what’s your boss doing reading your emails?

A reader writes:

I’ve been having trouble at work. I went on medical leave from September to December, during which time my boss started to receive my email. When I returned to work, she decided to keep reading my email. I know this because frequently she comes to my office to ask me questions about them. Yesterday she called me in for a meeting, and pulled out a large folder with my emails printed out with notes on them.

Is this a sign I’m about to be fired? And if I’m about to be fired, is preemptively quitting better than getting fired?

I answer this question — and four others — over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

Other questions I’m answering there today include:

  • Addressing staff problems when you’re friends with your employees
  • Rushed job interviews and on-the-spot offers
  • Bringing a camera to a job interview
  • Being interviewed by potential future employees

{ 53 comments… read them below }

  1. Katie F*

    Long before I worked there, my coworkers used to deal with Psycho Boss reading their emails. He demanded their computer passwords. The woman who was eventually my suprevisor would routinely receive an email (so it popped up ‘new’) and watch it change over to ‘read’ without her ever clicking on it. He insisted it was his right as manager to read the emails of his employees.

    Turns out, HR had no idea, and when it was brought to their attention, they ended up changing the employee handbook to specifically and explicitly forbid managers from asking for passwords (it was already forbidden to give it out, but Psycho Boss’s excuse was “No one said I couldn’t ASK for them” and attempted to blame it on Supervisor & Coworker, both of whom were told by Psycho Boss it would “affect their ability to keep their jobs” if they didn’t do what he said)

    This was local government, so of course it took another six years for him to eventually be fired, but I was surprised to discover how long this went on before HR was involved. In Psycho Boss’s case, it was about half him hoping to find something he could write someone up for and half him just being nosy and wanting to know what everyone was saying/thinking/feeling/doing at any given second.

    When I was hired, I was warned by Supervisor and Coworker that he had done this. I went to my orientation, where HR really, really, really emphasized the “don’t give out your password” part of the handbook. When I came back to my actual worksite, the first thing Psycho Boss did was ask for my computer password. I replied with, “The Employee Handbook says it’s a fireable offense to give out that information.” Psycho Boss didn’t ask again, although he did complain endlessly about “never knowing what anyone was writing in emails these days”.

    1. Katie F*

      LW should consult their employee handbook or employment agreement – they may find that their manager having access to their email is forbidden or discouraged and be able to come at it from that perspective.

      1. Pwyll*

        Hmm, I got the impression this was a sanctioned activity: she was out of the office so the emails were forwarded to someone else to handle, but the boss decided not to turn that feature off when she came back. This wouldn’t necessarily be wildly inappropriate in some places I’ve worked. The underlying issue is less the e-mail reading and more WHY the emails are being read.

        I think OP is on better footing to address whether there are performance concerns rather than addressing the e-mail reading itself. (That said, your story is insanity. Psycho Boss is right.)

        1. Katie F*

          Oh, for some reason I skipped over the fact that it was still just a forwarding thing. I’m surprised OP can’t turn that off themselves, actually – my work emails have always had the forwarding function be something I did from MY end. Although maybe that’s just that my bosses never wanted to have anything forwarded (minus Psycho Boss, and I imagine if that was even possible on his end that IT took that away after the whole dust-up in my story).

          1. Pwyll*

            Depending on the IT infrastructure, it can be both. When we setup a compliance system, we set our e-mail server to automatically forward every single e-mail sent or received to our compliance backup, and employees wouldn’t even know if we didn’t tell them. (We did, repeatedly.) At the same time, individual employees could setup and turn off their own forwarding if need be.

            1. DoDah*

              At my former employer, the email server automatically forwarded every email from sales to the VP of Sales. It was invisible to the sales team.

              Reason # 4,795,253 why I am glad I don’t work there anymore.

            2. sstabeler*

              that’s compliance, though, where there is either an individual or department whose entire job it is to snoop on what other employees are doing. This is a case of a manager trying to keep someone under intrusive scrutiny by stealth. ( which is actually stupid in a couple of different ways: the reason why managers shouldn’t be subjecting employees to detailed scrutiny of absolutely everything they are doing is because it tends to cause situations like with the LW, where people are paranoid about being fired. (while some managers would see this as an advantage, it tends to lower productivity due to excessive CYA) The second reason is that doing it by stealth means it is hard to make the employees believe nobody is monitoring their email- which tends to make employees figure out a way to bypass the scrutiny.

