when I overhear speaker phone conversations, is what I overhear fair game to share?

A reader writes:

I serve as an executive assistant in a very large educational organization. My office is located between my boss’ office and an executive director’s office. The executive director often takes calls via speaker phone and leaves her door open all the time, so I can hear her conversations. My boss supervises the executive director, who, at times, undermines our boss.

Today, the executive director received a (speaker phone) call from a clerk in another building that the building was being evacuated because fire alarms were activated. About 200 people were inside the building. I waited a minute or so for the executive director to call our boss, and she did nothing. So I discreetly stepped into our boss’ office and called her cell phone to let her know what was occurring.

For future reference, is any information overheard via speaker phone “fair game,” especially when the information would be valuable/helpful to my boss? Or should I pretend that I can’t hear many of the executive director’s conversations?

Interestingly, when another exec assistant and I have conversations about weekend plans, family, etc., the executive director sometimes joins the conversation with her thoughts, obviously having listened to the conversation for a while.

When it comes to overhearing colleagues in general, it’s good to preserve a polite illusion of privacy. That’s just good for everyone’s mental health at work. (Of course, speaker phones are very much not good for people’s mental health at work, so you could argue that she’s forfeiting some good will there.)

But you’re not required to pretend that you didn’t hear big, startling things that would obviously impact you and others. If you overhear a caller telling your coworker that the building is on fire and then she continues sitting placidly in her office without taking any action, it’s fine to stick your head in her door and say, “Did I just hear that the building is on fire?” That’s a normal, understandable thing to react to.

Regarding discreetly passing information along to your boss … It depends. It’s true that part of being an executive assistant is making sure that your boss knows the things she’d want to know. And if you can easily hear the conversations from your desk (as opposed to, say, standing outside the door intentionally listening), and if the information is clearly something your boss needs to be/would want to be aware of, and if you have reason to think she’s not being informed on the schedule she’d want to be, then the answer to whether or not you should inform her is … sometimes.

The thing is, there’s still a judgment call to be made. You don’t want to undermine the executive director by constantly scooping her, or by removing her ability to exercise her own judgment. You also may not have all the information she has, and thus won’t always be as well equipped as she might be to judge exactly what should be passed along to your boss and when.

That said, if you hear something truly big and alarming that you think your boss would be upset not to be in the loop on (for example, you hear her talking about Bob’s resignation when your manager is actively working on a new role for Bob and has no idea he’s leaving), it’s reasonable to mention that. Even then, though, you should frame it in a way that acknowledges that you just overheard this, don’t have all the information, and might be getting it wrong. It’s the difference between “OMG! Bob is leaving and for some reason Jane hasn’t mentioned it to you” and “I don’t have full context, but I thought I should mention to you that I overheard what sounded like Jane discussing Bob’s plans to resign.”

But aside from rare exceptions like that, I’d err on the side of assuming that the executive director is conducting herself capably and making the correct judgment calls about keeping your boss in the loop.

(And if you start to notice an alarming pattern that indicates that’s not the case, that would be something to discreetly mention to your boss.)

{ 47 comments… read them below }

  1. JoAnna*

    My manager has a cubicle, not an office. He never does calls on speakerphone, but he’s told his team of 6 (we all sit in the same part of the office) that anything we overhear him say on the phone is fair game to be discussed, asked about, etc. He says, “If I need privacy for a call, or if I’m discussing something confidential, I’ll take it into the conference room so no one can overhear me. If I’m not in the conference room, anything I say on the phone is ‘safe’ for your ears.”

    1. esra*

      A thousand A+’s for your manager. I work in an office with no walls, where management has incredibly loud conversations and expects everyone to pretend they can’t hear it.

      Which is fine, except when they also want us to be surprised when they announce something they’ve been loudly discussing for weeks.

  2. Joy*

    Alison, thanks for addressing my question! To clarify, I am definitely not standing outside the ED’s door eavesdropping. Our office is relatively small and it’s really easy to hear phone conversations. In fact, a few months ago, the ED was reprimanding one of her staff members, and I *very* quietly closed her door so they would have privacy.

