I’m interviewing for the same job as my former employee, my coworker shared my salary info, and more

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

1. My coworker shared my salary info because she was angry at me

My coworker was just recently made office manager, and it has gone to her head. I am the bookkeeper here. She knew nothing about my job. Recently the owner decided to have her learn my job just in case something were to happen where I could not come into work for a long period. We got into a disagreement and she ended up telling a coworker what I made and what another person in the office made.

The owner has always said that payroll is to be kept confidential at all times. We are very upset by this because we feel it was a violation of our privacy. I really do not think the owner is going to do anything about it. It is very unfair to us. Is there any law about an office manager giving out information about your wages just because she was mad? I want to know what I can we do if the owner of the company does nothing.

If the owner of the company doesn’t do something about it, there isn’t really any other recourse. There’s no law that prevents sharing this information. However, she was way out of line and showed that she can’t be trusted to handle the information her job exposes her to professionally and discreetly, and that’s something that should really concern her boss.

I’d go talk to the owner and say, “You’ve made it very clear that payroll information is confidential. Jane shared my salary without my permission because she was angry. I’m concerned at the privacy violation, and her ability to have access to other confidential information about me that her job exposes her to. Can you make it clear to her that this isn’t okay to do?”

2. I’m interviewing for the same job as my former employee

After working as a manager for four years at org A, I accepted a new job at an organization (org B) in a new city. I decided the position at B wasn’t a good fit, so I decided to apply to a management position in the city I used to live in at org C. Before I was contacted for the interview at C, an employee (Jane, we’ll say) I directly managed from A sent me an email asking to be a reference for her for the same job I had applied to at C. I was pretty bummed to say the least, because Jane has no management experience (I hired her for her first job straight out of college) and doesn’t meet many of the qualifications of the job, so I was surprised she was being interviewed instead of me. Not knowing what else to say, I agreed to be her reference. I would give her a reference for any other position, so I didn’t feel I could turn her down for this one simply because I wasn’t chosen.

Well, lo and behold, I was contacted after all and brought in for an interview for the position a week later. I think the interview went pretty well (no guarantees of course), and I’m wondering how I should handle this. Will the organization be likely to use me as a reference for Jane if I’m also competing for the same position? Should I let Jane know that I’ve applied, and suggest that she find another reference? Should I let her know I’ve also been interviewed? Or, should I wait until I’ve been offered the position (if I am offered it, that is)? I would be happy to get the job, but feel terrible and like I burned a bridge with her. I don’t want her to think that I “stole” the job out from under her, or am trying to.

Well, ideally, as soon as Jane contacted you about a reference, you would have told her the situation: “Oh, how funny — I actually applied for that job myself! I’d be glad to be a reference for you, but I want to be transparent with you that I’m hoping to be considered for it too. Totally understand if you’d rather use someone else though.”

It’s hard to know how to perfectly field tricky stuff in the moment though, and it’s not a disaster that you didn’t do it. It just complicates things a little bit, because now Jane will potentially wonder if you applied after she tipped you off to the job. But all you can really do is be straightforward about it. I’d contact her now and say, “I want to let you know that I’m interviewing for the X job with Y company. (I’d applied before we talked about it, and should have mentioned it when you emailed me — sorry for my brain freeze!) I’m still glad to be a reference for you if you’d like me to, but felt I should be up-front about it.”

As for whether they’d ask one candidate for a reference for another, probably not — but it’s not inconceivable. Even if they don’t, though, if you end up getting the job you’ll still need to fill Jane in, and it’ll probably go over better if you do it at this stage rather than later.

3. Telling a temp I think she’d make a good addition to our team

Is it really unprofessional of me to tell someone who works for my company temporarily that I think they’d make a good permanent addition to the team, and that if a place comes up I would put a word in for them? My colleague thinks I was out of bounds saying this to a temporary member of staff. I felt so bad that I went back and clarified that there isn’t a position open now and explained about our long timescales even when new positions are proposed.

No, that’s a completely normal thing to do, assuming that you’re in a position to assess the person’s work and truly think it’s good. There’s nothing inappropriate about that at all, and people do it all the time. Your colleague has weird ideas.

4. Explaining why my boyfriend isn’t attending my office holiday party

My boyfriend does not want to attend my office holiday party, for very valid reasons. To keep it short, I am unhappy in my position and the office environment is (much) less than favorable. He has attended the party every year that I’ve been employed here, but this year, he’s had enough. I feel obligated to attend, so my question to you is this: How do you suggest I go about giving an explanation as to why my boyfriend will not attend this year? I do not want to lie, but I don’t know that it’s necessarily the polite thing to tell them that he doesn’t want to go because they treat me poorly/he doesn’t like them.

“He had another commitment that he couldn’t get out of.”

Saying that he didn’t want to attend because he doesn’t like them or how he treats you would be rude. Telling a white lie is polite in these situations (and really, his other commitment could be hanging out on the couch); in fact, this type of situation is what white lies were made for.

Also, no one is going to scrutinize that too much. People get that significant others have other things going on, and that they might not reschedule existing plans for someone else’s office’s holiday party.

5. Can I use a UPS store address on a background check?

I am applying for jobs out of state and have been using a UPS store address as my address in the state, though I am actually not there. I am about to complete a background check for a staffing agency and wanted to know if me listing the UPS store address will cause any red flags. Will it show as a UPS store address or come back invalid because outside of the UPS store I don’t have any real ties to that state?

Are you listing it as a mailing address or your residence? It’s fine to list it as a mailing address, but you need to be clear that your current residential address is out of state. Otherwise, yes, it could very well cause issues on the background check.

{ 129 comments… read them below }

  1. soitgoes

    #4 Say, “He’s at another holiday event right now….and actually I have to leave very soon so I can make an appearance there as well.” Lots of people get double-booked during the holiday season. There’s no reason you can’t eat all of the good parts out of the food and then leave early.

    1. GrumpyBoss

      Why give the excuse? People always feel the need to come up with some elaborate reason. AAM is right – nobody is going to scrutinize that much.

      “He was unable to make it this year” will stop 99% of the questions.

      1. Sourire

        Normally I would totally agree. Most people will be satisfied with a “he couldn’t make it” and will probably simply say they are sorry to hear that, jokingly call him lucky or something like that. There really is no need to provide an excuse, and often the more unnecessary/unsolicited details we add, the more it seems like a lie/excuse. When telling the truth, people don’t feel the need to explain/justify things as much.