    2. Bob*

      I would never give my password to anyone. Even if IT needs my password to troubleshoot something, I change it as soon as the problem is resolved. My response would have been “go ask IT to give you access to my mailbox”. In most cases, IT will refuse unless they have written approval from someone above your manager so it won’t happen. There are multiple ways to give access to another mailbox and we do it all the time for shared mailboxes or when an employees is terminated. I don’t care if my manager reads my email (assuming the company is OK with it) but almost no company is OK with sharing passwords.

      1. Katie F*

        This was all before my time there – and apparently part of the fallout of HR finally being informed was that they discovered at least three other department heads were also asking their employees to supply their computer passwords, with similar reasoning, so Psycho Boss wasn’t the only person doing so.

        Obviously he never had access to mine (and I’m the same as you – even IT never had access to a currently-working PW because I changed it afterwards anytime they needed it for something), but you’d be surprised what kind of shenanigans just slide by in small-county local government when it’s a matter of “Well, it’s always been done this way”.

      2. Stranger than fiction*

        Even IT?? I would imagine they can remote into anyone’s machine that they want to.

        1. Kyrielle*

          They can. And they can also force-reset your password. But that will all create tracks in the system that simply using your password won’t. Also, if you don’t change it right away, you *ought* to keep track of whether Joe in IT (who has your password) is still with the organization. 99% of the time it’s no big deal. The other 1% of the time, it will be considered your fault.

          Although a really good IT department shouldn’t need your password anyway, in many – most? all? – cases…there’s other ways to work that. That said, I have absolutely worked places where I had to give my password to IT. The official policy said Thou Shalt Give Thy Password To No One, so if my having given it to IT later caused issues, I would be at fault. (On the other hand, what am I going to do, refuse and never get my issue fixed? No way.)

          1. Pwyll*

            100% this. IT shouldn’t need to ask you for your password ever. If they need to login as you and for some reason the system isn’t setup to let admin do that, you should have your password reset and you should change your own password once the maintenance is done.

          2. Rusty Shackelford*

            Yeah, our IT has never needed or wanted my password. They step away from the keyboard and ask me to log in. And if I volunteer to write it down for them so they don’t have to keep come getting me from where ever I am, they decline.

      3. Vicki*

        At a previous job, where I was a programmer, I got a phone call from IT shortly after setting up my desktop computer. The call was basically “We’d like a copy of your desktop computer password in case we ever need it. It will be stored in a sealed envelope in a safe.” (FYI, that wasn’t my email password.)

    3. Sysadmin*

      Giving out your password to someone else is an IT security issue, and everyone who changes it immediately after any such use is perfectly right.

      But I hope none of you think that your work email is in any way confidential? You may not be aware that someone else is reading it, it may not in fact be read unless some problem arises. But it almost always is archived forever, and it’s been established again and again in court that every word you write belongs to your employer, who may legitimately read it at any time they choose. Don’t confuse giving your password to someone with them having access to your email, the latter can be done easily without any sort of password.

      So your individual manager may be a jerk about rubbing your nose in their snooping, but you have no fundamental cause to complain. And bringing it to HR’s attention could be a mistake, as it’d simply point out that you misunderstand what your work email is for, possibly prompt a thorough review of it to look for what you might be intent on hiding.

      Likewise, accessing your personal email at work can easily lead to a breach, I’d abstain if you’re surrounded by the kind of manager who feels entitled to review everything about your behavior. It’d take some effort from IT but it could be done, and IT may not feel like losing their job over your privacy. Access your personal accounts from home only, and you won’t have to worry about a thing.

  2. Pwyll*

    #4- I don’t actually think there is any harm in taking one or two photos in the lobby before or after your interview, but I’d probably recommend using your cellphone and not more professional equipment. For example, I’m told there is an impressive full-scale, full color statue in Blizzard’s headquarters for one of their most popular characters. There are lots of photos of this statue, though the lobby itself doesn’t take visitors just for sightseeing. That said, I would NOT ask to wander the halls taking photos, for the reasons Alison mentions, and because tech companies of all sorts are super secretive about projects, and using a camera in non-public areas will seem pretty seriously out of touch.

    1. my two cents*

      I could see asking to take a pic ON THE WAY OUT after an ok/good/great interview. If it tanks, you shouldn’t ask. lol

      They’re probably so used to people fandom-ing out upon arrival, they’ll want to see that you’re there for the interview.

      I’ve visited engineers at Tesla. Their campus is a sight to be seen – valeted parking, crazy-cool-futuristic lobby with iPads for check-in, and rows of cars parked out in front of rows of charging stations. I’d still save any pics for after, especially because I usually get dumped at reception after the meeting and then the customer doesn’t have to see me geeking out. At the very least, it’s way easier on the way out to ask “Thanks for your time today, yadda yadda. Oh hey, I bet you get this a lot… Is it okay if I snap a quick picture of the statue?”

