how do I explain being fired for sharing confidential info with a friend?

A reader writes:

This is a two-parter:

1. How do I tell potential future employers why I got fired and have them still want to hire me?

2. How do I explain to those potential future employers that the only reason I got fired was because I was ratted out by a coworker for a victimless mistake and was fired unfairly, without sounding defensive?

Here’s the story: I worked for a large government agency, in communications. I was often privy to non-public information because I was designing media campaigns around them.

One piece of information I learned (that has since been announced publicly, but hadn’t been at the time) was SO EXCITING that in a weak moment, I texted one friend about it in celebration. This friend understood the gravity of the information I told her, and I 100% trusted her to not leak it. Let me be clear — she did not leak it. Nothing got out about this before it was supposed to.

However, at the time, I did feel guilty so I confided in an older coworker who I considered a mentor. She was understandably very uncomfortable with what I did, and we had a very nice conversation about our duties as communication officers, and trust, etc. I thought it was over.

Cut to a couple hours later, and I’m called into my boss’s office because she has “heard” that I leaked this information to a SLACK CHANNEL FULL OF JOURNALISTS. Which is so far beyond the truth I’m honestly wondering if this coworker had it out for me the whole time. This was a Friday. On Monday, I was called into a “fact-finding” meeting with HR. I was sent home, and then fired over the phone a few hours later.

I’m of course devastated, and moving on and figuring out my next steps. The anger I hold for my coworker is something I will deal with over time.

But how do I explain this story to future employers? I was fired for technically breaking a rule — but it was my first offense, and nothing bad actually happened, and I’m definitely learned my lesson. There was no warning, no suspension, nothing. I was fired over the phone. Also, am I even allowed to bring up the fact that someone ratted me out? Does that matter? Or does it only matter that I broke a rule?

I wrote back and asked, “Is there more context for why your coworker thought that? Was the friend a journalist, or is there something else that would explain why she said that?” The reply:

Yes, the friend I texted happened to be a journalist but doesn’t cover the area that I was working in. Also, she wasn’t a journalist I ever interacted with professionally — she’s a friend I’ve had for years.

And I did use Slack on my work computer, and I did interact professionally with some journalists who covered my area over Slack. So I guess my coworker could have misunderstood when I said “I texted one friend,” but I wish she would have … talked to me about that first?

Well … it’s possible your coworker just had it out for you, but it sounds more likely that she genuinely misunderstood or that she understood perfectly but thought leaking info to a journalist friend was serious enough to report and then it was your boss who misunderstood the details.

The thing is, it’s a big deal that you were given confidential information and then texted it to a friend. It’s a bigger deal because that friend is a journalist. And you might know that you trust that friend 100% to keep it confidential — but your employer would prefer to make that call themselves, and thought they’d done so when they told you the information couldn’t be shared.

That doesn’t mean you’re a horrible person who should never work again! Everyone messes up. But your framing of this does sound defensive and doesn’t sound like you’re taking responsibility for what happened.

You wrote, “The only reason I got fired was because I was ratted out by a coworker for a victimless mistake and was fired unfairly.” But you weren’t fired because your coworker reported you; you were fired because you broke a serious rule. And calling this “victimless” isn’t a helpful framing; if you do something that’s clearly forbidden and could result in real harm, that’s a problem even if no harm resulted this time. (Drunk driving is an extreme example of this.)

You also weren’t fired for “technically breaking a rule.” You were fired for actually breaking a rule, and a serious one. (It also might be notable that you didn’t originally mention that your friend was a journalist until I asked about it — which makes me think you’re underestimating how much that matters.)

That said, I am curious if there’s other context that explains why they fired you for a first offense without warning you first. It could be that the info you leaked was especially confidential, or that they’ve been concerned about other leaks and are taking a hard-line stance. Or they might have a zero-tolerance policy for leaks as a deterrent. Or it could be about a broader picture — like if you’d had performance issues or other problems that made it easier for them to decide to just part ways. Or, maybe they totally overreacted, who knows — it’s impossible to say from here.

But I think in order to talk about this with future employers, you’ve got to take more responsibility for it. If it comes across like you don’t think it was a big deal or that you blame the coworker for alerting your employer, that’s not going to go over well. That doesn’t mean you need to go into all the details or give a lengthy mea culpa, but you don’t want to sound like you’re minimizing it. That means that you definitely shouldn’t get into anything about anyone “ratting you out”; that would make it sound like you don’t think it really should have mattered.

Instead, you’re better off with something like, “The truth is, I was fired. I’d had excellent feedback up until then (if this is true), but I mistakenly shared some non-public information with a friend outside the agency, and they let me go as a result. While that obviously wasn’t the result I’d have wanted, I learned an important lesson about confidentiality, and it’s not a mistake I’ll ever repeat.”

If there’s anything else you can say about your work there to put this in context — like that you had received a glowing performance review, were taking on increasing levels of responsibility, etc. — you can include that in there too, not as a way to cast doubt on their decision but as a way to indicate this was a fluke, not a pattern of bad judgment.

Good luck!

{ 532 comments… read them below }

  1. Contracts Killer

    OP notes that she is a government employee. That makes the violation much worse. Whether she is under FOIA or a state public records law, there are a lot of rules about non-disclosure of certain information. In some cases, there can even be criminal charges for knowingly releasing certain information. Hopefully whatever she disclosed doesn’t violate a public access law, since the information was released publicly shortly afterward, but wow did she dodge a bullet.

    1. Engineer Girl

      And if it is a part of that, the coworker was obligated to report it!
      In fact, the coworker probably was obligated to report it anyway since she wasn’t sure about the extent of the breach. Coworker would let the other authorities figure that out.

      1. Falling Diphthong

        I ran across an old letter recently where someone had negotiated themselves into a poor position, and hit on dragging some subordinates out there on the plank with her. Yet, the subordinates were not pleased!

        Once you told your coworker, you dragged her out there on the plank with you. If anything went down, you could say “But Older Coworker knew! Shouldn’t she be in trouble too?” and there she would be, going down with you.

        If you feel uncomfortable about a work rule you are clearly violating, your coworkers are not going to be thrilled that you get them out there on the plank with you.

        1. valentine

          the coworker probably was obligated to report it
          Yes. She did her job. I imagine there’s a section in the manual and training (possibly annually) about the great responsibility they bear around confidentiality and how people will try to scam them into breaching security, yet OP does not appreciate the weight of this.

          OP, you truly buried the lede: you leaked to a journalist. Perhaps the way you feel (felt?) about your coworker reporting you, betrayed and hard done by, is the way your employer feels about you.

          1. Fan of AAM blog

            This is a very astute comment, especially your last paragraph. Thank you. I had not thought about this issue via this lens, but I think you’re 100% right.

            Also, I’m so done with people using the phrase “ratted me out.” I’m not trying to beat up on the OP; goodness, I’ve done similar things and felt the same way she does! But I now realize that I had no business sharing my bad behavior with colleagues — it put them into a completely untenable position. I had to learn the hard way, I’m afraid, but I did learn. OP, I join Alison in wishing you the very best of luck!

            1. Maria Lopez

              “Ratted me out” annoys me too, because it just means that someone told the truth and wouldn’t cover for your lie. The person is trying to make someone else feel bad about their own transgressions.
              Also, no matter how good a friend someone is, if they are a journalist you need to zip your lips.

        2. Nic

          Yup! I would also lay odds that when LW says Coworker “was understandably very uncomfortable with what I did, and we had a very nice conversation about our duties as communication officers, and trust, etc.“, that means that despite what LW thought about it being a nice confidential chat, her “mentor figure” was trying to imply to her that she was going to HAVE TO report the incident, because trust and responsibility.

          1. Cat

            I actually think this was a little rough of her mentor. She should have told her “this is serious and I’m going to have to report you.” Then at least OP could have avoided the “slack room full of journalists” escalation.

            OP erred, which she knows, but I don’t think that means her mentor no longer has the obligation to be honest with her. To me, her wrong doesn’t justify her mentor going behind her back. I know there are cases where someone might fear retaliation etc, but with a higher up getting a subordinate into (deserved… sorry OP!) trouble, it doesn’t seem applicable.

            1. Micklak

              Yeah, I wish the mentor had walked the LW directly to the boss to discuss this openly.

              I’m confused about the “fact-finding” meeting. If nothing exculpatory came out in that meeting then maybe firing was the appropriate response. I’m assuming the LW plead their case and filled in relevant information.

      2. gsa

        gsa,

        I am replying under Engineer Girl for a reason.

        My father worked on defense contracts for a large portion of his professional career. As far as I know, he held the highest security clearance a civilian could have. Before I was born, there was a project where mother had to get clearance as well.

        The phone rang in the middle of the night and my mother picked it up, before she could hand the phone to my father, the person on the other end of the phone explained everything that was going on and why he was calling.

        When dad got on the phone he explained to the person that he understood the situation and that he was going to have to report him because he gave my mother classified information.