        However… in this case I like Soitgoes’ excuse because it gives the LW a reason to leave early herself. She mentions she feels obligated to attend, so clearly this is not a party she is looking forward to and a reason to leave early may be appreciated. She does also say she doesn’t want to lie though, in which case simply stating he can’t make it is fine as well.

        1. Not So NewReader

          These are great suggestions. OP, I think you will find that this is how a lot of people handle a situation like yours. They go with the wildly understated statement “he couldn’t make it” and offer no background as to why “he couldn’t make it”.

          1. Ellie A.

            Agreed — also, if the OP feels uncomfortable giving a “little white lie,” they can take comfort in the fact that saying “he couldn’t make it” isn’t actually a lie! They don’t need to know the reason he couldn’t make it is because he just didn’t want to.

        2. Artemesia

          If SHE ‘has to make an appearance’ at this even to of his, why doesn’t HE have to make an appearance at this event of hers? The less said always the better.

          Years ago my brother a moderately big shot in business was honored as man of the year in a major US city; his boss told him he would love to attend the dinner but his brother in law was having ‘important event’ and they needed to attend that. The next time my brother ran into the couple, my SIL said ‘oh how was the X with your brother?’ and got a blank look from the guy’s wife and a blush from the big boss who had obviously made this up because the last thing on earth he wanted to do was attend an honor dinner. He was totally embarrassed. The less said the better. ‘He was so sorry he couldn’t make it.’ or ‘He had a conflict and couldn’t be here.’ is all that needs to be said. Less is less defensive and more believable.

          1. KHB

            Exactly. If you make up a story about another party – especially one that you say you yourself are going to – people are going to ask about that, just to make friendly conversation. Wouldn’t you do the same, if someone told you about a party they were going to?

            A lot of times people telling lies will instinctively insert more details than they would if they were telling the truth. Because they don’t believe what they’re saying, they’re afraid that no one else will either, so they keep talking and talking in order to “convince” people of their story. But the more details you make up, the more likely you are to get caught.

          2. Maggie

            Not if he’s suddenly on the event committee. ;)

            But….then all of the sudden you’re covering one lie with another.

            “he’s unavailable” said with a smile and then moving on to the next topics is the best course.

      2. soitgoes

        Because the OP seems like it might help her to have a bit of conversation pre-planned, and because she also might want an excuse to leave early. Some people aren’t able to pull off stuff like, “Oh, he couldn’t make it” or “I must leave now” with aplomb and with no further explanation given.

        1. Fabulously Anonymous

          Not to be flip, but if you can’t pull it off then you should practice it until you can. Don’t go the lie route. You will eventually get caught. I’ve seen it happen too many times. Whereas there is nothing wrong with a statement: “he couldn’t make it” followed up with a question that focuses on something else:

          “He couldn’t make it. How long have you been here?”
          “He couldn’t make it. How are you doing?”
          “He couldn’t make it. I love your dress. Is it new?”
          “He couldn’t make it. What do you think of this buffet?”

    2. Lisa

      My bf hated going for social anxiety reasons. My boss would always try to reschedule so everyone and their sig others could go. Making skipping it impossible. When he absolutely refused to go, I ended up saying ‘yup, we are coming’ and then just made up an emergency why he wasn’t there.

      1. StarHopper

        Would a simple “he hates stuff like this” not suffice? My husband is an introvert with a side of aspie, which means he skips 99% of social engagements where he won’t know many people. I’ve always just explained that big groups are not his thing (if pressed beyond “he couldn’t make it”).

        1. Mephyle

          For some people, that would be too personal, on both sides. Some partygoers would find it personally offensive that someone else would hate an event that they enjoy (or that someone else could get out of an event that they equally hate but are obliged to attend). On the other side, some people would prefer not to have their personal issues revealed to their partner’s workmates.

        2. Melissa

          My husband is also an introvert and often turns down social events, but it was usually pretty awkward for me to explain that to people – they would always say something like “Oh, but we’re fun!” or “Bring him around, he’ll love us!” or give me a weird look as if they were secretly thinking my husband doesn’t care about me or something, lol. I ended up just defaulting to “he couldn’t make it.” Bonus was that my husband was military, so people always assumed he was deployed or an an assignment.

    3. Former Para

      Our department head used to have a huge party every February and I went with my husband and children…until the year he crossed over to the dark side. His reviews of the female staff became very sexist and he became a member of The Old Boys Club. When he asked me if he would see my family that year, I said “I can’t go this year.” I’m guessing he thought I had another commitment. What I meant was “I used to think you were a nice guy and now that I see your true colors, I don’t respect you in the slightest.” Too many words, right? Your boyfriend is unable to make it. Leave it at that.

    4. Kyrielle

      This. (“He’s not feeling up to it” is also honest, and would be taken to mean he’s sick, but given in advance, people might assume a serious illness, and you don’t want that. On the other hand, if you ever want a last-minute excuse, “not feeling up to it” is a lovely one in its implications – for someone who was expected and cancels at the last minute, a short-term illness will be presumed.)

  2. Jeanne

    #2: You don’t really know if she is being interviewed for the job, just that she applied. I always thought I was supposed to talk to my potential references before I started applying to jobs. I understood you don’t want to be caught saying, “Can you please not call my references yet? I haven’t asked them if they’re willing to talk about me.”

    However, you should be honest with her soon. She might think you only applied because she mentioned the job. Tell her that you had already applied but you were so surprised by her call that you didn’t mention it.

    1. Not So NewReader

      This. OP, you could say something like, “When you first mentioned it, I was not sure what to do. Ordinary, I would be a reference for you, so I went with that answer. However, I thought about this and I realized that I need to let you know that I have applied also.”

      If she thinks about this for a moment she will realize that you are doing the right thing by going back in on that conversation with her and letting her know the truth.

      1. Chriama

        I like this response the best. If she’s a reasonable person (and she should be, otherwise you shouldn’t be giving her references!) she’ll understand that you’re human. If I were on the receiving end, “sorry for the brain freeze!” would feel flippant to me, whereas an explanation that you would normally give me a reference but have thought about it and realize the circumstances are different would
        a) reinforce the fact that you’re comfortable giving a positive reference for me, and
        b) remind me that we’re all human and therefore make me less inclined to believe you just decided to apply for the job after I told you about it.