    I sometimes put on headphones to avoid hearing conversations.

    Definitely agree with your point about framing information that I share – recognizing that I may not have all the information.

    1. TCO*

      If you have a good relationship with your boss, you might also discuss this with her: “As you have probably noticed, I can hear many of Elaine’s phone calls even when I’m actively trying to ignore them. Sometimes I overhear information that it seems important for you to know, but I don’t want to override Elaine’s own decision-making process for deciding when to pull you into the loop. I also realize that I might be misinterpreting some of what I overhear because I don’t have the context you and Elaine do. Are there things I should tell you, no matter what?”

      1. Joy*

        Great point – leaving it in my boss’ court to decide whether I should share information or not. I will definitely consider having that conversation with her.

    2. tesyaa*

      For example, the executive director could even be communicating with your boss by text message, which, of course, you would not overhear.

      1. LBK*

        Good point – we do a ton of IMing in my department so there’s no way my cube neighbors would know what kind of discussions I’m having with my manager if they’re just basing that perception on what they overhear.

        1. tesyaa*

          Sometimes it must seem to listeners that I’m not working at all, when I’m heavily involved in IM decisionmaking much of the day!

    3. Meg*

      Was the building actually on fire, or were the alarms only triggered? Many times we had fire drills at work or something else tripped the alarms. Because there’s a huge difference between “the fire alarms went off” and “the building is on fire.”

    1. Oryx*

      This. In which case I’m not sure why the OP thinks the boss needed to know? It’s possible the person at the other building was just calling to let them know in case the OP’s building heard fire trucks or saw everyone standing outside or whatever.

      1. tesyaa*

        Since he’s clearly very high level (supervising the executive director), perhaps it’s a given that he should be made aware. But maybe he doesn’t need to know immediately or he has been informed through other channels, and the executive director knows that.

      2. Joy*

        My boss is #2 in our organization of 7,500 employees, so if something is on fire, she wants to know about it.

        1. Oryx*

          So the building that was on fire — is that a building that is part of your organization? I guess that wasn’t clear from my reading. I was thinking it was like a building next door in an office park but if it was still part of the same company, in that case it makes perfect sense thinking he should know.

        2. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

          We talk about “something on fire” and needing to know all the time.

          Never is this literal!

      3. Magda*

        I was thinking that 200 people in the other building are now away from their desks, which could be relevant to OP’s’ boss if she’s expecting something from one of the departments over there, had a call scheduled, etc.

          1. Emma*

            Despite this question being framed as being about privacy expectations when the speaker phone is used, it really seems to be more, “is it okay for me to intervene when I think someone above me isn’t doing what they should, based on a conversation I overheard?”

            I guess my take on this particular instance is…. how do we know that the Executive Director wasn’t responding appropriately? (And, unless I missed an update, it sounded like the fire alarm in the other building had been activated but it’s not clear whether the building was actually on fire.) How does the OP know whether the ED, perhaps, shot an e-mail or text message off to her boss? Does the OP know the ins and outs of that reporting relationship, and just how much discretion the ED has? An Executive Director, while not right at the top of the organization, should have a fair amount of autonomy and would not necessarily have to alert her boss ASAP to everything. She could have sent an e-mail off saying “X has happened and will update you further if necessary.” Or, given that the OP only waited “a minute or so” for the ED to call the boss, the ED could have been giving the situation a little thought before acting. It may not have been something that the boss needed to know about immediately, and that determination is likely the ED’s to make.

            The general issue of speaker phone privacy aside, it seems that the OP decided that she knew better than the ED about how the ED should handle the situation. (And, it’s the situation as the OP believes it to be, without necessarily having all the details.) It would really bug me if an admin who does not know everything about my relationship with my boss acted on a conversation of which she was not a part, believing that I wasn’t doing my job and that it was her job to do it.

            Regarding the statement that the ED sometimes joins conversations she overhears… it’s apples and oranges. People are having non-work-related personal conversations which of course always happen at work, but technically are not what the employees are getting paid to do. There can really be no expectation of privacy. The ED on a work-related phone call has, if not an expectation of privacy (given that it is on speaker phone) at least an expectation of others not taking it upon themselves to assume the ED is failing to act, and acting on information themselves.