        1. Scion

          I think you’d be in trouble for sharing that kind of information over the phone, regardless of who he was talking to.

          1. Burn before reading

            Oh my. Unless his bedroom was a SCIF and the phone secured, that’s really bad.

          2. CmdrShepard4ever

            Based on it happening before GSA was born, this most likely happened on a land line. While it is possible the line could be actively tapped/monitored by someone else, even if it was an unsecured line it would be reasonable to assume the home phone number on file for GSA’s dad would lead to the dad. But it could be that GSA’s dad had a code/password to verify it was actually him and the caller forgot to verify that first.

            1. gsa

              Yup, landline. 1964 is what I remember. I arrived in ‘69. Every bit of what I’ve said is probably hearsay…

              It’s always easier, at least to me, to close your mouth than open it.

              What the saying about eyes, ears, mouths???

              1. gsa

                BWT,

                All mom did was hand dad the phone. The joker on the other hand was running off at the mouth.

                Was alphabet city watching his ass, no idea. He and my mother kept their noses clean.

                Hopefully there still something to be said for that!

        2. Suzy Q

          I have a friend whose mother did work for an intelligence agency during WW2. She could have been a secretary or a spy; no one knows because she went to her grave never telling anyone, not even her husband.

          1. Gazebo Slayer

            Yep, I have a friend whose grandmother was a codebreaker and took “loose lips sink ships” seriously till her dying day.

      3. fhqwhgads

        Yep. The only thing even slightly puzzling is why during the conversation with the mentor, mentor didn’t say “you do understand I am obligated to report this?” Maybe mentor thought that might prompt LW to do something track-covering so it was better left going directly to the bosses without warning. I don’t know. But given the kind of convo LW describes….while the LW really should not have been surprised they got reported and then fired, and does seem to be downplaying the severity, I wonder if something about the convo led them to believe it was somehow less serious than the mentor clearly understood it to be, and mentor didn’t seem to do anything to help the LW understand how big a deal this is, which is kind of a bummer.

        1. Harper the Other One

          The one time I filled a confidentiality-bound role (as a temp) the information I was given was specifically NOT to tell the person you were obligated to report. I don’t know if it was to avoid track-covering or to prevent retaliation, but that was a specific part of the procedure. Maybe OP’s workplace does the same?

          1. JessaB

            Also to prevent someone who might be a bit dangerous, from hurting you. Whilst I’m sure the OP is a perfectly nice person, there’s a reason that there are office shootings and other awful things, some people are not.

          2. Allonge

            This. But even if there is no danger, an obligation to report is just that. It’s not an obligation to confront. For excellent reasons.

          3. Breach

            Same here! We go through training every 6 months, that we should NOT to tell the coworker or customer that we will need to report them.

    2. lawschoolmorelikeblawschool

      Gov employee here and I would be in trouble as well for not reporting what LW told coworker.

    3. Brett

      The type of violation you are talking about normally only applies to confidential (“shall close”) records and not non-public (“may close”) records. Everything the OP described sounds like a non-public record.

      For many fed and state agencies, non-public records _must_ be released on a records request despite their non-public status unless they fit into a narrow set of explicit exemptions. (And even then, the existence of the record has to be disclosed even if the actual record is not disclosed.)

      1. Clisby

        This didn’t involve a records request. It involved something the OP had learned about in confidence, but hadn’t even been publicly announced – and the OP blabbed about it to someone completely unrelated to her job. Assuming this is in the US, and we’re talking about FOIA laws, typically a records request will come through a particular channel (not likely to be some random employee in communications.)

        1. Brett

          I’m just explaining that the information was likely a non-public record and not a confidential record.
          The type of sanctions that Contract Killer is talking about would only apply to confidential records, not non-public records.

          (And yes, the records request would come through the custodian of records, but the point of my second paragraph is that non-public information does not have special protections like confidential information and that the general public has a right to access that information as soon as it is available, and not just when the agency finds it convenient to send out a press release.)

            1. Brett

              Ah, no, there definitely was a record if there was any form of written communication at all about the information. If there was no record, then there is no possible sanction under FOIA or sunshine law (because that only pertains to records).

            2. Anon for this

              It also wasn’t illegal to share it, because it was about a program or something that has now publicly been announced, so this doesn’t even fall under the criminal aspect brought up in the original comment. In other words, this whole line of discussion is moot.

            3. NothingIsLittle

              My mom worked in sunshine law for state government, and what constitutes a “record” is a lot broader than most people realize. As Brett said, there was definitely a record in this case.

              However, I will agree that, per OP’s statement, the information appears to be unsolicited and doesn’t seem like it would have been considered a records request (who knows, we don’t have a lot of information and what we have has been proven to be distorted). The point still stands, however, that Contract Killer’s proposed sanctions likely don’t appear to apply here.

              1. MerciMe

                I’m not sure you can conclude that it was publically disclosable. Many types of information are protected only during specific time frames – insider trading comes to mind as a particularly nasty one – disclosing inside information about a pending large contract award or trade is absolutely firable.

        2. Yorick

          In my experience, a FOIA request can come from anywhere. A member of the public wants some data, they contact anybody in the agency they can think of, the internal employees bounce it around because somehow they don’t know who to send data requests to, and finally it gets to us and we respond.

      2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

        I think that’s misunderstanding the severity of why what OP did was not ok. There’s any number of non-confidential matters that are embargoed prior to their public announcement. Sometimes it’s because someone could obtain an unfair benefit from early access to what will later become public information (e.g., think analogous to insider trading). This is not about a public records request—it’s about how information is released to the public before that information becomes public.

        What OP did was incredibly serious and, as happened, a fireable offense. I would have been fired if I did any one of the things OP did when I worked for the feds (e.g., using Slack, speaking to a journalist without authorization even if they were a long-time friend, disclosing soon-to-be-public information before it was publicly available).

        OP’s best bet is to stop blaming their coworker or minimizing what happened. Take ownership and accountability of it, because for better or worse, all of us could have made OP’s mistake at some point in our careers. Minimizing it will make it harder for future employers to trust OP, whereas frank ownership and an action plan will read as much more responsible and accountable.

    4. Rachel Green

      I was coming to the comments section to say the same thing. I work for a state government agency and FOIA is a really big deal. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a state or federal regulation that she violated by sharing that information. Confidentiality, especially in government, is no joke and should be taken very seriously. If we receive confidential information, there are very specific and non-flexible procedures we have to follow to handle those documents/information.

      1. NothingIsLittle

        That’s totally true, and when I worked for state government release of confidential information would have been grounds for immediate termination, but Alison is the only one who calls it confidential, OP calls it non-public. I’m pretty sure the information wasn’t actually confidential in the legal sense.

    5. Kelly

      Another public sector worker here. FOIA and open records requests are really big deals. My employer lost a lawsuit where they had been sued for violating open records and meetings laws.

      The awareness that anything sent in your work email is subject to FOIA and open records requests really varies. I’m very aware of that reality, so I confine my work email to work stuff only. Between that and having family members who have been laid off and lost access to their work account that they used for personal use as well, I have learned to keep work and personal email accounts separate. We had a discussion on a work committee about not using our work emails when discussing some sensitive information.

      I won’t get into too many details, but where I work had a plan that was controversial and there was both opposition to it, internal and external. One colleague really didn’t like the plan, and he was communicating with people who were organizing opposition to it using his work email. I didn’t agree with it myself, and knew that it wasn’t really possible without raising a lot of money, something my organization just isn’t that good at doing. I reminded him that anything sent in our work email is subject to FOIA and not really completely private from our employer, so if he was going to continue to work against the plan, use personal email.

      1. Ace in the Hole

        An employer of mine got a FOIA request where they asked for every email we’d sent to anyone from any regulatory agency. It was bananas. We literally filled a room with records for them, and 99% of it was people asking what flavor of donuts to bring to a meeting or requesting copies of informational flyers.

      2. tink

        Heck, at my agency we’re cautioned to not use work email on our personal devices (unless we’re management or it’s an emergency) because records requests could potentially get our personal devices as well.

    6. Seeking Second Childhood

      OP will also want to consider not focusing her career path on jobs that require a security clearance for classified information. Those questioners would hammer her on this.

      1. Jules the 3rd

        Extremely good advice! While some employers will accept the ‘I take personal accountability and here’s how I address it’ path, this probably does remove some employers from consideration.

      2. Traffic_Spiral

        Yeah… just assume that for the next few years you’re out of the running for jobs that require a confidentiality.

  2. Letter Writer

    Thanks for answering! I want to caveat that when I originally wrote this, it had just happened and I was still extremely emotional about it, which is probably why I chose to leave out important information in my initial question. Of course I understand that I broke a rule, and that it was my mistake 100%, and it was no one else’s fault. I’m still pretty upset that I had no second chance, but I suppose I just lost their trust. I definitely learned my lesson, and it was a hard one, and one that I will regret for a very, very long time.

