yeah. But it’s worth trying to delay it a bit by saying you need to check with your manager or IT to confirm it.

    4. Not So NewReader*

      HMMM. Your manager was on a conference call when this happened?? What an amazing coincidence.

  13. OP#1*

    To be fair, she made me log in instead of demanding my password and logging in herself.

    If she had asked for my log in, I would have refused.

    If I had provided her with my log in, that’s grounds for dismissal. For me, not her–my division is deadly serious about this.

    Still, I’m changing my password first thing this morning. ( we have to change them quarterly regardless, but I’m changing early in this case, just to be extra

    Oh, geez, now I have the shakes, too.

    1. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

      Look it, it’s probably fine. I didn’t mean to rile you up.

      Is it possible to email your boss and the head of IT and tell them that the situation made you uncomfortable because of security breach issues and ask how you should handle something like this in the future? While her behavior was tacky, the real problem I see is security protocol. You have no way of knowing if she was actually authorized to demand what she did and you’d like to make sure that that you are following protocols.

      I’m sure IT has an opinion about the situation and can let HR know what procedures they need to follow. IT trumps HR in security issues.

      1. neverjaunty*

        This is a great idea. It will make it very difficult for your boss to brush off her good buddy’s behavior. Keep the tone of the email polite and neutral, but do mention that HR person assured you upper management authorized it.

        Also consider changing jobs. A company where your boss and HR allow their friendship to interfere with their jobs is a disaster waiting to happen (from the employee POV at least); you can’t go to HR about yiur boss if she were to misbehave and you can’t get help from your boss if HR lady goes off the rails.

      2. Wilton Businessman*

        IT Trumps HR? No, I don’t think so.

        They each have a critical job protecting the company. IT and HR work together in tandem with each other enforcing the company’s security policies. If I get a notice of termination for Wakeen from HR, you can bet I’m going to cut him off with no questions asked.

        I don’t see this as a big deal. If you want to let your manager know and then have her follow up, then by all means do it. But if you make this “a big deal” you’re going to be seen as a troublemaker.

        1. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

          To rephrase, the person in charge of security procedures within a company absolutely trumps HR. That may be a CTO and not just “IT” but HR professionals are not in charge of computer security procedures in a company and they have to obey rules and protocols just like everybody else.

        2. StarGeezer*

          Unless you don’t mind a lawsuit for violation of federal privacy acts, security procedures put in place to prevent disclosure of federally protected information *do* trump “the brass knows I’m doing this, so let me rummage through your email.”

      3. A Non*

        Seconding this. Phrasing it as “how should I handle situations like this in the future?” is polite. I’m in IT, if an HR person were running around doing this in my organization I’d greatly appreciate the heads up. At the very least the HR person needs some education about procedures. If she was doing this to a bunch of people, it’s unlikely that you’re going to get in trouble for it.

        IT vs. HR – My impression is that HR can demand access to info, and if the CEO backs them up they get it, but IT can control when and how that access happens. HR doesn’t get to circumvent security, but IT isn’t the final arbiter of who gets what data.

    2. Booster*

      IT person going on 10 years here –

      If you typed the password yourself, and unless you think she was staring at your hands the whole time and memorized your keystrokes – there’s probably no reason to worry about that, but definitely still change it if you’ll feel better.

      I’ve had to deal with managers wanting to look through the emails of their former employees that left under, shall we say, less than ideal circumstances for various things – they only got access to what (and *only* what) they documented a genuine need to know, and generally the searching was done by my boss(es) and/or the head of the employee’s dept….and that was for the info of people that didn’t even work there anymore.

      Definitely check in with your boss and/or at least a semi-higher up in your IT dept. about this if at all possible – either they’ll tell you they already knew about it and it’s fine, or they’ll discover they (intentionally or not) got left out of the loop and someone will be spoken to about proper procedure. Or they have a very loose/non-existent security policy which doesn’t care about that kind of thing, which would be insane, but I suppose it happens.

      1. Booster*

        To clarify a bit after seeing Wilton’s comment – yeah, it’s disturbing, but don’t feel like you have to make a huge ruckus about it. Discretely inquire, and if there’s a policy issue, those who need to will handle it from there.

    3. snuck*

      There’s no reason why you can’t follow up with an email to your manager saying “on reflection I’ve realised I should tell you about something that happened last Tuesday… *name* came to me and asked me to give her access to my PC and proceeded to read my email. At the time I was unsure but she indicated she had permission from management to do this. I wanted to let you know in case anything comes of it, it was rather strange but you were on your call to XYZ and I was put on the spot and she indicated it was important and urgent.”