      2. Vin packer

        Agree. Though s/he might not even need to be this detailed about the conflicted feelings. Just, “When you first asked, I hadn’t been called for an interview, so I figured they weren’t interested and I was happy to be a reference for you. But now they’ve called me in, so I thought I should let you know,” and then follow up with whether you’re still happy/would prefer not to serve as her reference as a result. Surely a reasonable person would understand that.

        I’m with Chriama that I would find the “brain freeze” bit belittling. But I think #2 can be truthful about the situation without necessarily disclosing all of their vulnerable feelings about the situation.

        1. Chriama

          Either one is fine. I understand the hesitation to be vulnerable and I think *any* explanation is better than “whoops, must have slipped my mind!”.

          1. Maggie

            Agreed. And what is wrong with the truth? “I didn’t know if they were going to invite me to interview or not, and I was certainly willing to be a reference if I wasn’t part of the interviewing candidates, so I didn’t mention it to you until I was aware. They are now interviewing me so I think it’s best if I duck out of this one.”

    2. LabTech

      This is a good point. I regularly would inform my references whenever an application required them upfront, even if there were little to no chance of me actually getting the position. I felt bad for filling their inbox, but didn’t want them to be caught off-guard. (They were so rarely contacted, though, that letting them know that I’m job searching and asking to use them as a reference once is probably what I’d do in the future.)

      Also, if OP2 assumed she didn’t make it to the interview stage by the time she was asked to serve as a reference, she should mention that to her former employee too.

    3. bridget

      Right – be very clear about the timing. Remember this post, where a candidate asked for a reference and then the reference applied herself? https://www.askamanager.org/2014/01/my-reference-stole-a-job-from-me-applying-for-a-promotion-after-tardiness-troubles-and-more.html. I think the verdict was “reference is a crappy friend.” If you want to preserve the relationship, be clear that you did not just take the request for a reference as a hot tip.

      I also agree that “brain freeze!” isn’t what I would want to hear – it didn’t just slip your mind, you just were unsure of what to do in the moment because you want to be a good reference to her, and took her call to mean that you were not being considered for the job. Giving the backstory here will make her more likely to understand how this came about, and that it didn’t come about through you being untrustworthy or thoughtless.

    4. Mephyle

      I took “brain freeze” to mean “I didn’t know what to say [since I’d also applied to the same job]” but it seems by some people’s comments that to them it means “I momentarily forgot [that I’d also applied for the same job]”, in which case, it’s probably an expression to avoid, since it conveys different things to different people.

  3. Sourire

    #2 : Ooof yeah, you’re going to want to clarify this as soon as possible. Even still, she may wonder if you only applied because you thought it was a good opportunity after hearing about it from her. We had a question a while back about a reference “stealing” a job out from under the LW. The LW was pretty upset and I think a lot of the anger was how the reference handled things. If I remember correctly, the reference was very cavalier about the whole thing, particularly about how she announced her new job. If you avoid that behavior and clarify things as quickly as possible hopefully you can salvage the situation.

    1. Sarah

      I think this one is pretty easy to handle. OP could just explain how they have here – they had applied for the job before receiving the reference request and had said yes to the request because they didn’t think they were in the running. The employer since invited them to interview which now presents a conflict of interest and put it in the requester’s court fir whether they still want the OP to be the reference. I think I’d explain all this over the phone so they can hear the sincerity.

  4. AnonyMouse

    #2: This isn’t hugely relevant to your situation since the reason you’re hesitant about giving the reference is that you’re applying for the job too, but I do think if that wasn’t the case it might still have been fine to decline to be a reference here. You say you’d give Jane a reference for any other position so you should for this one, but you also say she has no management experience and doesn’t meet many requirements of the job. A lot of people would probably hesitate to give a reference for a job they weren’t sure the applicant could do, and you don’t want to put Jane in a position where the references she lists aren’t solid.

    If you’re still willing to speak positively about most aspects of her work, when she asked you to be a reference you could have said you’d be willing to do it, but wanted to express that since you weren’t familiar with any management experience or skills she had, you were curious about her decision to apply for this particular role. If you were satisfied with how she answered that, you could decide how to proceed from there. I could see giving an otherwise glowing reference that also explained you knew she hadn’t managed before, but you’d seen her take on lots of new challenges and learn quickly on the job when she worked for you so you were confident she could handle it etc etc. I actually had a reference do something like this for me once. It wasn’t about qualifications or experience, but he was concerned that the field of the job wasn’t quite right for me. I explained why I was interested and he said he’d never thought of that before – I ended up getting a great reference from him and getting the job.

    1. MK

      But I would assume the only reason the OP knows Jane isn’t completely qualified is because they were familiar with the job description through their own application. The average reference will not know enough about the job to have these kind of doubts; I doubt most reference givers will have enough interest or be willing to invest the time to do this. I also doubt that many candidates will be thrilled to go through a mini-interview with their own references when they apply for a job; they already have to convince the hiring manager that they are a good fit, having to sell it to their own references might be seen as condescending interference.

      In any case, it’s not a reference’s job to sell the candidate to the hiring manager, in my opinion. The candidate knows what information the reference has on them (in this case, Jane knows that the OP can’t speak as to her managing skills) and they expect them to give that information to the prospective employer, who in his turn wants to hear about the reference’s experience about working with the candidate; their opinion on how well the candiate would do in other situation may or may not have value, but I think it’s the reference’s role to initiate this. If the candidate wants the reference to speak about more than their own experience, they could go with something like this “I am applying for X job, which isn’t what I did when we worked together, but it ties with Z aspect of that work”; if the hiring manager wants the reference’s opinion on how well the candidate will do at the role, they will ask. But the only case I would consider it appropriate for the reference to interfer on their own would be a mentor situation.

      1. Chriama

        I agree with both points. I think AM was pointing out that if you get a request for someone who doesn’t seem qualified for the job they’re applying for (assuming they send you the job description), it is fair to let them know what aspects of their work you can and can’t speak to. However, as a reference it isn’t really your job to play gatekeeper or tell your referencee which jobs they should be applying for (especially since, as the years go by, you probably know less about their career trajectory and overall qualifications).