    1. C.

      Thanks for sharing all of this. I think it’s fair for you to be upset that you didn’t have another chance, but also understandable that your employer felt it couldn’t give you one. Good luck to you – I think Allison’s advice for answering questions about this experience is spot on.

      1. Snark

        I don’t find it understandable that the OP expected a second chance for this, as someone who routinely deals with unclassified-but-FOUO, Confidential, and Secret information, except insofar as I can have sympathy for someone who perhaps didn’t understand the gravity of their actions until consequences came down.

        1. Burn before reading

          LW, you’ve learned half of your lesson, but really need to keep working to get there.

          “I’m still pretty upset that I had no second chance, but I suppose I just lost their trust.”

          You are of course welcome to your feelings, we all feel what we feel, but it sounds like your thoughts and beliefs haven’t settled to the fact that **your feelings are dead wrong**.

          You seriously violated your privileged access to confidential information. Yes of course it feels bad that you were fired. But that was the right response to what you did. (Even before learning it was to a reporter!) They did exactly the right thing to you. You didn’t have a right to privileged information once you demonstrated that you weren’t trustworthy. And you’re a risk, on top of having done a fireable offense.

          So. Where did you go from here? A true 100% owning of what you did.

          And by becoming the must fanatically trustworthy discreet person. You learned, BOY HOWDY did you learn, and now you don’t mess around – not even gossiping with co-workers or any of those other little ways that could instill doubt in your discretion. You take this as a hideously painful lesson, and change your behavior across the board, and most people could see that as a learning moment, from which you learned. You can do this, if you keep working hard on yourself.

          1. Jill March

            I know this is pedantic, but as someone raised by a mother with BPD, I feel like it’s important to say that no one’s feelings are wrong. Our actions and our thoughts can definitely be wrong, but calling someone’s feelings–which they have little to no control over–wrong (or, “dead wrong” with double asterisks), only contributes to shame and self-loathing. I’m sure the letter writer has plenty of that to deal with already.

            Letter writer: If you’re still dealing with this emotionally, focus on the facts. Keep rewriting what happened in the most factual, dispassionate way possible. This is a solvable problem. Changing how you feel (as opposed to what you say or do or think) is not something you need to do to solve the problem.

            1. Archaeopteryx

              Feelings can be irrational though, or overblown, or immature, or any number of shades of ‘wrong’ that means you shouldn’t give them 100% credence.

              1. boo bot

                “Your feelings are wrong,” in this context means,”Your feelings aren’t *morally* wrong.”

                So, the implication is actually the opposite of giving your feelings 100% credence – it’s saying, separate how you feel from what you do. It’s your actions that are right, wrong, or in that confusing gray area, and what you feel doesn’t have to dictate what you do.

                If I wanted a cookie and I didn’t get one, I can feel sad, and that’s fine. What’s not fine is trying to take somebody else’s, or dramatically moping about it until someone gives me theirs. The emotion is neutral; it’s what you do with it that counts.

                1. Lehigh

                  Thank you for explaining this! I always assumed the phrase meant “no feelings are incorrect,” and it made a lot less sense than the way you’ve laid it out!

            2. Vicky Austin

              Thank you for saying that feelings are never wrong. Only behaviors are right or wrong.

              1. JSPA

                Interpretations, justifications, conceptualizations can also be wrong, surely. And there’s a difference between “feeling” (sensation) and “feeling” (conclusion drawn from integrating sensations and information).

                Point isn’t that OP doesn’t have a right to feel what OP feels–if OP has a sick, gut-punch feeling, that’s the truth of how OP is feeling. Point is that the higher-level feelings or lowest level conceptualization (that is, the integration of the “gut punch” and the “sense that it can’t have been that bad, if it wasn’t meant badly,” and “sense that it can’t have been wrong to trust friend, because friend was trustworthy”) are still encouraging OP to draw incorrect conclusions about the seriousness of their action, and the appropriateness of their employer’s actions.

                OP, if everything that was predictably risky, harmful, dangerous, bad, illegal or wrong really “felt bad” on some core level, we would almost never need to make rules. Rules are there because it’s so easy to “do that thing that feels harmless, and sometimes nobody gets hurt.”

            3. Lynn Marie

              Don’t disagree – feelings aren’t wrong but the way we think about them often is. Feelings are frequently conflated with facts in our minds and it can take some work to separate them. Best wishes to OP in her work on this.

          2. Big Bank

            +1
            I am a veteran employee in good standing, but if I shared Material NonPublic Information I learned on the job and was found out, I would be terminated immediately and they would be right to do so. That the information eventually became public is not in any way relevant. The advance knowledge of something pending going public is a very powerful position.

            Going forward definitely own this mistake and explain that you are freaking Fort Knox going now to new employers, knowing now the seriousness of such a transgression. And definitely let go any butthurt about your coworker – they did nothing wrong and followed clear policies on reporting this incident.

            And in the future if you really cant hold something in (that is not full on illegal to discuss) and want to share it with your spouse or something, dear God dont ever do it in writing!

    2. Diana

      Oh honey, how young are you? As the other commenter noted, this could have been a very serious offence considering you were working for the government. Count your blessings that you just got fired. And even now you sound defensive.

      1. GrumbleBunny

        This seems unnecessarily condescending, and I don’t think the LW sounds defensive here at all.

        1. Fortitude Jones

          Right? The letter writer came here and owned up to what she did and said she knows now it was her fault – what do you want her to do, throw herself on a sword?

          OP, I’m sure in your excitement you truly didn’t think there was anything wrong with telling your friend, someone you trust implicitly to remain discreet. But your friend’s profession means you often can’t share these types of things with her because of other people’s perceptions about it – they don’t know your friend, and while she may take “off the record” seriously, some journalists don’t and your coworkers have no way of knowing which type of journalist she is.

          (For the record, I always told people I was interviewing as a source that there was no such thing as “off the record” with me – it’s not a requirement of our field, there’s no law saying we have to follow that request if asked, so if the subject didn’t want me to print something, they shouldn’t tell me. I even tell friends this who work in classified situations and I don’t even report the news anymore.)

          1. Fortitude Jones

            Hit enter too soon:

            I wanted to say, it sucks you lost your job after this one time indiscretion, but I’m glad you understand the seriousness of it and with Alison’s script, I hope you’ll find a new job soon.

        2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

          Agreed. I’m not understanding how OP’s update comment reads as defensive–it shows significant progression from deflection to ownership, to me. OP doesn’t sound naive or too young, either. Am I missing something?

          1. Snark

            Honestly, I got the impression that the writer was on the younger end, just in their self-reported actions and reactions. Excitedly texting confidential, FOUO information to a friend who happens to be a journalist, unconscious of the optics and real potential harm? Reacting to being fired for that as if being personally persecuted over some piddly technical rule violation and not being given a second chance? Confiding in an older mentor in the expectation of confession-like confidentiality? That all strikes me as stuff someone quite young and without strong professional and personal boundaries acts.

            1. Amethystmoon

              I got that impression as well and have had younger coworkers who sent random, very personal info to me in texts. So I guess maybe it is a generational thing?

              I have personally learned that if you never want coworkers to find out something embarrassing or private about you, never ever tell them. Any of them. It will get out, eventually.

              1. Snark

                Not generational, just a young person thing. And the coworker, well, this was information that was a major conduct infraction, not just embarrassing or private – if a coworker told me they’d done this, I’d have promptly reported it, not to humiliate them, but to start the process of damage control.

                1. a bibliophile

                  “…but to start the process of damage control.”
                  THIS ^^^ Whether it is age or just immaturity, there is clearly a major blind spot about the big picture and the potential impact resulting from this behavior. I love my younger co-workers and value their fresh take on things and energy, but there is a clear pattern of not understanding reputation risk and liability. I’m not sure what the best way is to address this, but we’re trying!

                2. Traffic_Spiral

                  Yeah – the world just being what it is, if you’re this bad at keeping secrets, you’re gonna get burned by it pretty quick. So if she’s genuinely surprised at this outcome, it stands to reason that it’s new for her, which strongly implies she just hasn’t been working very long, which implies youth.

              2. Venus

                I think the wider point is that anyone can make that mistake at any age, and speculating about this part of it is irrelevant and not helpful.

            2. Burn before reading

              Me too. Which is actually good – most of us get making a mistake when we’re young, and really learning from it. A 40 year old making the same mistake would be much harder to trust later.

              Is it FOUO though? Non-public just because it hadn’t been announced yet isn’t the same as the location of the emergency bunker. (I think, I never worked in government communications so I’m not positive of this.)

            3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

              Oh, this is all interesting, and I appreciate all the responses. I’m now turning my head sideways and re-reading/rethinking.

          2. Lobsterman

            I got defensive and young from OP’s response.

            OP should be counting their blessings they only got fired and be upset with themselves for making such an obvious and preventable error, not expecting a large bureaucracy to break its own rules to accommodate them.

        3. EddieSherbert

          +10. There’s no context where calling a stranger “honey” doesn’t feel condescending (whether someone intends it to or not!).