      1. Dynamic Beige*

        I agree. Ask and do it on the way out. Things that are in the lobby are probably fair game, but everything in the back rooms is not.

        At Skywalker Ranch, you are not allowed to take photos anywhere without prior authorisation (and probably an escort). You are not allowed to go up on the second floor without an invitation or authorisation — you will be fired immediately. They don’t play and I was very sternly warned more than once to be on my absolute best behaviour before I got there, which of course I was. It’s a shame, because the place is amazeballs, I’ve never seen anything like it.

    2. neverjaunty*

      But doesn’t taking the picture suggest you won’t be back to see it again (i.e. as an employee)?

  3. Biff*

    I work in tech. Taking a few pictures (Avoid the urge to selfie all of them, and maybe only take ONE selfie with the statue, k?) would actually probably go over well with a mature team. They know people are going to be a little awestruck, and showing some fannish tendencies, but also some solid, professional restraint would, IMO, show that you CAN be professional and solid even in fannish moments. I wouldn’t ask to take a picture with any employees though. If you do take a selfie with the statue, I’d strongly suggest saying something like “My little brother couldn’t believe I was interviewing with you guys, and I wanted to grab some irrefutable proof.”

    1. Biff*

      The key thing is to take only a two or three CHOICE pictures, take them quickly, and then be very professional.

    2. TootsNYC*

      I would have expected the opposite.

      I work at a well-known brand. We have a -little- bit of tolerance for the star-struck thing, but we also have a HUGE dose of realism about it. So, “Oh, cool, there’s that statue!” is OK. But “please can I take a picture?” would NOT.

      1. Biff*

        Hmmm! Well I can certainly be wrong about this. My own department would be good about this, but that doesn’t mean someone else wouldn’t. But if they wouldn’t tolerate a picture…. I probably wouldn’t want to work there.

    3. Honeybee*

      This is the way my team would operate. We’re a big games company and we own and make several well-known franchises, and we have lots of gigantic art in public spaces. It’s pretty much expected that our interviewees would want to take pictures of them, so taking a quick snap wouldn’t be out of the ordinary or reflect badly. Gushing wildly would raise an eyebrow, though. It’s exactly what you said – you want to show professional restraint even in fannish moments, because there are going to be a lot of those over the course of your first few months.

  4. Chelsea*

    I’m surprised about the response in #4 – I would think a little bit of “fangirling” and other such enthusiasm would be well-received, such as wanting to take a picture of something noteable, but then again I’m not a hiring manager.

    1. Katie F*

      I think it would depend heavily on the environment – I feel like a game studio/creative environment would definitely be more relaxed about that kind of thing.

    2. Murphy*

      I don’t work in the example environment, but I work hard to hire people who have the right amount of passion for our work, which includes screening out too much passion (it can get in the way of being results driven or taking feedback). So depending on how it comes across it could be something that screams “I LOVE THIS SO MUCH I WANT TO MARRY IT!” which is not what a hiring manager is looking for. And since you don’t know where that line is for each person, it’s usually safest to just skip the fangirl stuff all together and focus on getting the job there so you can take all the pictures you want.

      1. Lily Rowan*

        Right — in an unrelated industry, I told my interviewer that I was a personal fan of their work when asked why I wanted the job, but I didn’t go on and on about it. Nevermind taking photos!

      2. BRR*

        My organization I think has hired a lot of people where passion has outweighed skills and it sucks. It affects everything from having people who get things done to over sending all staff emails with news about our cause because everybody is so into it.

    3. Purest Green*

      Yeah, I was wondering if it would be a good idea to take pictures before the interview or stay after the interview (if that’s possible).

    4. AndersonDarling*

      I think it may also depend on what role the candidate is interviewing for. If it is an internship or entry level position, then I could tolerate some gawking. I’d expect a little more control when interviewing for an HR Director job.