        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          I once had a reference situation where someone I know, X, forward me an interesting email exchange she’d had with a candidate, Y, who was applying for a job I was hiring for. X used to manage Y, and Y had approached her to ask if she’d recommend her for this new job. X basically said, “I’m curious about what’s drawing you to this role. I think it might be too senior for you and would like to hear your thoughts.” She then shared that, and the person’s response with me, along with a note that basically said, “I think she might not be entirely what you’d look for in this role, so I asked her to pitch me a little.” It also talked about other strong qualities she saw in the person.

          I thought it was an interesting approach and I was impressed with the directness. (X had a strong relationship with the organization I was hiring for — this would have been weird if she didn’t.)

          1. Chriama

            If I was Y, I might be upset at basically being told I’m not old enough to sit at the grown-up table, but assuming they had a healthy, open relationship I think in certain situations it makes sense.

            1. Chriama

              To clarify, it might just be the wording of “too senior” that’s throwing me off here. If you think the job requires experience I don’t have (rather than *years* of experience), I would find that to be valuable feedback. And a reference willing to go above by asking me what I think my strengths for this position are (assuming we already have a good relationship and I recognize that this is coming out of a desire to see me succeed) is probably an invaluable mentor already.

            2. Ask a Manager Post author

              There was more too — she said something like “it looks to me like they’re looking for experience in X. I think you’re capable of doing X, but it looks like they want someone with a lot of experience with X who can speak with a voice of authority on it.” Or something like that. She was right in her assessment, too, actually.

              1. Chriama

                That’s fair. Again, we would need to have an established mentor relationship for me to not feel belittled, but if it’s a boss I had a good rapport with (as opposed to the supervisor at my part-time job in college), I think it’s great. Especially since she made sure to include the applicant’s strengths in her email to you, I think that’s actually what ‘networking’ is all about.

        2. AnonyMouse

          Yep, this is a bit more in line with what I meant. If I got a reference request from someone who I really felt was unqualified for the job (“has no management experience…and doesn’t meet many of the qualifications of the job”), however I happened to know about it, I wouldn’t feel comfortable recommending them unless I had a better understanding of why the role appealed to them. Of course you could also just decline to be a reference for them, sure, but I’m talking about ways you might get around it if you actually wanted to recommend them but couldn’t honestly do it without some reservation.

          I’m also not recommending that references act as “gatekeepers” or anything like that, but the OP said she hired this person for their first job out of college. I think around that point in your career, if you’re asking someone to recommend you for management positions, it’s not wildly out of the ordinary to hear some questions on why you think they’d be a good fit. Really I don’t mean in the sense of a mini interview or anything like that, but if you’re asking someone to be a reference for you I think you should be willing to answer a question or two about the role.

    2. Maggie

      ” I could see giving an otherwise glowing reference that also explained you knew she hadn’t managed before” How do you know that she doesn’t currently have a part time job or volunteer experience managing that wasn’t listed on her previous resume? I think the point of references is to show support for what you do know, not pointing out what you don’t. Because you could be wrong.

      1. AnonyMouse

        I’m taking the OP at her word when she says “Jane has no management experience”, but that’s part of why I said if someone wanted to do this kind of thing it would be smart to ask why they thought the role would be a good fit. If the applicant talked about some other management experience, of course you wouldn’t insist she didn’t have any. It sounds like this is a pretty junior level person – I’m really talking about ways you might be able to still pull off giving a reference to someone when you truly do know they don’t have the experience required.

      2. fposte

        It’s not that binary. I get asked about a bunch of stuff in a good reference call, and the ensuing discussion is usually more nuanced than that. I would also, when calling for references, assume that an employer who said “She doesn’t have any management experience” was talking about her work there anyway, rather than swearing to every detail of the applicant’s life.

    3. Jeanne

      I don’t think a reference is required to say why the applicant will be good at the new job or not. A reference is to say “I worked with her for two years. She was great at doing these things at our work.” A reference should never say what the person will do in the future.

  5. SJP

    OP1 – Yea i’m not surprised your angry about this, I would be too!. It shows a complete lack of awareness for confidential information and frankly, to me, she looks like a complete madam having a tantrum.

    I’d be careful what you share with her in the future because obviously she cannot keep these things, or her tantrums/anger under wraps.

    I used to be an office manager and this really frickin’ annoys me! Urgh

    1. Not So NewReader

      I don’t think she is ready to be an office manager, yet. Basics aren’t in place, such as her emotions are not under control. This is the work place. Sometimes we encounter stuff that really ticks us off. That does not give us the right to go set someone’s computer on fire. Sure, there’s times where we might muse over, “I could get even by doing X or Y” but we don’t actually do it. The thought is more of a stress relief than an actual idea we’d use. Our professionalism kicks in and we look for ways to handle the problem within the boundaries of being professional.

      1. SJP

        Yea exactly, being in Admin,secretary/PA/office management we’re in a position where people get grouchy cause we don’t always let people do what they want, but yea, as you say we wannt do something but our professionalism kicks in before we do!
        It’s a really big red flag that she does that and another red flag that the owner seems so not bothered by it!

        1. Chinook

          “and another red flag that the owner seems so not bothered by it!”

          Do we know that the owner isn’t bothered by it or just that the owner hasn’t mentioned his issue with the OP. Even a bad Office Manager deserves to be punished in private. We don’t know that the owner didn’t rake the new office manager over the coals for violating an important confidentiality rule and that he hasn’t told her that the next mistake will have her out the door.

          1. SJP

            Fair point although the OP wrote ” I really do not think the owner is going to do anything about it.” so currently at the time of writing it didn’t look or seem like the owner had reprimanded the office manager… You can usually tell if someone has had a talking to/bollocking
            Although that could have changed now, but if the owner didn’t do anything about it then that is the red flag I mean

  6. jag

    AAM – regarding #4 I think you need a whole post on how to respond evasively but truly and politely to questions. And even on how to determine what to reveal and what not to reveal.

    To some of us it seems really easy to do, but I see repeatedly here people flustered by this challenge.

    1. Not So NewReader

      “How to handle commonly asked questions that you don’t want to answer.”

      I know I feel that I can handle the “curve ball” questions that come at me. But there are times when I have been totally caught off guard by a question I never even thought of.
      Eh, if you don’t see people around you role modeling what to do, how do you learn this stuff? I guess by watching someone do it wrong and having it blow up in their face. I grew up in a home where there was little to no discussion of how to handle work place problems. It’s not a big leap for me to understand that others had a similar experience. What has been enlightening from reading here, is that there are a LOT of other people who did not have those discussions at home, either.