          1. PollyQ

            Eh, if a waitress at a “homey” diner calls everyone “honey”, I wouldn’t call it condescending. But if you’re singling people out, or only using it in the context of chastising someone, then yeah, for sure condescending and rude.

            1. Courageous cat

              I don’t feel like we need that caveat though, there of course will be exceptions, but this is kinda derailing.

          2. Jen2

            Yeah. Any message that starts with “Oh honey” is going to read as rude and condescending unless it’s followed by a sincere “I’m so sorry” in response to something terrible happening.

        4. Jana

          Absolutely! And the “young” comment. Age is hardly an indicator of a person’s ability to consistently make the best choices at all times. All people, of all ages, are capable of errors in judgment…

        5. Budgie Buddy

          I think people are reading defensiveness from the qualifiers “probably” and “suppose.” I can sympathize that this is still very raw for OP and perspective will only come with more time.

        6. JSPA

          Still wondering why there was no second chance, though. Or at least, feeling like one should have been possible. And that’s still very unrealistic / way off-base, if OP truly gets why this was a slam-dunk decision, in that particular circumstance.

      2. Archaeopteryx

        It’s also possible that the way you talked to your boss about it cost you a second chance too- if you were anything other than mortified and taking 100% responsibility, they likely thought it wasn’t worth trusting you again.

        1. Lily Rowan

          Yeah, I once got fired and I have always framed it as being fired for one thing I said in a meeting, but the truth is, I really got fired for not apologizing for saying the one thing. Which is not how I would handle things now, but I was a lot younger and in a bad place in my personal life, so.

          You live and learn!

          1. Thomas Merton

            I don’t recall that Lily Rowan ever had a job. Perhaps Archie neglected to mention it.

            1. Jaid

              She got paid to pose as Roeder’s* mistress, once. I think she got paid in sandwiches and the knowledge she was the only woman to neck with Nero Wolfe, though.

              *”In the Best Families”

        2. Archaeopteryx

          (For your job search, this might be obvious, but steer clear of medical, legal, PR, or any other field that deals with privacy.)

          1. Fortitude Jones

            She can still apply to jobs in her field, and even in the fields you noted, she’ll just have to be very clear in interviews that she understands why she was fired from this job and how she’ll work to ensure nothing like this ever happens again.

        3. Psyche

          I was wondering the same thing. If she tried to downplay the seriousness of the breach in the meeting (like saying it was a victimless crime) then they may have decided that they couldn’t afford to give a second chance.

        4. HA2

          Yeah, that’s a good point. If when when LW talked to their boss, they conveyed the sense that they’re thinking “What’s the big deal, it’s all fine, the coworker who ratted me out sucks, I did it once and I’d do it again but next time I wouldn’t self-report to my coworker” the boss would probably be unwilling to give a second chance, whereas a “oh shit I screwed up, here’s what I’m going to do to make sure this never happens again” could have gotten one.

      3. Ask a Manager Post author

        The OP’s comment here didn’t seem defensive to me at all, and it’s definitely understandable that the letter was written in the heat of the moment.

      4. Ra94

        Oof this is so condescending! LW doesn’t seem defensive at all here, and it’s okay to feel upset while still taking ownership of their actions.

        1. AngryAngryAlice

          Yeah, I agree. That “oh honey” is so unnecessary, and questioning LW’s age is just rude. Age doesn’t matter here. It seems like LW has had time to process and isn’t being combative.

        2. Burn before reading

          It’s the “I’m still pretty upset that I had no second chance, but I suppose I just lost their trust.” that did it for me (especially after all the ways the OP dodged responsibility in the original letter). It made it seem like some part of OP still feels hard done by, rather than really getting it.

          1. Jen S. 2.0

            Agree with this.

            This reminds me of people whose response to hearing “no” is “well, how do we get to a yes?” LW’s response to “this was unacceptable and we cannot have a person on our staff who would do this,” was “Oh, okay, well, next time I have a similar opportunity here I won’t do this.”

            The first person needs to understand that most of the time, you aren’t entitled to negotiate a yes, because the answer is no. That’s why they told you no.

            Likewise, LW needed to understand that you don’t get a next time not to tell anyone confidential information just because you get it now that they meant it when they said the information was confidential. You aren’t entitled to a second chance to screw this up. That’s why they told you the information was confidential. (And that’s before you tack on that LW thought it wasn’t SO bad because he told Journalist Jason, who can keep a secret, as opposed to Reporter Robert, who’s a real sieve.)

            I feel LW’s pain. Getting fired sucks. But, bald facts, they told you not to do the thing you turned around and did. The details don’t really matter.

      5. Bridget

        I’m a long time reader posting my first ever comment to tell you that this comment is incredibly condescending, unnecessary, and unhelpful.
        “Oh honey” UGH you are just the worst.

      6. Ask a Manager Post author

        Removed a long string of comments about the condescension in the “honey” remark. I agree, but it’s been called out and I don’t want to derail on it.

    3. Engineer Girl

      Some offenses are serious enough that a single incident is enough to fire someone. And in this case, I beleive that is correct. You breached confidential information to a journalist. Once it’s out, you have no control over it.

      1. Artemesia

        And you did it over company lines. Even if this person had not turned her in, there was this bomb just sitting there waiting to go off.

        Only hope going forward is own up flatly and without defensiveness —

        1. Michaela Westen

          I don’t think it was over company lines. I understood her to say she texted from her cell phone.

          1. TechWorker

            How does this make it any better or worse..? (Presumably easier to get caught via company comms but doesn’t make the leak any different imo)

            1. Ms. Taylor Sailor

              It doesn’t, but we still shouldn’t state assumptions like facts if they’re not supported by what’s said in the letter and there’s nothing wrong with Michaela pointing it out.

            2. Boomerang Girl

              Perhaps over official lines it could be interpreted by the journalist as on the record comments. But I don’t think this applies in any case since it was on her personal cell

      2. Nic

        Agreed. What I find interesting in the original letter is LW’s insistence that it was a “victimless crime” because nothing bad happened as a result of their leak. The thing is though, you don’t get credit for leaking to a trustworthy person who decides not to hang you out to dry. It’s to LW’s friend’s credit that she didn’t pass on the info to a journalistic colleague who DOES work in that area; it’s not to LW’s credit.

        From a government point of view, the only thing that matters is this: LW was trusted to handle confidential information and keep it inside the agency’s control; instead she passed that information to someone outside that permission (whose job is to disseminate information to the public!) and the agency lost control of the information. End of story.

    4. anon moose, anon mouse

      It’s understandable you’re upset, but I wouldn’t have given you a second chance either. It’s not about breaking a rule, it’s about potentially causing some serious issues by leaking information. Leaking private information in a huge breach, especially if that leak is to a journalist. Doesn’t matter that it’s your friend or that you trust her, it’s still a huge liability. You can never rely on people to be 100% trustworthy, no matter how long you’ve known them.

      1. TootsNYC

        it’s also about a sloppy mindset.

        That may not be the right word–but I’m having trouble finding the right one.

        Lack of rigor. Lack of integrity. Lack of the maturity to keep exciting news to onesself. Lack of impulse control.

        I get that people can learn from their mistakes, but this could be an indicator of a lack of proper framework, and perhaps a boss wouldn’t want to risk it.

        1. Snark

          I mean, yeah, absolutely! One day it’s pre-public FOUO information; what next? You hear something genuinely classified and blab it too because it’s so cool?

      2. Burn before reading

        Especially odd because LW emphasized how trustworthy the friend is for why the friend wouldn’t blab. The amount that LW trusted that friend is a small fraction of how much the government trusted LW. If that puts it in perspective.

        1. Traffic_Spiral

          Yeah, it’s like that line from Horton Hears A Who. “We won’t tell anyone. And if we do, we’ll tell them not to tell anyone.”

    5. Tired DC Resident

      I empathize, having both been in government service where the people can let the boundaries get too loose and, separately, had a career-breaking moment in a toxic workplace. That said, is there any reason you need to answer these questions? Unless this job was the bulk of your experience, I would leave it off your resume. This is a situation that you’re going to have great difficulty explaining away and I might prefer a resume gap to being at such a disadvantage.

      1. learnedthehardway

        This is probably not a feasible strategy, unless the OP was at the job for only a few months. If it was more time than 6 months, that’s a resume gap that a recruiter will ask about, and if the OP lies about the gap, an experienced recruiter will hear it in her voice. She’ll lose credibility in the hiring process, and even if she did slip through and get hired, it’s automatically grounds for a dismissal if the truth ever came to light (even in Canada, where it is harder to let people go from roles than in most of the US states).

        Not to mention – if you tell a lie (even by omission), it’s a lie you have to keep up, indefinitely. Also, the OP won’t be able to ever claim the good work experience she gained from the role.

        The OP would be better off to own up to her mistake and her mistaken thinking in saying/writing/texting the information, say what she learned from it, say how she would plan to deal with a similar situation about exciting confidential information if this ever happens again, and conclude by saying that it was 100% her own fault, that she doesn’t blame the organization, the manager, or her coworker, that she understands that she put her coworker in a horrible position, and that she will NEVER do anything like that EVER again.