    5. Queen Gertrude*

      The problem comes with people who come across as wanting to work for your company for all the wrong reasons. When someone is having a nerdgasm over the company, it’s like they have beer goggles on. During their interview you have a hard time trusting them to really see the job for what it is and to not inflate their skills in order to impress you (beyond the usual inflating of skills). It’s hard to believe that they won’t just tell you anything that they think you want to hear. It’s one thing to be a customer and be familiar with a product and have an appreciation for what people do. It’s quite another to act like you’re running into celebrities on the street. We want to know that you applied for the position because it was the right job (skills/experience) for you. Not JUST because we are your dream company and you inflated or even dumbed-down your resume to fit the mold to get the interview to try and work here. Not that I don’t know people who don’t love getting their ego’s stroked… but guess what, they aren’t the ones who make the hiring decisions ;)

      Treat this like you are a professional in the service industry who happens across a celebrity. Treat them like they are anybody else, respect their boundaries. And then at the end of the encounter, chose a moment to let the person(s) know that you are a fan and appreciate their work (only people you directly interact with or are introduced to btw). Let them give you your cues as to what is appropriate in that situation.

  5. T3k*

    The problem I see with #4 is generally the video game industry is very secretive with their projects. I’ve toured one once and visited another recently (not an interview), and both times I was required to sign an NDA. The latter (which was a very large company) required I lock up any recording devices before continuing on, so they may not even let you bring a camera into the facility.

    That said, I’m very torn between “this is supposed to be an interview” and also wanting to fangirl/boy over things. If the statue is as big a deal as I know some companies have them, I’m sure they wouldn’t mind if asked to take a quick picture of it.

    1. Lucky*

      If the giant cool statue is in the lobby, yeah, the interviewer won’t be surprised if #4 asks to take a photo (and will probably offer to take a photo for #4). Behind security doors, it may seem a bit naive or clueless for #4 to ask to take photos, even if the area isn’t marked “no photos” (common in R&D areas).

      As for fangirling/fanboying, most game companies are made up of fangirls and boys, so they will totally get your enthusiasm. But be reasonable, don’t corner the game designer to discuss the finer points of a particular campaign or show off your Princess Peach boxer shorts.

  6. LurkingPoster*

    So I have to say on the one where the interviewee is going to a big game company and asking about bringing a camera… i think you can still do it, but be careful around it. A friend of mine interviewed at a Well Known Media Company that created a sprawling movie cannon (space opera) that was recently purchased by a Gigantic Media Company. She is a giant fan of said movies, and arrived to her interview a bit early so she could see the grounds and get a picture of the big fountain with SeminalCharacter on it (she just used her phone though, she didn’t bring an additional camera). She did mention it briefly in her interview, and they actually LOVED that she was a fan, and her resume very clearly showed she was an excellent candidate so it didn’t harm her. She didn’t land the job, but it was mainly due to timing on their end and not her being a fan.

    You can be a fan, and you can bring it up, but you have to be careful you don’t cross the line into SUPER SCARY FAN. i don’t think it’s any different than applying for a job at a company who has a mission you really respect, or a cause you personally support. Again, you just have to be careful to not go overboard.

    1. Dweali*

      Right?! I sure hope OP has since learned the difference between ‘friendly’ and ‘friends’.

  7. SJP*

    OP interviewing at the games company, don’t do it as Alison said. Plus a lot of these companies has NDA’s and ask you not take any photos as there concepts are secret until release. I used to work at a video games company and it’s all very hush hush

    1. Blurgle*

      OP, you can look at the statue and enjoy it while you’re there. Not everything has to be documented to be remembered.

    2. Honeybee*

      Big statues, however, are usually not secret concept art. I work at a big games company and we have a bunch of gigantic statues, dioramas, and other art in our buildings and they’re all from released games and franchises. We don’t put anything in public-facing areas that we wouldn’t want pictures of leaking to Kotaku et al. (And people take pictures of them all the time – I did, when I interviewed, although I did so discreetly.)

  8. SaviourSelf*

    At first job, Boss would check everyone’s emails nightly. I didn’t really care at the time because it was strictly for work. I drew the line when I found out she had responded to some emails, from my account, overnight and signed my name to the response. I was livid and immediately brought it up to her the next morning.

  9. sara*

    For #5, I work in academia and have had student meetings as part of interviews. I can almost certainly guarantee that the student meeting portion of the day is not really to evaluate you — undergrads are not making the final say on hiring decisions. The only way this could really hurt you is if you do something clearly inappropriate (for example, we once had a candidate who made inappropriate comments to female students on a visit, and that did get back to the hiring committee and influence the decision not to hire the person. But, I’m guessing you probably know you should not sexually harass people during your interview!) In my experience, the purpose of these meetings is more to give the candidates a feel for the students at our institution and for the students to feel like they get to participate in the hiring process (though again, not necessarily as a deciding vote unless they observe truly terrible behavior). I think Allison’s suggestions for questions to ask are great. Mostly I think students will be looking to see that you are interested in them and engaged in the conversation, rather than asking you formal questions about your management style and experience.