      1. jag

        “But there are times when I have been totally caught off guard by a question I never even thought of.”
        There’s a skill to giving a non-answer until you can figure out what to say, if anything. “Let me think about it” and asking a question to the questioner are two key approaches.

        And more broadly, I think people here would do well with thinking more strategically about how they communicate. One key rule: you don’t have to answer every question that is asked of you by a co-worker or random people. You can often answer a different question and satisfy or distract them. Maybe you don’t even have to answer any questions at all.

        “if you don’t see people around you role modeling what to do, how do you learn this stuff?”
        Ask a Manager, I hope :-)

    2. SH

      I agree! I’ve worked with people who didn’t stop when I was clearly uncomfortable with personal conversations or even when I was evading certain things.

    3. HR Manager

      I think the OP #4 could even be fairly honest and say “It’s not his thing. I’ve dragged him to this for a number of years, and I let him off for good behavior this year.” No need to get into the reason, why he dislikes these parties. I know a lot of people who do not like these type of company social events, even if the company thinks they’re awesome.

      1. Chriama

        In a tense social situation, I think you want to be as neutral as possible. The underlying emotions could make a statement like that inadvertently offensive (what, our company is so terrible that you have to *draf* your bf out to us?). It’s not that I have anything against honesty, but I think the OP just wants to remain as low-key as possible. “He had a committment he couldn’t get out of” is least likely to offend, I think.

        1. HR Manager

          I didn’t read that there was any tension in the social situation for the party from the post. Sounded like the OP was just anxious if anyone would wonder why he didn’t come this year. When coworkers have shared why their SO isn’t with them at our gatherings, being told s/he isn’t interested hasn’t cause personal offense with anyone in the office.

          Now if she hates her work because all her coworkers are nosy and up into her personal business, and will take this sort of remark personally, then that would be a different story.

          1. Chriama

            In this case OP says the people at her job don’t treat her well. It probably comes across in her body language and I’d be surprised if there isn’t an undercurrent of tension in the workplace overall. In a situation like that, I think less information is better.

        2. Persephone Mulberry

          I think it’s a case-by-case basis. Someone you’re more friendly with, you can get away with a joking approach like the above. If it’s someone you think might be offended that the BF didn’t want to attend (for ANY reason), you go more neutral.

    4. summercamper

      I’d also love to see a post-holiday thread where we can all tell our holiday party horror stories. This year’s staff Christmas party committee was disbanded by our executive director, who is now insisting on a Greek-themed gala, complete with traditional Greek dancing (he’s bringing in an instructor and expecting everyone to participate). I’ve even heard wind of togas. And no, this isn’t some tech startup – this is a super-conservative religious charity. I’m sure I’ll have a story to tell when it’s all over, and others will too!

      1. Chriama

        I’d like to hear about holiday party *planning* stories. I’m in a situation now where I’m planning a party that I would be disappointed to attend, but I don’t feel comfortable speaking up at the committee meetings. I think It’ll turn out to be a mediocre event (so, not terrible), but I’m kind of bummed just thinking about it. Sometimes it’s not nice to be on the other side.

        1. Maggie

          I would also like to read that article (and contribute to it, ugh were there some terrible parties in my experience — even those that I planned!).

      2. Chinook

        “this is a super-conservative religious charity. ”

        Is your religious charity involved with a Christian charity or with another faith? If it is the latter, it makes sense to do something unChristmas-like for a party but, it is a Christian charity, I would be wondering what the heck he is thinking (unless you guys are something like Greek Orthodox).

      3. Maggie

        Is everybody orthodox? If not, I would be pretty upset if I was on that disbanded committee that I was usurped so that I could reenact My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

        “Ooooh, it’s a CEEEECK.” haha awesome scene.

  7. GrumpyBoss

    #1: this is an invasion of privacy and I’d be really angry as well. But why are you asking if there is a law about this? Your recourse is obvious – speak to the owner and explain that there was a transgression that has made you feel uncomfortable. Even if it was illegal, it doesn’t change the fact that the conversation with the owner is the first thing you need to do. If the owner doesn’t want to address the issue, do you want to continue working in an environment where your privacy is disregarded?

    1. AdAgencyChick

      Well…can the owner do anything about it? I ask because isn’t discussing salary a topic that’s protected by law, and therefore the owner can’t really do anything about the disclosure? Although I don’t know how the law applies to discussing salaries of other employees at the same company.

      I’m curious: Has the law changed, or been enforced differently, about discussing salary in the past few years? Because I remember when I started working, the employee handbooks at my first two or three jobs included a statement that salaries were to be kept confidential. Then in the last three years, I’ve looked for that statement in two different employee handbooks and it hasn’t been there. At my current job, it’s not there — I had worked for this company previously and I could swear that statement was in the handbook six or seven years ago. So I’m curious whether I’m just imagining things, or whether there really has been a change in the law.

      1. MK

        I am not familiar with american law, but I would think “discussing salary” as a protected right applies to employees talking amongst themselves about their compensation, people gossiping about their coworker’s wages, especially during a temper tantrum. Anyway, the owner doesn’t have to ban all talk of salaries; they should reprimand the coworker for revealing this information without the OP’s knowledge and approval and for doing so in a spirit of revenge.

        1. Elysian

          Exactly. US laws protects discussing salary among coworkers because you’re discussing your working conditions, it doesn’t (or at least shouldn’t!) protect a coworker who found out your salary by virtue of her position and then gets mad at you and blabs all around the office. If the boss wants people who are in charge of book-keeping or payroll to keep salaries confidential, that’s a-ok, and he should discipline the people who can’t keep private information private.

        2. BRR

          I was thinking the same thing. It’s illegal to bar discussing your salary with coworkers. I’m not sure it’s illegal to bar people from discussing other people’s salaries.

      2. Not So NewReader

        What can the owner do? How about writing her up for violating company policy? Or he could remind her that she is on a probationary period and any such outburst of retaliation again will be important in the consideration of making her permanent.
        Or he could decide to tell her that this was a huge misstep on her part and he will be looking for someone else to manage for him.