        That response will likely impress an employer that she has grown and learned, that she is honest and has some self-awareness, and that she would be worth trusting.

    6. The Man, Becky Lynch

      Yes, this is the valuable lesson about how precarious trust is and how breaking it can have swift painful consequences! I’m glad that you’ve had time to think about it and can own the mistake, that’s the most important part when we mess up. It will also help you to not repeat the mistake in the future.

      You will find another employer who will trust you and will give you that chance to shine for them. This just wasn’t the place for you in the end. Life is full of these weird potholes we find ourselves in at times.

      1. TootsNYC

        trust is SO fragile.

        And it makes sense that it is. There is no other guarantee, and yet people count on it.

        Honor is easily destroyed.

    7. The Cosmic Avenger

      Thank you for following up with Alison and here in the comments, and I’m sorry for what you’re going through.

      But we have embargoes for a reason. What if another journalist saw the email over your friend’s shoulder? Or you mistyped her email by one letter and it went to a colleague who had no reason to respect the embargo? As Alison said, it’s a lot like DUI; even if no one gets hurt, there’s a reason we shouldn’t take those risks.

      Best of luck, and believe us all when we tell you that if you sound at all dismissive of the seriousness of this, prospective employers will (rightfully) worry that you may have a similar lapse in judgement again. As I said below, that may be why you weren’t given a second chance.

      1. Sam Sepiol

        True story: in my last job someone mistyped an email address by a single letter and instead of going to a related government org it went to a journalist. That was a stressful week for all concerned. Fwiw the journalist agreed to destroy the info.
        It happens.

      2. Snark

        OP wasn’t a journalist. She was an employee of the agency, who shared it with the journalist.

          1. boo bot

            Yeah, I think CA meant, the message was only sent to the friend/journalist, but you don’t know where she opened it: if she’s in an open newsroom or something, someone could have seen it on her screen over her shoulder.

            In other words, don’t assume the information only went to the person you sent it to.

      3. Essess

        We just had something similar happen at my office last week. We received a staff email that shared that they were going to release some BIG news about positive new office changes and remodeling and that there was going to be a BIG press conference in 2 days at our office with a lot of high-up political bigwigs and asked everyone to show up for support. I was reading the email at home and after reading the first paragraph I exclaimed out loud (so my spouse could hear)… “Ooooh…. [important person 1] and [important person 2] are coming to my office for a press conference. How exciting!” and I started reading the details from the email out loud to him…. Then the second paragraph said “Do not release this information to anyone outside of the office because the press are not to know about these changes until the morning of the event”. OOPS! This type of thing could have easily happened to your journalism friend in the office…. read something out loud THEN realize that it wasn’t public information.

        Unfortunately, someone did leak the info so all the employees read about the information in a major business news website AND the local newspaper the night before the event despite the intention for the employees to hear the news firsthand at the event before it was released to the public. Instead, the employees found out by reading the news instead, which hurts morale.

    8. Alton Brown's Evil Twin

      You said in your letter that “you were so excited that you wanted to share it in celebration”.

      That’s just not something you can let yourself do. One of the things your field requires is to be able to think and act dispassionately about the information you have custody over. You can’t let yourself act out of emotion. You can -and often should – convey emotion in your official public statements. But your processing of it has to be at one step removed.

      1. fposte

        And it is so hard! I love telling people things! But that’s where having friends in the same workplace comes in–you can expend the impulse by gushing to them and then zip your lips once you leave the building.

        1. Alexander Graham Yell

          One of my friends is working on projects that she cannot list on her resume now that she’s applying to jobs – and I only know that because I’m looking at it and she told me she’s frustrated because she has good work that she can quantify but can’t talk about yet. I have news from my job that I cannot share with some coworkers. I don’t love not being able to tell her things (even though we are each other’s “I promise not to tell anybody (but Friend)” person), the way we share this information is by forwarding press releases once the information is public.

          1. Nic

            My late dad worked for a government defence research agency for most of his career. Sometimes he wasn’t working on confidential stuff, and he could come home and geek out over what he was doing if he wanted. But fairly often it was classified to some degree, and he could only talk about how his project was going but not about what it was. He was very good about keeping track of his boundaries, and we got very used to finding ways of being politely interested in how his work was going for him without putting pressure on him about the details.

            I get so exasperated with TV shows where a SO throws a tantrum about a cop/government worker not being able to tell them stuff, and turns it into a trust issue. The fact is, it’s just not their secret to share.

            1. Anonymeece

              Ugh, yes. One of my favorite shows had a plotline about a sibling not liking someone not breaking doctor confidentiality.

              I see it a lot and I wonder sometimes if it’s not sending the wrong message – that it’s okay to break confidentiality because Friendship/Family Conquers All or something.

              1. Hope

                Yes, or that appalling line by E M Forster, written just before the Second World War: “if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend I hope I should have the guts to betray my country”.

      2. JSPA

        Compare someone in law enforcement happening to find out the (secret) address and phone number of their friend-group’s favorite celebrity, or finding the contact information for the cutie in the convertible, after their roommate catches the license plate number–and sharing. That’s another instant firing, even if the information isn’t ever misused.

        “It makes me so happy that I had to tell someone” is a reason to text them, “OMG, huge news that I can’t tell you, but you will be SOOOOO happy when it’s in the papers in a few days!” Not to actually, y’know, tell them the private information.

      3. Yorick

        And I think you can share your excitement with others, just not the information. “I’m excited about the project I started today” or “Something cool is happening at work” would be fine to say in most situations.

        1. zora

          Yes, this is the way to do it: “Friend, I just got the best news at work, I am so excited! I can’t say any details yet, but needed to share my excitement!!”

    9. Properlike

      I get that you’re trying to take responsibility here, but your “I’m still pretty upset that I had no second chance, I suppose…” suggests to me you still have a long way to go toward recognizing and acknowledging the seriousness of what happened. Second chances aren’t a foregone conclusion in any aspect of life or work; your expectation that there should have been one at all suggests a level of entitlement that needs to be examined.

      1. Ra94

        I think one can be upset at not getting a second chance without feeling necessarily entitled to one.

        1. MarsJenkar

          Especially since the letter seems to have been written almost immediately after the incident, before their feelings had time to settle properly.

        2. Critical

          There’s a difference between wishing you had a second chance (acknowledges they aren’t entitled to one) and being upset you didn’t have one (expected that there would be one).

      2. mamma mia

        This is incredibly condescending. She already acknowledged that it’s 100% her fault. What exactly do you want her to do so you feel satisfied that she’s “recognizing and acknowledging the seriousness of what happened”? There is zero entitlement in saying that she’s upset she didn’t get a second chance.

        LW, people in the comments are also ragging on you for being upset with your coworker but frankly, I would be mad too! She IS a rat! Maybe she had to report it for her job (as some people are speculating) but even still, it’s okay to be annoyed at someone even if it’s not 100% logical. Of course, it’s your fault but it is only human to be annoyed with someone, especially someone who seemed to completely misrepresent what happened.

        I actually think your big mistake was telling your coworker, not telling a trusted friend. (Obviously don’t tell any potential employer that but it’s my personal opinion). It doesn’t matter if your friend is a journalist or not; that’s a total red herring. If you can trust someone, you can trust them, journalist or not.

        1. Eeyore's missing tail

          OP has a right to be annoyed with Coworker, but Coworker was doing her job as well. What if there was another leak and someone found out that OP had told Coworker that she had leaked info previously, but didn’t report it as she was supposed. Then both OP and Coworker could be out of a job.

          As much as I love some of my coworkers, I’m not taking one of the team. If someone told me something that I know I’d have to report, I would report it. No work friendship is worth putting my family’s financial security on the line.

          1. mamma mia

            I agree with you! Nothing I said contradicts this. The coworker could have totally done the right thing and the LW would still have a “right” to be annoyed and hurt by the action. I think it’s very strange that so many commenters are trying to police the LW’s feelings about the coworker.

            1. Psyche

              It is ok to be upset at the coworker but it is important to recognize that she did nothing wrong and is not “a rat”. No one is trying to tell the OP that she needs to be friends with this former coworker. However, placing the blame on the coworker for the entire situation, even just in her own head, is likely to come though when she talks about why she was fired. Her best chance of moving forward and looking as good as possible in an interview is to accept full responsibility and say that she made a mistake and learned from it.

              1. Kathleen_A

                Yes, the “ratted me out” thing is probably not a fair assessment of what actually happened here. I mean, mayyyyyybe – but the OP put the coworker in a really uncomfortable position here, and while I’m sure she didn’t mean to, that’s what she did. So while the OP can feel what the OP feels, the sooner she can get rid of any hostile feelings about the coworker, the better it will be for the OP.