    1. MillersSpring*

      Also, being undergraduates they may not have experience with many (or any) other managers, so the OP’s lack of managerial experience would not faze them. The OP seems unnecesessarily worried. I worked on campus all four years, and it was no big deal when the person managing my day-to-day work was a young clerk or office aide.

    2. blackcat*

      I’m in a highly male-dominated field… and you’d be surprised how many faculty candidates will say offensive/harassing things to female grad students during their interviews. At my institution, that tanks a candidate’s chances if it reaches “Oh f– no” level and hurts a candidate if it reaches “eww.” At other institutions, not so much.

      Things that have been said to me, in front of other grad students by male candidates for tenure track faculty positions:
      “If all the grad students were as pretty as you, I’d take this job.” (cocky AND offensive. Check and check)
      Same guy, after being told, curtly, by a male grad student that dating a grad student would likely get him fired: “Do you bring your friends around the department often?”
      Another guy: “Oh, you’re married? Are you going to drop out after the masters?”
      And another: “You have a lovely smile.” and “Your husband is a lucky man.”

      This is based on two TT searches, which had 6 total candidates brought in (all male). So 50% rate of offensiveness.

  10. newlyhr*

    please, no pictures. First of all as a gaming company, they are probably pretty skittish and paranoid about the theft of intellectual property. If they see you taking pictures, even if you ask, somebody is going to wonder if you took some pictures they don’t know about. It’s a cutthroat industry and they are always on guard about spies. I’ve worked with some in the past as a consultant, and if you want to work there, I wouldn’t take the chance of screwing up your chances.

  11. Thornus*

    My boss, the business owner, has all e-mails sent to the workers automatically forwarded to her e-mail (as well as already requiring she be copied on any and all e-mails, so she gets her normal copy too). She set this up about two years ago when another worker left (but still does some contract work), and she wanted to make sure the office got copied with all e-mails he received. It’s annoying, but I deal with it. That is actually one of the least bad/improper/intrusive/whateverwordyouwanthere things she does.

  12. Chaordic One*

    At any job I’ve ever had I always assume that nothing is private and that if my supervisor wanted to look at my email, he would. (Not that I’m happy about it, but I’m being realistic.)

    Rarely, someone would send me an email with a joke in questionable taste, and on occasion I would have to send a personal email from work, but when I did it was just something bland like, “working late tonight, will call you after 8:00 p.m.”

  13. Moonsaults*

    In my history working directly with business owners, I have never flinched or wondered about them reading an email. It’s usually out of curiosity and to stay in the loop. An old boss used to flip through the mail before I got to it, that annoyed me due to my “you don’t need to touch that” but at the same time, whatever it’s his business and he’s curious.

    This was also a man who was scammed by a few employees and trust issues were abundant. He learned that I was loyal and ultimately trustworthy, thankfully before his health truly declined but at first but it takes time and everyone has their different paces.

    I’ve seen the after effects of embezzlement or horrible employees who didn’t do their jobs because bosses weren’t spot checking or looking into things other than taking someone’s word for it. I have no problem CC’ing my boss or forwarding him emails, he has the office email on his phone with his email box. This is also because you are an employee and typically the boss will be there after the fact, if they lose touch, when you decide to find another job and skip town, change your number and never look back, falling into that ice cold pool you’ve been out of for so long is horrifying.

    This depends on the size of office and security as well of course. So if it’s forwarded, she’s not going to be answering as you and getting you into trouble in the long run. If they demand your password, that’s sketchy as hell and overwhelming. That seems like a much larger company than I’m familiar with thing though.

    Regarding a rushed interview and snap hiring. Don’t do it. That’s a high turnover job and you do not want to be in that mess. I have been hired on the spot by someone who actually seemed cool but didn’t give much information about the job itself. She turned out to be a psychopath, thankfully I was able to run after a week of training and had my old job to fall back into. The person I would be replacing and was training me was like “I hate this place, I’m finally freeeeeeeeee.” That was a huge flag of course, then she went and started screaming bloody murder at an employee for something extremely personal. That night I had a panic attack and sent a text saying that it wasn’t going to work out. One of the most unprofessional moments of my life but I was scared shitless.

  14. stevenz*

    #4. Don’t even take a camera or phone to the interview. What’s to be gained *for you* to have a picture of yourself or a mock-up of a fictional character (which are available on the internet anyway)? Nothing. You’re there to get a job, not to buy postcards of the experience. And you do run the risk of looking like a snoop. Just don’t do it.

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