        She has demonstrated that she clearly does not understand her job and what is expected out of her.
        People are usually on their best behavior when they start a job. If this is her best behavior, I don’t want to see what her regular behavior is.

        1. JMegan

          This would be my thought as well. Disclosing someone else’s salary is a pretty serious breach of privacy, and having a temper tantrum in the office is a pretty serious breach of professionalism. If I were the boss, I would be coming down pretty hard on the office manager, and letting her know that this behaviour is not acceptable. I don’t know if I would fire her for this one incident, but I would definitely let her know that it was a possibility, and that she better not do anything like that again.

          To the OP – no, I don’t believe what she did is illegal. It’s certainly unethical, and unprofessional, but probably not illegal. I can’t tell from your letter, have you actually talked to the owner about this? Because that should be your first step. And if he doesn’t deal with it appropriately, then you might need to do some thinking about whether this is the right job for you.

        2. Jeanne

          This. The owner has lots of options even if the salary talk wasn’t illegal. There are many responses to behavior the owner does not like.

      3. Natalie

        The underlying law hasn’t changed much since the 30s, so if companies are changing practice in this area it’s likely related to a significant case.

      4. Sharon

        I think the distinction that applies to the law is that you can discuss YOUR salary with others.

        But setting aside the law, all I really know is ethics and professionalism, and those clearly define that you do NOT reveal private information you learn in your job. In my IT career, I’ve seen all kinds of company financial data, customer lists, and even coworker salaries. You simply do NOT discuss any of these things with anyone who does not have a need to know them related to completing a required work task. I agree with Alison that the OP should take this to the company owner as a serious issue. However, I wouldn’t frame it quite the same, Alison’s suggested wording sounds too much like a personal issue (she revealed my salary). I would frame it less personally and more professionally, i.e. the office manager revealed salaries of several employees. Depending on the relationship between her and the owner and the owner’s personality, I may also reiterate the importance of professionalism and discretion for that office manager job, implying that the person did not demonstrate those important qualifications for the job.

        1. Chinook

          I agree that not discussing other people’s salary ino that you know of because of your job is highly unethical and unprofessional. I was an HR and Finance assistant and was tasked with compiling for everyone how they were compensated (salary, benefits, vacation days, etc) to show how much the company spends on each of them and send to each staff memeber their personal information. If anyone had heard that Suzy in IT or Sharon in Certification earns so much (even if I don’t imply she doesn’t deserve it), not only would I have been justifiably fired but I doubt I could have ever gotten another job with my temp agency or within any field they are related to again because people would rightly wonder what other confidential information I couldn’t be trusted with.

      5. Artemesia

        She wasn’t ‘discussing salary’ i.e. disclosing her own salary or asking about other people’s. She was instead using her access to distribute private information about other people in retaliation for being ticked off. This is a firing offense. IMHO mistakes should not be heavily penalized, but vicious behavior like this should result in firing or at least in this case, removing her from access by rescinding the idea of cross training her as office manager.

    2. littlemoose

      There actually is a law about this, but I don’t think it’s quite what the OP thought it might be. The National Labor Relations Act protects employees’ right to discuss their pay and other working conditions, ie., your employer cannot prohibit employees from discussing salary and other benefits in most situations. The always excellent Donna Ballman addresses it here: http://employeeatty.blogspot.com/2013/02/you-have-right-to-discuss-salary-with.html?m=1

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        Yes — you have the right to discuss your own salary with your coworkers. But an employer can absolutely ban you from disclosing other people’s salaries without their permission, which is very common in jobs that give you access to other people’s salary info.

    3. Confidential

      I’m also wondering why OP thinks the owner won’t do anything about it when it’s clear she/he wants salary kept confidential?

      1. Chriama

        I could see a small business owner thinking it’s not a big deal, especially if they’re busy with managing clients/suppliers and expect their staff to “act like adults” and sort things out amongst themselves. I think the key to looking like the mature person in this scenario is for the OP to focus less on the fact that their salary was shared, and more on the idea that they have concerns about someone with this judgement is in a position to view confidential information. It makes it less personal, less emotional and less “whiny” in my opinion.

    4. Zahra

      Yup, it’s a transgression, but I wanted to add that, indeed, the law actually forbids an employer to tell you to keep your salary confidential (and I thought Alison would have mentioned it!). Now, revealing your coworkers’ salary might very well be illegal and it’s, at the very minimum, a huge breach of trust that would make me think that this person cannot be your backup.

      1. jag

        “the law actually forbids an employer to tell you to keep your salary confidential”

        No way is this true in the US.

    5. Maggie

      And mentioning that you no longer feel comfortable giving her ANY confidential information goes a long way. If the owner still doesn’t care that the friggin’ BOOKKEEPER, who knows all, doesn’t trust the office manager, then the bookkeeper needs to find a new gig.

  8. Chinook

    #3 – the supervisor at my first temp job gave me a simialir compliment – she said I was great and would hire me for the position I was covering (receptionist) but she couldn’t afford to buy out my contract (as it wasn’t temp to hire). Not only did I take it as the compliment it was, but I learned the downside of temping in general and earned myself a wonderful reference.

  9. AvonLady Barksdale

    #3– You did a good thing and paid someone a compliment. If you think someone is really stellar, telling them you’ll vouch for them is always the right thing to do. Most people understand this is not a guarantee but they usually appreciate the support, especially if they’re temping and looking for full-time work. If you think your temp is great and you’d be willing to be a reference, tell her that too!

    I hate it when people are so touchy (your co-worker, OP, not you!) about a whiff of impropriety that they completely shut down.

    1. Chriama

      I think the risk the coworker noted was that a statement like that might unwittingly get the temp’s hopes up. Going back to clarify that it was a compliment rather than a promise was good on OP’s part, and I think it’s fine to compliment someone as long as you do it in a way that doesn’t give guarantees that you aren’t entitled to give.

      1. Cheesecake

        I agree completely. One thing to do is to compliment and acknowledge great work. But the moment you mention anything about permanent job/place in the team etc – person can interpret it as “i might stay here after all!”, consciously or not. So i’d steer clear from saying “you’d be good addition to our team”

      2. QK

        Right. OP #3, I think the nuance here depends on whether you are above this co-worker in your office’s reporting structure. If so, then your compliment might make some people think you were saying you’d actively try to get them the job. (Saavy temps may realize that’s not how you mean it, but why take that risk?) If you’re a peer to said co-worker, then the risk of misunderstanding is much lower.