              2. mamma mia

                It’s very possible that LW could think “what happened to me wasn’t totally fair” and still accept full responsibility for it during interviews (which is obviously the smart thing to do). We can think things without saying them out loud. Or at least, I can.

        2. DataGirl

          If someone stole money from their workplace, or illegally harassed a coworker, and their colleague reported it would that person be a rat too? That mindset is just so messed up.
          Wrong is wrong- regardless of scale of the offense, and LW has no one to blame but themselves.

        3. RussianInTexas

          There isn’t really such thing as a “rat” in the workplace. We are not in kindergarten. I am not falling on the sword or putting my job on the line for a coworker.

          1. Kathleen_A

            Oh, it’s possible to be a rat in the workplace. Coworker Dorcus, who used to write down what time the rest of us got in each morning so she could report to our supervisor when the rest of us were “late,” even though he hadn’t asked her to, even though Dorcus had no idea when we’d left the night before, how late we were working that day, or what arrangement we had with our supervisor? That’s pretty ratty behavior. Coworker Jean who would CC her boss and her grandboss when Jean thought she’d caught somebody in an error…but would then cease CCing once she realized that there was in fact no error? Also ratty.

            But I agree that reporting coworkers for actual errors that actually affect the company isn’t “ratting.” And it doesn’t sound to me as though the OP’s coworker was in any way a rat.

        4. Fortitude Jones

          The misrepresentation of what happened is my concern. Like, how did HR and OP’s boss come to the conclusion that this information was spread through Slack (!) and sent to multiple people (!!)? If the coworker said that when that wasn’t communicated to her, that was wrong as hell. That being said, it doesn’t change the fact that OP shouldn’t have done it anyway, so harboring ill will towards this coworker is pointless. Had OP not made the initial mistake and then compounded it by telling the coworker, she’d still be employed.

          1. valentine

            how did HR and OP’s boss come to the conclusion that this information was spread through Slack (!) and sent to multiple people (!!)?
            As easily as one of them knowing OP uses Slack to contact reporters and assuming “I told a journalist friend” or “I told Rain (who they know is a journalist, possibly on that channel)”, anything but “I texted a (journalist) friend” meant OP went the usual Slack route.

          2. Ms. Taylor Sailor

            Yeah, I’m wondering that too. Even if they knew she used Slack to talk to journalists in general, it’s a massive enough leap from “I told a friend via text” that I’m side-eyeing the coworker and HR a little. Don’t get me wrong, she shouldn’t have ever told the friend and I’d understand if they were worried if she told more people, but it’s concerning how they immediately jumped to an even worse conclusion based on nothing but their own assumptions. (Or maybe the coworker did fabricate it, but I feel like that’s a massive assumption itself.)

            1. fhqwhgads

              I’m guessing it was something more like:
              LW used Slack at work (and was not supposed to)
              LW told a human known to be a journalist about The Thing

              Both of those would merit a reprimand, separately or together, but somehow in the telling it got turned into that the latter happened with the former as the method. But it sounds like it doesn’t really matter that HR jumbled the details because neither was a permitted thing to do anyway.

          3. Avasarala

            I think that is also part of the lesson that OP needs to learn. The reason all this info is locked down tightly is so that they can control the message when it goes out. OP thinks she was super discreet in texting her friend. But the other person she spoke to, her coworker, told others, and somehow that message (of who and how she leaked it) got twisted into something much worse. That is exactly what could have happened to her government agency with the info that she leaked in the first place. It goes through a game of telephone and the person at the end of the line gets mad that the first person would say such a thing.

            Sorry, OP, you reap what you sow here.

          4. NoMoreFirstTimeCommenter

            I wonder if OP ever got the chance to correct the misunderstanding. It could be that she did (and I think no employer should ever fire anyone without hearing their version of the story) but the employer still thought it’s bad enough that they need to fire OP. In that case it’s not so relevant that there was a misunderstanding. On the other hand maybe they didn’t listen to her or believe her, and in that case she’s been fired based on a misunderstanding – but that doesn’t help her because what she actually did wasn’t OK either. If she had been doing something perfectly acceptable, seen by someone who misunderstands the situation, and fired because of that, then she would be an innocent victim of a very unfair employer. Not so here because what she did was wrong, just not quite as bad as the misunderstood version.

          5. Tallulah in the Sky

            I’m also miffed by the fact that the coworker kinda blind sided OP. I understand the issue had to be reported, but why this way ? OP came to her, she felt guilty, they apparently talked about this a bit, so why not tell her that this can’t be kept secret and she has to come forward to her boss ? Or if the coworker only decided afterwards this couldn’t be kept in the dark, call her and tell her this.

            Are there any reasons why the coworker couldn’t be upfront with what had to be done ? (I’m not from the US, and not in government) If I were in OP’s place, I would also be upset and feel betrayed. Not because my coworker “ratted me out”, but because I came to her for guidance and instead of being straight with me, she made me think it would be OK only to be questioned hours later.

            This mixed with the coworker’s inflated story, I would be more than annoyed by this coworker too.

            1. Anon for this

              If you find a colleague has breached confidentiality like this, procedures are typically clear that you DO NOT approach them yourself.
              It’s to prevent covering of tracks or retaliation or extinction bursts (“I’m about to be caught for X may as well make the punishment worthwhile and do Y and Z too”, or if they are acting with deliberate malign intent “I’m caught, better leak as much as possible asap”).

            2. Escapee from Corporate Management

              A number of US governmental agencies specifically require that the co-worker NOT tell LW that she will be reporting this to management. This is to prevent LW from trying to destroy any evidence. It also protects the coworker from any immediate threats or retribution by LW. While it clearly appears LW would not have done any of this, the regulations and policies are written to protect the employer and coworker from any potential negative actions.

            3. Autumnheart

              There’s no such thing as “blind-siding” once you’ve committed an infraction and people have to act on it. Once you’ve actually done the thing, it’s out there. It’s no more blind-siding because the coworker reported the issue, than it would be if, say, IT had reported it after monitoring OP’s traffic.

              If OP had never confided in any coworker about what she had done, it would still not be blind-siding to be fired for it. Once you do it, the consequences are the consequences.

            4. Kathleen_A

              There could be Official Reasons, but it could also be something as simple as the coworker, while being made somewhat uncomfortable by this confidence originally, got more and more uncomfortable the more she thought about it. And it could be part of the reason why the story was a bit incoherent, too – she went from sort of uncomfortable to really, really uncomfortable. (Plus, we’re not sure how much of the inflation came from the coworker and how much came from their superiors.)

              Because honestly, the more I thought about this letter as I read it, the more uncomfortable I got, too. For me, it was like “OK, she shared embargoed information – something she shouldn’t have. She shared *exciting* embargoed information. She shared it with a friend. She shared it via text – not voice, but text, which could be seen by someone else. Wait, what – the friend is a *journalist*?”

              Obviously leaking to one journalist that you’re friends with is better than leaking to a whole Slack channel full of them, but partly because it’s possible to do the first innocently, whereas there’s no question of “innocence” with the latter. But even the first is really really, really bad.

          6. Jules the 3rd

            1) Slack vs text: doesn’t matter. The info is out, the tech used to spread it is irrelevant and a distraction from the problem. The actual problem is that OP shared confidential information.
            2) Multiple people is relevant, but it’s easy to misunderstand 3rd hand stories.
            3) The recipient was a journalist – that’s super relevant, even if it’s ‘not in their area’
            4) The coworker was absolutely right to report the breach in confidentiality. The org needed to know in order to assess potential damage and limit future opportunities.
            4a) Coworker did not owe (and usually would be discouraged from giving) notification to the OP.

            I am really jaw-on-the-floor stunned at people taking aim at the coworker. Clearly y’all do not understand handling confidential information.

            OP, please do not take this comment string seriously, because internalizing these statements will severely harm your ability to address your error effectively. Your comment above is much closer to an effective track.

            1. Escapee from Corporate Management

              +1000. LW, you are too focused on using some incorrect details to mitigate the main point: you were a trusted professional who broke one of the most basic policies in the world of communications. It doesn’t matter if it was text or Slack, a single journalist or a whole group.

        5. CmdrShepard4ever

          I want to push back hard on this, the coworker is not a rat. This was not the coworker telling the boss that OP left 5 minutes early, took a personal call during work hours but OP violating a strict rule even if they trusted the friend.

          A while back I had a coworker/friend who created a memo, for our company A, all based on publicly available information, along with suggestions and comments by the coworker. Later the coworker left the company and at company B was asked to write a similar report for the new company. The ex-coworker reached out to me asking if I could send them a copy of the report so they didn’t have to start from scratch and repeat the same work they had already done. This was all public information, but the original report was work product of Company A even if it had originally been created by the coworker. I could have just sent the report and most likely no one would have ever known, but it would have been a violation of company policy. I went to my boss explained the situation and let me boss make the decision if we wanted to share the report.

          The mistake was breaking company policy not that they announced to a coworker they broke company policy. If you embezzle from the company and tell a coworker who then reports it, the mistake is embezzlement, not telling a coworker about it.