            1. CAsey*

              I agree with this. And I think it may be time for the OP to chat up her boss about the obvious personality conflict between them. I too would be livid if my colleague decided to intervene in something that is #1 my job to escalate.

            2. Ultraviolet*

              In fairness, I think the question is really “Is it my responsibility as executive assistant to let my boss know about situations I’m certain she’d want to be aware of, even if someone else is authorized to handle that situation?” That’s a much more specific and reasonable concern than “should I intervene in a higher-up’s work if I think they should handle it differently?”

              I do agree that whatever OP [or anyone] should do in this situation, they should keep in mind that the ED has a lot of autonomy and understanding of the organization.

            3. AGirlCalledFriday*

              I agree with this. Unless there is confirmation that the person in question is not doing their job during a time when much is at stake or people’s safety is compromised, I’d stay out of it. There are many reasons that the ED might not have called immediately (as Emma said, a text or an email could have been made, she could have been contemplating what to say, she could have been sending a text or email to someone higher up the chain in that building in order to get the most up-to-date info). In any case, no one here was in immediate danger and it wasn’t necessary to step in. By doing so, you actually undermined the ED. I’m sure that the boss was happy to receive the information, but you might have created some havoc between the boss and ED, the ED and yourself, and even the boss and yourself if she feels you undermined the ED.

              Alison’s advice is great.

  3. Michelle*

    My cubicle is just across the aisle from a department head’s office. He takes 99% of his calls on speakerphone. It drives me batty. Some of the things he talks about are TMI for the office but he doesn’t seem to care. I have had to close the door to his office when I’m trying to speak to a client or vendor and he’s prattling on about what cute thing his toddler did or what he scored in his tennis match the night before.

    In your case, I’d definitely go with Alison’s advice and ask your bosses opinion. Does the ED know you can overhear her conversations? I’d think that would be a no-no in an educational organization, with the privacy laws.

    1. Elizabeth West*

      Same problem here, though they are work conversations. They are rather loud and it’s hard to concentrate sometimes with a tinny speakerphone voice blaring in the background. And when people are talking to someone on speaker, they tend to raise their own volume so the other person can hear them. >_<

  4. Joy*

    Hi Michelle,
    I’m pretty sure she knows everyone can hear her conversations, because when I talk with other employees, she occasionally pops in to share a thought or opinion. I’m assuming she realizes that if she can hear us talk, we can hear her talk.

    1. Gandalf the Nude*

      I wouldn’t assume that, actually. Some folks have a pretty big blind spot when it comes to that kind of mirrored logic, and she already sounds pretty un-self-aware from what you write. She might even think she’s nice and quiet but y’all talk loudly, and inserting herself into your conversations is her backward way of dropping hints to that effect (I think we’ve seen enough of that kind of thing in AAM’s archives to know there are people like that!). It might be worth politely letting her know.

      1. teclagwig*

        Not only is it better not to assume, but this example is not a perfect parallel, so you may be expecting too much of her ability to empathize.

      2. Joy*

        Wow, I never considered she might be joining the conversation to drop a hint about our noise level. Thanks for mentioning that!

        Honestly, I would feel uncomfortable telling her, even in the sweetest way possible, that the speaker phone conversations are loud. I really don’t think she realizes how loud they are, because otherwise, she seems like a very polite person who would not want to interrupt others.

        1. Snoskred*

          Joy wrote – “I really don’t think she realizes how loud they are, because otherwise, she seems like a very polite person who would not want to interrupt others.”

          That is exactly why I would step up and tell her, because it is very likely she does not realise. Especially if the last part of your sentence is correct.

          For over a year at one call centre, instead of the usual headset which covers only one ear, that place used stereo headsets. It made it almost impossible to tell how loud you were talking.