        Either way though, I’d hardly call such a mistake “unprofessional”. Seems more like an honest flub to me. Next time just try to hit more of a “I think you’re great!” tone instead of a “I think you should definitely work here!” tone. (Which, maybe you already did, it was tough to tell from your letter.)

        1. Chinook

          If OP #3 wanted to give a similair compliment to the temp that wasn’t as nuanced (and thus open to misinterpretation), she could offer to be a reference for her. This is hugely important as a temp because she may be applying for non-agency jobs and unable to use the agency as a reference without risking them swooping in for a commission (despite the temp being the one who did teh research and applied).

          1. Op3

            Thanks everyone for your comments.

            I think I did flub because I spoke about a particular part of our team responsibilities and asked whether she would be interested in something like that because I think she’d be good at it.

            I’m glad I clarified that there actually isn’t a position because I wouldn’t want her staying here just for the possibility when she could be getting a great permanent position elsewhere.

  10. rek

    #1 – I would be more concerned with the office manager’s inability to keep confidential information confidential, and that would be the focus of my conversation with the owner. I admit, I would have been annoyed about the salary disclosure when I worked in the private sector. I work for a branch of state government now, and my yearly income is available for anyone with an internet connection who cares to look, so I’ve become much less sensitive about people knowing the actual numbers. But, at least those money numbers are available for *everyone*, not just the ones with whom the manager is angry. (Feels more fair, somehow.)

    1. Chriama

      I agree that the issue isn’t *what* was shared, but rather the fact that it *was* shared. Personal information needs to be kept personal. What if the employee vented to someone who used that information for identity theft (I’m thinking something like posting a pay stub with SIN on the internet)? Or what if they shared something that led to illegal discrimination, such as medical bills? I think my examples are extreme cases, but there are legal ramifications to failing to keep privileged information private. Someone willing to do this is someone who shows bad judgment, and keeping such a person in a role where they have access to confidential information is a liability for the company.

      1. Judy

        That brings up a point I was debating with a co-worker on a long flight once. Is it (legally/morally/whatever) appropriate to use the use of medical insurance (when a company is self insured) to discriminate between employees? Not the condition, but the fact that this person used $100,000 in medical costs. We both found it suspicious that it appeared that during RIF times, one of the common denominators between many of the “younger” RIF-ees was (presumed) lots of medical usage. People who had severely premature children in the past several years. People with non-working spouses who had cancer. People with spouses with significant disability (MS, etc). And employees that had cancer, heart surgery, etc. Not necessarily only people who had medical issues, but people with family that did.

        Is it legal to use the amount of dollars spent on medical issues (not the issue itself) to differentiate employees? And if it is legal, is it morally or ethically appropriate?

          1. fposte

            I would think there’d be a big risk of its being illegal due to disproportionate effect, since conditions that require a lot of medical care are likely to strongly correlate with disability/pregnancy.

            1. Judy

              But if it is about the family rather than the employee? That’s the hook, that many of these events were about an employee’s spouse or child rather than the employee.

        1. Chriama

          Ethically wrong of course, but I think it could be legally defensible depending on the situation (e.g. a company that’s smaller than a certain threshold in terms of size or profit, or when medical costs are above a percentage of overall costs). However, isn’t the point of having instance that the insurance company pays those costs? They might raise your premiums next year to compensate, but is it legal (ha!) for an insurance company to give a company information on individual employee cost/utilization? Of course a small company might take the aggregate data and be able to identify individuals (based on sick time or fmla use) but I don’t think they should be getting a breakdown of medical bills per employee, right?

          1. Chriama

            I think also, in the example you mentioned above, these might be people less “devoted” to the company. If they need lots of time off (even within their pto allowances), or don’t volunteer for travel or weekend work as much, even if they’re good employees they might be let go because they just don’t produce as much as people with fewer family committments. In that case, while the company has a case for letting go of low(er) performers (assuming the RIF was financially necessary), what do you do when it has such a disparate impact? I know disparate impact is a legal consideration, so I think we’re back to duking it out in the courts based on the size of the company, number of employees laid off and how many of them fit the description of using medical resources (time off, special accommodation or actual insurance costs).

            1. Chinook

              I think also, in the example you mentioned above, these might be people less “devoted” to the company. If they need lots of time off (even within their pto allowances), or don’t volunteer for travel or weekend work as much, even if they’re good employees they might be let go because they just don’t produce as much as people with fewer family committments”

              The flip side is that these employees, if kept on, may be more devoted in the long term because the company didn’t abandon them when they had a tough year. As well, healthy employees may notice that, if they or family members, got too sick, they risk being laid off as well and, if they are good at what they do, they will look for work elsewhere (preferably with an employer who is not self-insured).

              We had one employee hear who just had one bad break after the other – broke a leg which didn’t heal right (so surgery and crutches for much longer) then son died in a car accident. She was probably off as much as she was on that year but everyone notice that the company treated her with empathy and, now that she is back to full force, she is as committed as ever.

              1. Chriama

                If the company is big enough, they just might not care about long term devotees. In a smaller business this would probably be noticed, but I don’t think people expect a lot of personalized care and attention when they’re just a cog in the machine of a great fortune 500 corporate monolith. In that case, especially if smaller RIFs are common (e.g. a plant closing down), I doubt the company suffers too much from lowered morale or loss of other intangibles.

          2. Judy

            In 2011, 58.5% of workers with health coverage were in self-insured plans. Meaning, the companies just contracted an insurance company to administer the insurance by the agreed rules, but the employer just paid the costs.

            I’m fairly sure that companies get the breakdown by employee, because I’ve seen data comparing different “slices” of employee usage, and I’m not sure that the insurance company has all of that information (notably by organization unit of < 100 people) to just give the average usage by slice. I know that they give aggregate # of people with x procedure information, but it seems like they give the medical spend per person.

            And it's possibly pretty obvious even without FMLA if people talk about their families. Any blip would cause lots of cost. My mom's first occurrence of breast cancer, with outpatient lumpectomy followed by radiation, billed cost was more than $50k. I'd hate to know what my dad's chemo/surgery/chemo cost or my mom's mastectomy/chemo/radiation cost.