          1. ENFP in Texas

            “The mistake was breaking company policy not that they announced to a coworker they broke company policy.”

            +1

            The coworker is not a “rat” or at fault here. And being mad at them is an effort to dodge responsibility and ownership of the actions that WERE at fault.

        6. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

          Oh, dear. I agree that it’s ok to be upset with people, even if it’s irrational or illogical, as long as we ultimately let it go and refrain from mistreating someone because of our illogical emotional response. But I don’t think it helps OP to feed a narrative that prevents OP from owning the situation going forward.

          Here are the things that OP needs to remember: First, the coworker is not a rat, even if she misunderstood the scope of OP’s unauthorized disclosure and mistakenly misrepresented it. Second, OP should never have told their friend, trusted or not—the problem is that OP should not ave disclosed it to anyone. Third, with bright line rules, we cannot adopt situational ethics where it’s ok to disclose to close-trusted-journalist-friend because we trust them. That’s not how embargoes work, and the reasons why we have embargoes are important and valid, even if they may seem like not a big deal in the context of a specific disclosure.

          1. mamma mia

            And I don’t think it helps the OP to say that she doesn’t have the right to have feelings of resentment toward the coworker. I’m not “feeding a narrative”, I’m expressing my opinion.

            From OP’s comment, it seems like she’s already taken responsibility for her actions and knows what she does wrong yet 95% of the comments are lecturing her about how dumb she is (not in those words, but that’s undeniably the gist), which is completely unhelpful and honestly, incredibly sanctimonious and obnoxious.

            And you’re being very generous toward the coworker in saying she “misunderstood” and “mistakenly misrepresented” it. How on earth could you know this was a misunderstanding? Whose to say OP isn’t right that the coworker had it out for her?

            1. Fiberpunk

              The co-worker absolutely had a responsibility to bring this information forward. While I don’t think the LW should be endlessly flagellating herself, this was her fault, not the co-worker. She broke a very real and important rule. As a government employee she would have been trained on that rule and should have fully understood the ramifications of breaking it.

              The fact that her co-worker actually followed the rules of her employer does NOT make her a rat. It makes her someone with morals and a respect for her employer.

            2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

              I agree with you that it’s ok for OP to feel resentful (at least in the short-run)! The part I think is dangerous is calling the coworker a rat and saying that disclosing to friend was not a mistake. But reasonable minds can certainly differ.

              We don’t know if the coworker intentionally or mistakenly misrepresented the scope of OP’s disclosure. All we know is that OP made a disclosure, and the coworker is aware the disclosure happened via Slack.

              But OP gets to choose what they think the coworker’s motivations may have been. I just think it serves OP to choose a more benign explanation because it will help OP deal with the fall out of the situation going forward. Assuming the coworker had evil intentions pulls OP’s focus away from the real problem (disclosing an embargoed piece of information to someone not authorized to know that information at that time) and fixates it on the coworker. OP can come up with steps to fix the real problem in their future jobs, but they can’t really fix an evil coworker.

            3. Lepidoptera

              Even if the coworker had malicious intentions, they were following privacy laws and regulations. As a government employee they are obligated to report a breach of information regardless of whether they like the employee they are reporting or hate their guts. Further, the laws/regluations don’t actually make allowances for how many people are told the confidential information, or how much you, the employee, trusts the person they told. A person who is aware of a breach is required to report it.
              It’s unfortunate that LW lost her job over it but the coworker isn’t to blame for LWs decision to disclose information they weren’t supposed to.

        7. Countess Boochie Flagrante

          “I actually think your big mistake was telling your coworker, not telling a trusted friend.”

          No, no, no, no, no. Telling the trusted friend was the fireable offense. That was the profound breach of the OP’s duty.

          The OP was not entitled to be making calls on who outside the org could be trusted with this information. Period. End of story. It doesn’t matter if they’d trust this person with their firstborn child. It’s not their call.

          1. mamma mia

            Obviously telling the friend was the fireable offense here, I’m not arguing that. But according to the LW, the trusted friend would not have blabbed, so if the LW didn’t tell the coworker, the company would have never known and everything would be hunky dory.

            1. Big Bank

              The company would have thought everything was hunky dory, but they would have employee on staff who did not understand confidentially requirements. It would have been a ticking timebomb for them, and the next time it could have leaked beyond the friend.

            2. Fiberpunk

              She had no idea whether the friend would blab or not. The LW blabbed, why would her friend have more self-control? The LW actually had a responsibility to keep the info confidential, and the friend doesn’t.

            3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

              Oh, that’s a risky tack for OP to take if they want to stay in their field. It’s very dangerous to OP’s professional reputation to assume OP can trust anyone who is unauthorized, including a good friend, with embargoed information. Those kinds of disclosures often rise to the level of immediate termination, which is what happened, here. Regardless of what the coworker did, ideally we want to nudge OP toward exercising greater impulse control and discretion if OP wants to have a successful career in the same sector/field.

            4. NothingIsLittle

              No, no, no, no, no. Good Lord, no. What happens when someone sees that message over her shoulder? Or when she builds a pattern of sharing “harmless” information until suddenly it isn’t harmless? The mistake may not have been trusting the friend with that information, but it was definitely telling her. Trying to tell the OP otherwise is to minimize the impact of a serious offense. Maybe you haven’t worked with, or known anyone who’s worked with, sunshine law and right-to-know, but this is incredibly serious for anyone who has.

              OP has been mature about admitting fault, let’s not undermine that by implying it was no big deal.

        8. Traffic_Spiral

          Well… 1.) it’s not condescending to point out that what LW did was incredibly foolish. C’mon, it was. Well meaning (or at least not meaning harm) maybe, but very foolish.

          2.) Oh, so LW can’t keep a secret from her reporter friend or her coworker, but we’re ragging on the coworker for not keeping LW’s secret? Really? That’s the person we’re gonna call the blabbermouth in this situation? Really? the coworker? That’s the one that needs to learn to keep things to herself?

          Really?

    10. Lola

      I used to work at a government agency and it was super hard to get fired so I can understand your consternation. But I had a boss who always used to try to cover his ass 110%. I imagine there are a lot like that in government but he learned from working with a non apologetic, scandal plagued politician that consequences of what seems little to you may not be to the tabloids. If you stay in comms, good to always remember the optics.

    11. Close Bracket

      How did you talk to your boss about the “slack channel full of journalists?” Were you able to correct the factual mistake in context, and what phrasing did you use?

      I don’t think your coworker ratted you out. I don’t know the full text of the conversation and I don’t want to, but she was probably in a position where she had to tell someone. It would have been better if she had told you first that she was going to tell someone, but whether she warns you first has no bearing on whether she was obligated to disclose.

      1. Rat Racer

        Yeah, wouldn’t it be possible to prove (or rather disprove) that you leaked to a slack channel full of journalists? I’m still learning Slack, so maybe being naive…

          1. valentine

            It would have been better if she had told you first that she was going to tell someone
            The obligation to report a security breach doesn’t include warning the violator. If OP had confessed to their manager, it would make sense for the manager to say, “I have to report this to such-and-such,” but the coworker was right not to warn OP.

              1. Big Bank

                In most reporting policies i am aware of it would be considered “tipping off” and get the person reporting in trouble.

          2. EggEgg

            I don’t think it matters now, but the Slack functionality for deleting messages from channels is pretty thorough. We’re considering opening ours up to partner agencies, and I spent a good two hours cleaning up the old messages in the general chat.

        1. Green great dragon

          I think the fact finding phone call cleared that up, otherwise OP would have said so? She was fired for the leak to the single friend, the slack channel thing was a brief misunderstanding but she’s annoyed it ever happened.

    12. animaniactoo

      LW, I work under some pretty hefty NDAs (currently, I’m working on a project where the security protocols themselves are considered to be non-shareable with anyone who doesn’t have a business need for them and hasn’t also signed an NDA. I think that’s a ridiculous overreach but whatever). So, that’s to say that I *completely* get the idea that at some point, you get to a point where you just really really need to share. But here’s the thing – you still have to have a ton of discretion about how you share and where. Which means have to vet things like your friend is a journalist, but doesn’t cover your area? Even if you trust her 100%, she is still too high risk. Because she knows other journalists who do cover your area and one of them just might need a serious break right when she knows this information. So no matter what, she can’t be the person that you reach out to in any kind of way to share that kind of information.

      Separately, when you share, you have to still be oblique enough to not get yourself in trouble. e.g. I recently saw a movie in pre-screening that’s being pushed to be a blockbuster. So, I can talk about it, I can say “Omg, there was one scene that I was just like “SuperCheese!” and rolling my eyes”. But I can’t talk about the specifics of that scene.

      If I happened to expose that to my BIL who runs the comic book store and has a bunch of media and arts and entertainment contacts? AND I told somebody within the company about that? You can bet I’d be gone with no second chance despite my almost-20-years and ton of good work. My company is not going to jeopardize a $500M/yr contract over my mouth.