      And then leave it. If your manager is her mate she will deal with it however she wishes. If your manager knew about it she will just say to you (or not) ‘It’s cool, don’t worry, please let me know if it happens again’ etc and you are off the hook. If your manager doesn’t know and HR woman has a beef she’s trying to settle and this was her way of getting dirt then your manager might well like to be in the loop.

      1. snuck*

        For all we know your manager and the HR rep aren’t buddies anymore ;)

        And it might be all legit and above the table and the HR rep might have crap people skills.

        I’d just ask your manager how she wants you to handle similar requests and then follow that. It’s not worth losing sleep over now… and if you let your manager know and she’s in on whatever crazy is going down and does nothing about it then that’s not your fault. That’s why I’d email her – a paper trail. I wouldn’t be officious or pointy about it, just a casual “this happened, how do you want me to respond if it happens again?” is all, no blame, no assumptions… no drama.

  14. Rebecca*

    #5 – I’m job searching right now, and if I’m successful, my manager will know when I hand her my two week’s notice. Talking about this ahead of time is a good way to get pushed out the door without a new job lined up.

  15. Brandy*

    When I’ve asked for candid feedback, it has gone well, I think, ecausr I ask about very specific things (and add “anything else I should know?”). It isn’t perfect, but it gives the team a sense d what I’m already thinking of in soliciting feedback.

    When giving feedback to those more senior directly, I keep it thematic to what the *team* needs, not what this person needs to do. For example, “you need to stop micromanaging” might be “I think the team really needs a chance to take a totally independent stab at things so we can succeed/fail on our own.” “You need to be more decicive” might be “the team struggles a bit with focus and could use some very specific deliverables and how those tie back into the corporate strategy.” “You are killing us with work and hours and are a thankless, cold person” might be “the team needs a chance to get to know you better, perhaps something like weekly or monthly team lunches or a group offsite volunteer project (our company is all about those)”.

    If you are a “team” of one, change the phasing to what YOU need- and what your manager can do to help you.

    1. Graciosa*

      I love this approach – there are some great examples here.

      Good managers want to get this type of feedback, and can read between the lines as long as they’re getting at least a hint about what to tweak. As a manager, your job is to get the best possible performance from your team, and the tool you have the most control over is your own behavior. Getting honest feedback is critical – but of course that means you have to make it safe for your team to give it to you.

      The wording and approach you suggest is a great way to test the waters with the manager without demanding that the OP take too much of a risk.

    2. kozinskey*

      I think asking about specific issues would be a good way to go about this. Managers definitely need feedback, but if you leave it totally open ended the first thing that comes across the employees’ minds might be “your breath smells terrible and you hog the coffee creamer.”

  16. Lamb*

    OP #4, is this company that you really want to work for the only one in its field? Because you seem very single-minded about them being THE employer for you.
    I think you would be well served to widen your search; who’s their main competitor in the area? Maybe they have a job opening that would fit for you. Hello industry experience. (And if rival sports teams can trade players and hire eachother’s old coaches, Dream Co. is unlikely to blackball you for being employed by the competition.

    1. Cheesecake*

      My thoughts exactly. OP is going to leave on bad note with current employer, who will give references btw, to get a volunteering opportunity from a company that has no interest to employ OP. This doesn’t seem like a company worth investing your time in. It is good to have a passion in industry/field/, but this does not mean the particular company is perfect for you. Book example of “don’t push it”, 2 rejection doesn’t look like it is meant to be, move on. Do not bring this back to boss, it is not a reasonable request.

  17. No to Stella and Dot*

    #5 – I’m wondering if the direct reports are looking for internal opportunities versus external ones. The reason I ask this is because at my company, you are required to let your manager know if you are interested in pursuing any internal opportunity (even if you’ve just applied and haven’t even had an interview). HR will not allow you to continue on in the hiring process if your manager isn’t in the loop or doesn’t approve – except in very rare circumstances. It certainly makes for some awkward converations between direct reports and managers.

    1. tt*

      Ouch. Glad my company doesn’t require telling your manager when looking for an internal opportunity (unless you’ve been in your current job for less than a year, in which case you’re usually not allowed to move anyway). I would not wanted to have told my former boss what I was doing!

  18. Katie the Fed*

    #2 – proceed with extreme caution. I had a manager once who asked me for my thoughts or the organization and what could be improved. I was honest. Not brutal, but honest, and none of it was personal.

    I am on her sh*t list to this day. She’s a vicious, vindictive person and I think she was feretting out malcontents. Of course I was young and naive and thought “oh, right! I have lots of ideas!”

    So…if you want to give feedback I would stick to things that can improve going forward, not looking back. Be constructive and gentle. Like “people really like X, and I think it would help if we extended that level of flexibility to Y.”

    That’ll at least help you test the waters to know if she’s serious or evil.