        2. UKAnon

          FWIW, this was recognised as legally discrimination by the European Courts of Justice – discrimination by association – in similar circs; a woman who claimed she had to give up work because they wouldn’t accommodate her need to care for her disabled son. It’s now enshrined in law in the UK. It applies across all the protected characteristics, so you can’t discriminate against someone eg because of their partner’s race/ethnic origin/religion/gender etc.

          Thankfully, your example is highly unlikely to arise because we have health care free at the point of delivery, but I would say it is also morally and ethically inappropriate.

        3. CAA

          Yes, it’s illegal for an employer who is self-insured to use information about medical claims when making layoff decisions. It’s a HIPPA violation. The employer becomes the insurer in this case, so they’re required to adhere to the HIPPA regulations.

        4. Maggie

          As someone in the research community, only if it’s de-identified *and used for research purposes*. If you’re using it to debate their position within the company, absolutely not. That should be covered under the ADA…..somehow, I would think. Or it should anyway.

          Ew. Sorry you work for those creeps.

  11. HR Manager

    #5 – Have you disclosed that you are not physically there yet? If you are getting to a background check phase, address is one of the first things that get verified. Putting a UPS store address (not a UPS PO box #) is going to look fishy and likely come back as a flag on the screen.

    1. De Minimis

      I think everyone who uses a UPS store or other private mailing service has their box listed on their address. I remember the rules changing about it a few years ago.

      I don’t know how stringent a staffing agency background check will be, though. The OP should still be up front about their physical location, it will be easier for everyone. For a government clearance level check, it would absolutely cause problems, one of the main things they look at is residence history, but those type of checks don’t usually happen until the offer stage or sometimes even afterward.

      1. jag

        Whose rules are these?

        I’ve seen addresses for a store that provides boxes (not UPS, another company) where the address was basically 200 West 23rd Street, #XYX, City, State, Zip.

        The #XZY looked like an apartment number to me, but was actually a box number.

        1. De Minimis

          I think federal rules, having to do with mail fraud. Might have been through USPS. If it was a business they had to show the box number as “PMB.” No idea what the penalties were for not complying with it.

          *I checked, yes, it was through the USPS. I think it was actually a business-related thing to try to make it tougher for competitors, but they apparently amended the rule to make it less strict.

    2. TheSnarkyB

      Yeah- OP #5, can you clarify? It sounds like you were trying to pass that off as your residential address, which really isn’t ok because it’s flat out false and going to get found out. On the other hand, is you listed it as a mailing address, it should have a pretty clear format that demonstrates that (eg Box #123). If not, I think you’re gonna be in hot water for it. Looks like misrepresenting the facts.

      1. OP #5

        OP #5 here… I listed it as my address because I am not physically in the state yet (this is a cross country job search) and I know I wouldn’t even be in consideration if I told the truth.

        I can be there within two weeks if offered the position..and it is with a staffing agency and for a non government job.

        I just figured they are mainly looking for criminal records, etc., and I told them that I recently mobed their so I don’t have an issue with my previous addresses showing up.

        1. Zillah

          … Yeah, but it’s still a lie, and it wouldn’t be hard for them to find out that your new address is actually a UPS store. If they do, you’re screwed, because then your integrity comes into question.

          I’d think you’d be better off getting a post office box, listing that, and saying that you’re in the process of moving and this is a stable mailing address.

  12. INTP

    Regarding #5: Besides a background check, this sort of thing can bite you in general if you are presenting yourself as a local candidate. It wouldn’t be unheard of for a recruiter to google your address. (Not in a creepy way, just “Hmm, I haven’t heard of that zip code before, I wonder where it is *highlight, right click, search google for…*” or to check how far the commute is if that’s been an issue with past employees.) If you’re listing a business as your address, it will show up and you will be outed.

  13. Dutch Thunder

    For #2, the OP could also tell Jane that she didn’t mention she’d also applied at the time because she didn’t think she’d been selected, and therefore saw no conflict. Now that she has also been selected, however, she wants to make sure that Jane is aware of the situation.

  14. kozinskey

    Is anyone else seeing some weird formatting where the right edge of each paragraph is being just barely cut off? Running Chrome over here and it looks strange (and half of some of the letters are missing).

  15. Purple Jello

    #1 – since this is a small office, there probably wasn’t a confidentiality agreement signed? What about an ethics policy?

    #3 – you should ALWAYS tell someone when they’re doing a good job. Thank yous are never out of place when sincere. Please offer to serve as a reference.

    #4 – “He wasn’t able to make it this year”. If pushed for more, then “he had another thing going on…”, then maybe “it’s unfortunate”.

  16. John R

    For the salary thing, I just say get over it. I’ve been working in the public sector and our salaries are published online every year for the whole world to see. Everyone knows what everyone else makes. Big deal.

    1. Chriama

      The issue here is the OP is at a disadvantage if everyone’s salary is public except for hers. Also, the broader concern of trusting this employee with *any* confidential information. I did find the OP – and her entire workplace – coming across as a little immature (the office manager’s new position is “going to her head”, getting “mad” and sharing the salary info out of spite), but she still has valid concerns.

    2. catsAreCool

      A co-worker divulged confidential information that was not hers to share. This does seem like a big deal to me.

  17. mel

    It’s just an office party, though. Is it really that shocking to say “he didn’t feel up to attending?” I tend to think of work parties as a dreadful obligation to be sociable with near strangers. Unless it sounds like a particularly interesting event (like a fun tour or literally anything other than standing and drinking), I usually bow out. No one asks and no one cares.

    Is it also usual to ask permission for references AFTER being selected for an interview? Seems awfully last minute. What if OP had said no? Am I not supposed to be asking around before even starting the search process? Maybe I just work in an abnormally laid-back workplace, but I wouldn’t assume her asking was evidence that she had an interview.

    1. Sarah

      I had a situation in my last job where I was very close to some of my co-workers but couldn’t stand to be in the same room as some others. It made it so difficult to bow out of work socials because I’d be quizzed by the ones I was close to about what my other plans were. I didn’t want to give them the real answer (didn’t want to be a well poisoner) but just saying I had other plans would result in further questioning. I used to deliberately make plans with other friends to get out of whatever it was.

  18. AUB

    #4- ‘my boyfriend won’t be joining us tonight. It’s nice of you to ask about him!’ That’s not a white lie. I think any lying should be minimized even if to protect feelings.

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