          The owners of that call centre had the mistaken belief that the microphones could not hear anything else going on other than the voice of the operator. I remember having a conversation with one of them about it because I had called in and heard background noise and every conversation, plus phones ringing, and I could quite clearly hear the dog from the place next door barking. They told me that what I was telling them was impossible – that the microphones on the headsets were specially designed not to pick up any background noise.

          It took them calling in on a day when there was absolute kaos and instead of putting them on hold, the operator just took off their headset and left it on the desk while she went to get the person they had asked to speak to, as they were outside talking on a mobile phone. The owners could hear a cacophony of sounds from phones ringing in the background to other conversations in full for them to realise their belief that they had held for a long time about those headset microphones was actually incorrect. We’d all known it for ages, we’d told them but they really did not believe us.

          The headsets were replaced within a week of this discovery to one earpiece and microphones that did not pick up dogs barking outside the building as well as everything going on within it. Thanks to the one earpiece, operators became quieter. Thanks to the new microphones, I no longer had callers asking me if I needed to put them on hold and pick up the constantly ringing phone they could hear.

          So you might be right that this woman would not want to interrupt others, but she may have no idea that she is interrupting them. :) Sometimes people are just deaf to the amount of noise they are making.

    2. azvlr*

      Have you considered speaking to the ED to let her know you can overhear the conversations, and either asking directly or gauging through her her reaction whether the information you hear is fair game to share?

  5. LBK*

    My main question here is why you’d assume the ED isn’t expected to be autonomous. I would expect someone at that level would only be reporting extremely serious emergencies to their boss on an immediate basis like that – which I suppose an evacuation of another building could qualify as, but it’s hard to tell without more context. For the most part, I’d assume that an ED can do their own thing without having to do the kind of frequent checking in that someone at the bottom of the totem pole might do (and that any reporting of day-to-day operations that did occur would be after the fact in a summary format, not as each event occurs).

  6. tesyaa*

    It seems relevant that the OP says that the ED “undermines” the boss. I assume she felt the ED purposely didn’t notify the boss about the fire.

    1. Joy*

      LBK and tesyaa, I think the expectation is that the ED is autonomous, but the fire situation was one instance that I knew my boss would want to hear about sooner rather than later. If the ED had acted on the information, she could have moved the displaced employees to another office to work. Instead, she didn’t do anything, and my boss had to deal with temporarily moving the employees.

      1. Emma*

        You said you waited “a minute or so” to see if the ED called the boss, before calling the boss yourself. You didn’t give the ED time to do anything.

        1. We are programmed to receive.*

          It’s so easy to second-guess another person when they’re dealing with a “situation”.

          I think the OP handled this perfectly well. There is a class of events in the world that fall under the general category of “Serious Shit”. “Your building is on fire”, “a nearby building is on fire”, “one of your company’s buildings is on fire” – these are all Serious Shit. I commend the OP for keeping cool and handling it appropriately.

          Or to look at it another way: imagine the conversation when OP *didn’t* notify her boss: “You heard the building was on fire but you didn’t call me!?!?”

          1. LBK*

            When it’s a case of overhearing information, though, I don’t think it’s feasible that it would ever come back to reflect poorly on the OP because her manager will likely never know – most people don’t go around assuming that their employees are overhearing pertinent information unless you’re working in Downton Abbey.

            Unless it’s information that will have a direct impact on your position, this is a situation where I would advocate letting the ED make her own mistakes so they can be properly identified and fixed by someone in the position to do so. You have to let her fail; if you keep patching up her lapses in judgment, you prevent those above her from seeing the full picture of her actions and from feeling their true impact.

            Note that I don’t normally like this strategy when dealing with peers – I think then, maintaining the operations of the business rather than letting a teammate fail is the better option because if you don’t, you usually get stuck cleaning up the mess anyway. But in this case I don’t see an obligation on your part to essentially cover part of the ED’s job and it’s unlikely to have a direct negative impact on you.

  7. Apollo Warbucks*

    You need to develop selective hearing.

    There’s not much to be gained ny sharing information that you overhear. I would always err on the side of discretion and not repeat what’s meant to be a private conversation.