    1. Mister Pickle*

      This. You’ve reminded me of someone I know who doesn’t take well to any criticism of any kind. In her defense, she is not someone who commonly asks for feedback.

      On the bright side: if OP’s boss is like this, she almost certainly already knows it.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      Any good manager I have ever had has never felt the need to request brutal honesty.

      I think that is, in part, because things are dealt with in the moment.

      Good Boss: We should do X.
      Employee: I really feel that we should do Y.
      Good Boss: Why do you think so strongly about this?

      They discuss and it is resolved.

      Same scenario with bad boss: I said do X, that means DO X.”
      Three months later the employee is still stewing over that conversation.

  19. Tiffy the Fed... Contractor*


    I told my boss months before I left that I was leaving. Mistakenly, I thought my job search would only take a month or two… more like 7 months. He was very nice during the whole thing, but it started to get uncomfortable after the search dragged on longer than I thought it would. There were other people in the office who wanted to start the search for my replacement before I had another job in place, and that just added to the pressure of me finding a job.

    I’m all for giving your boss a heads up because the search process can take awhile too. However, if I were to have a do over, I wouldn’t tell my boss until I had something lined up, and I was ready to give my notice.

  20. Anonicorn*

    #2 – Maybe your “brutally honest feedback” could involve suggesting that next time, she could do anonymous feedback so that the responses might be more open and helpful.

  21. HR Manager*

    #1 – Wow, that is such a violation of privacy. Our practices even for exiting employees was that we (HR, manager, anyone) could not access anyone’s email unless this request was cleared by HR and Legal. This would mainly be if we felt there was anything inappropriate ethically or legally going on or if a manager thought something important for the work was still in the email (e.g. a contract from a client), the manager had to submit the request to HR and Legal before we would work with IT to retrieve it. I’m shocked by how terrible that HR person acted.

    #2 – I worked for a company that did an annual upward feedback program, but this had to be anonymous and employees were not required to participate. We encouraged it, because HR was there to debrief the anonymized feedback with the manager (and next level up got copied). I think this is valuable when an employee can give constructive feedback. Prepping the manager for taking in the feedback though was a lot of work, even for the most seasoned managers, as it can be hard to read a flaming rant on one’s manager. Our job was to tease out constructive feedback and make sure it was helpful to them, and not react to every provocative statement some employees may leave.

  22. HM in Atlanta*

    Re #1 – I have a couple of ideas. The OP said it was the local HR rep versus the rep responsible for the OP’s division. In my experience, when HR is organized like that, the local HR rep supports the local management (as in – does what say versus supporting the business unit). My guess is that the local brass instructed the HR rep to view the emails in that way because the brass wanted to get around the IT rules. The local brass don’t have control over the divisional HR rep, but they do over the local one.

    OR, the local HR rep was using email as a red herring that would give her time to sit at the employee’s desk (to view something else, either on the computer or in the work area).

    Both of these are bad ideas. We all know from all the questions we see here, that people will follow a bad idea to the bitter end.

  23. AdAgencyChick*

    If I were in the position of #2, I’d be sorely tempted to say, “My brutally honest feedback is that you’re putting me in a situation that makes it impossible to give you truly honest feedback.”

    But no, I wouldn’t, not really.

  24. Cruciatus*

    #5 is something I’m going through as well. I think my boss was suspicious a few months ago when I asked to take a Monday off (for an out-of-town interview. Had to take the whole day off). Anyway, a few weeks later he basically asked me to tell him if I was thinking of leaving because he “doesn’t think lightning will strike twice” (me and the woman previously in the position who retired). He absolutely is a great boss and would not kick me out (not that he’d have the power to just by himself–but if someone tried to get rid of me (not that they would) he would fight tooth and nail to keep me). Anyway, I just said a non-committal “mmm” and got out of his office. I AM looking but I’m keeping it very quiet around these parts. I just don’t know how it will help him to know except that it wouldn’t be a shock when I finally do leave. He isn’t in charge of the hiring process (which is very slow) so that wouldn’t be sped up. I may not get hired anywhere else for a while (it’s already about a year since I’ve been applying to other places) so he might then just be expecting me to say “I’m leaving” every time I come into his office–how is that helpful? Gah, I just don’t know. If I told him I was just looking he’d probably try to get a higher salary–but it would only be maybe an extra dollar an hour based on other coworker’s stories. A start, but not enough to keep me–so I don’t want him to go to all the effort just for me to still say “bye.”

    1. long time reader first time poster*

      Why not? It’s just business, not a personal insult if you go. If you might be there a while longer, you might as well get paid more. And if you wind up with a higher salary at Current Job, that could potentially give you some leverage to earn a higher salary at Future Job.

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