    My boss and his boss sit 3ft from me in an open plan office and I hear ALL of their conversations, performance issues, disciplinary matters and up coming projects there’s a shortage of meeting rooms so they can’t easily have these conversation elsewhere, if possible I wonder over to the coffee machine or make a phone call So I can’t hear what they are saying, but otherwise I take no notice it’s not information I’m meant to have so I don’t use it.

    1. azvlr*

      I often wonder about overheard conversations in our little corner of the cube farm. Each of us has our own little personal dramas to deal with over the phone in addition to work-related conversations. I am pretty fortunate that my cube mates and I close-knit and look out for each other. But I often wonder how much conversation is appropriate to comment on. We have an unspoken understanding that it’s ok to know about others personal information, but that it stays in our corner. Usually after this type of personal conversation, the person who was overheard will turn to the group and make a comment about the call that signals to the others it’s ok to discuss it. We all get it that it can’t be helped we will overhear sensitive conversations and it seems to work well for us.

  8. NickelandDime*

    I had a coworker “share information” he thought he overheard while I was speaking with a client. I was not on speakerphone, so he only heard my side of the conversation. He completely blew it out of proportion and made it seem like there was a big problem, when it was NOTHING like that! My manager came running in my office the next morning asking me “what happened.” I had no idea what she was talking about. When I managed to calm her down and get information, she relayed what my coworker told her. I told her it was nothing like that, repeated my conversation to her, and invited her to call the client to check. She stood there with egg on her face and then tried to flex on my coworker. I was like, no, I’ll handle that. He never did it again, but I lost a lot of respect for both of them after that incident. Be careful with things like this. You never know what you don’t know!

  9. Oatmeal*

    Maybe not relevant to this situation, but just generally a good tip for those in an EA role (like me!): The first President & CEO I worked for told me some version of: “The less information you share, the more information you get to know.” I feel like in an EA role one of the most important things is a poker face, complete discretion and ability to not share juicy confidential information.

    … that said, yeah, I’d tell my boss if I overheard a building was being evacuated, but I’d check with the ED first to acknowledge I’d overheard the conversation and double check to see if she had it handled. (She could have already texted of IM’d my boss in that situation, and I’d be worried about looking under-mining.)

  10. Ultraviolet*

    You say the executive director sometimes undermines your boss–what else is she doing that strikes you that way? Maybe you already have good reason to talk about this with your boss.

    Without knowing what the ED is doing it’s hard for an outsider to give advice. (It sounds like the whole undermining problem and what you can or should do about it might be worth another letter to Alison.) Speaking generally though, I recommend approaching any such conversation with your boss from the POV that you’re feeling responsibility as your boss’s EA to inform her about certain situations as you become aware of them but don’t want to undermine the ED’s authority, especially since you rarely know as much about the situation as the ED. Ask for advice on negotiating this tension. The story from this letter about the fire alarm might be a good easy example to illustrate the problem to your boss. But don’t focus the conversation too tightly on that example by asking only about whether speakerphone conversations are fair game to repeat. Ask about fulfilling your responsibilities without undermining the ED in general.

    1. Ultraviolet*

      Whoops, this is pretty similar to TCO’s advice upthread. Didn’t mean to just repeat that! My main advice is not to limit yourself to discussing information that’s not being passed on if there’s more to the undermining problem than that.

  11. Jazzy Red*

    Here’s my take on it: If you don’t want your conversations overheard, close your damn door and don’t use your speakerphone! If you’re sitting in an office or a cube, you can’t see everyone who can hear you. Some people have no sense of discretion and will blab everything they hear, even if they don’t know what was going on. That ED should know better.

    As for passing information along to your boss, OP, I say do it. You probably know by now what your boss needs and wants to know. I doubt if you pass along gossip about the staff’s private lives, but things that can affect your boss, your company or you* should be passed along (*if it’s something that you really do need her help with). Especially so since the ED is actively trying to undermine your boss, who is also HER boss.

    If you’re unsure about what kind of information your boss would appreciate hearing, have a conversation with her. It’s important to know how you can best be an asset to her.

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