      Mostly, I’m saying this to you so that you understand that you should never have trusted that co-worker to keep that kind of information to herself, no matter how much of a mentor she’d been to you – I do think that she should have told you that this was serious enough that she couldn’t not report it. But also to say that when you work with confidential info, the impulse to share is a common one, and managing it is something you need to be on top of from every angle. It was a big enough thing that they gave you a 1st chance. The 2nd chance is just too much risk as far as they’re concerned.

      1. Anon for this

        This is so true. People tend to share with trusted confidants/partners/etc. They know it happens. What probably really hurt the OP’s case was that the friend is a journalist. It may be unfair to assume a journalist is cutthroat and would kill for a lead, but it’s also naïve to assume they wouldn’t let anything slip to the exact wrong person. If you had to process the cool news, it may have been better to process with the mentor instead.

        1. valentine

          you get to a point where you just really really need to share.
          No. If you can’t maintain confidentiality, you can work elsewhere.

          1. animaniactoo

            My point is that you learn how to share AND maintain confidentiality. It’s also true that people do break confidentiality for a variety of reasons, but people who are really really REALLY aware that they are breaking confidentiality and how big the consequences of it are, are also on top of not leaving a footprint that can be traced back to them. So, either way – my point remains. Humans, in general, are not geared towards confidentiality and secrecy long-term. Those who work in circumstances that require them learn how to filter through multiple layers of risk when they get to a point where they come up against that need to share. In an ideal world, it doesn’t happen at all. In the real world, it happens often enough that I think it’s more realistic to talk about the practical ways to do it that keep you on the safe side of the boundaries.

            1. MayLou

              I agree that you can learn how to share without breaching confidentiality. I work for a charity that offers a telephone service nationwide, and I take a lot of calls from people in quite distressing situations. Sometimes I need to talk about what I’ve heard or am excited about something I did which made a significant improvement to someone’s life, but I have to talk about that in a way that doesn’t risk identifying the person at all. Occasionally our clients have been in the media and have shared part of their story. In those cases I have to be even more careful, because minor details might get linked to the news story and suddenly it’s not anonymous any more. So for instance when I got an emergency grant from a water supplier for a woman with no income, there wasn’t any risk that telling my wife would identify the woman. But when I wrote letters to the llama farmers whose llamas had bitten a client whose story about her life-threatening goat allergy was featured in the papers (obviously this is not what actually happened), I had to be sure I didn’t say anything about the llama farmer letters that could link to the goat story.

              Sorry, I’m tired and I think that metaphor got away from me

              Equally, when we had a client who does the same job role as someone I know, I had to completely embargo that piece of information in my head, because I know that it’s a small field and my friend might recognise the detail I thought was vague enough to be anonymous.

              It’s hard though, and it’s a skill that’s learnt over time. I’ve been actively observing how my more senior colleagues handle that sort of thing (we need written permission to share information about clients with people connected to their situation, and knowing how to answer questions from people who aren’t authorised to be told something but who are definitely going to ask is covered in training).

          2. ArtsNerd

            It’s so very context and field dependent. I work in a field (not government) where some nonpublic is newsworthy… but only in the arts and style sections.

            I don’t / can’t post it publicly, but I can share all kinds of stuff with people close to me — even friends in journalism, though I always specify ‘off the record’ before i dish — and my employer doesn’t care because the concerns about confidentiality aren’t strict NDA / security issues.

            At the risk exposing my identity to a reader who knows me offline, two big things I’ve ‘leaked’ without running afoul of any organizational trust are: “Such and such church is giving away their building and my nonprofit is under consideration to be the recipient” and “We’re going to be filing a lawsuit against X because of Y.”

            1. ArtsNerd

              To clarify, I’m not trying to minimize the gravity of OP’s mistake or the seriousness of strict confidentiality in other contexts. My (unclear) point is that there are some options for OP that extend beyond “you can never share anything before it’s public with anyone ever” and “completely change career tracks.”

              There ARE circumstances in which “keep this confidential” means “you can tell very close, trusted people about it” as they did in the letter.

              1. NoMoreFirstTimeCommenter

                Maybe that’s the case in your field, but usually confidential doesn’t mean that. More commonly it means that you either can’t share anything, or you can’t share parts that someone could connect to a particular client. Personal info is never OK to share with anyone, or things that could lead to recognizing a person if someone happens to know that person (and you never know who knows who). Talking about your work on a more general level is usually allowed unless your employer or their client is unusually paranoid.

              2. Introverted Not Shy

                Your understanding of confidential is not mine. If there were excetions, that would be explicitly stated. Why is it so hard for people to just keep their (figurative) mouth shut?

              3. NothingIsLittle

                Just wanted to point out that OP said they worked in the government, so while yours might be the public understanding of confidential, it wouldn’t apply to anything their job considered confidential. In government, “keep this confidential” almost always means “never share ever on pain of serious legal sanctions.”

                It’s also important to note that OP called it “non-public” and Alison was the person who called it confidential. That functions differently from confidential information in government sectors and sounds closer to your examples in your original comments, but it would still be a really bad idea to share that information.

          3. Snarkaeologist

            Not all non-public information is expected to be treated like a state secret, assuming you’re not dealing with actual classified information or NDA’s. There are different levels of confidentiality for different circumstances. Some things a company wouldn’t want you to tell a competitor, but wouldn’t mind if you told your spouse. Some projects you could talk about with a trusted friend as long as you didn’t get specific, but shouldn’t announce on twitter. And then there are things you cannot even hint at under any circumstances.

            The problem here is that the OP misjudged the level of confidentially expected in the situation, and maybe by their office/profession in general.

        2. That Girl From Quinn's House

          “It may be unfair to assume a journalist is cutthroat and would kill for a lead”

          I minored in journalism and this attitude is why I never worked in the industry. “If it bleeds, it leads, and if it’s not bleeding, you might as well kick it a few times to see if it’ll start bleeding…” Nope. Not me.

        3. I Write the Things

          No, not if it’s classified or embargoed. I’ve only had a very general idea of what my husband does since 2002, because he can’t tell me. I’m not cleared for it. Conversely, I can’t tell him about certain things from my work, though at least he knows what I do. Confidentiality is a big deal for a lot of reasons, and people in those types tend to respect that.

          1. Miss Pantalones en Fuego

            This is one reason why I could only ever give a vague explanation of what my dad did. He had a fairly high security clearance and was stationed at NORAD for a time. I’m sure he knew about things that he would have liked to talk about, and my dad can talk about anything to anyone at great length. But he either kept it so vague as to be useless or said nothing at all. Or, heck, for all I know he didn’t actually work on anything that interesting.

        4. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

          I think this really depends. Animaniactoo is right that folks who have to manage confidential information begin to cultivate the skill of sharing without making an unauthorized disclosure. But folks with strong confidentiality duties often don’t disclose the confidential parts of the information to their trusted confidants or partners.

    13. MuseumChick

      Hi LW, I agree with Alison the best way to approach with is by taking full ownership of what happened. Basically, “I was fired for X mistake. It was a really bad decision on my part and I have learned a lot from the experience.” It’s sounds like you are pretty young and people tend to be a slightly more forgiving when you are young a make a mistake like this as long as you take ownership of it.

    14. Peridot

      It’s completely understandable that you were upset about it when you wrote in (and upset about it now). We all make stupid mistakes. Sometimes we’re lucky and there aren’t any repercussions. Sometimes, like you said, you don’t get a second chance.

    15. Phoenix Programmer

      Best of luck in your next job! You will bounce back!

      My only other advice is to consider if there were any conversations on slack that were inappropriate. As others mentioned, the breach is possibly a fire on first offense potential, but since they fired you after investigating slack that makes me wonder if you had too casual and friendly of chats with the journalists whose job it was for you to talk with. Maybe you let them know more then they should even without meaning too? Journalists are very charasmatic and will fish for info – it’s their job.

      An example:
      How’s work?
      Man I am swamped with the publicly known project I am barely treading water.
      Oh no! Keep your chin up are you not getting any extra help?
      No! The z department is not allocating the staff they promised. Dan is such a pain!

      The above divulged details to a journalist about allocation and resources they should not know about.

      Not saying you did this! You just seem to still want an answer and I picked up on this as a possible avenue to reflect on in your letter.

    16. I'd Rather Not Say

      I agree with Alison’s response. I wonder LW, would your interactions with the higher ups have been different if your co-worker/mentor had given you the head’s up that she was going to have to report this?

    17. Observer

      You’re heading in the right direction, and you’ve also gotten some really good advice.

      Please banish the phrase “ratted out” from your vocabulary and thinking. Your coworker was probably legally obligated to report this, and even is she wasn’t this is the type of breach that reasonable people WILL report. This is NOT a “myob” type situation at all.

      This is important both in terms of owning your mistake and not blaming the person who reported it. But, it’s important for an employer to know that you understand the need for reporting and would report things yourself if needed. Now, hopefully that would never happen, but if you consider reporting serious breaches to be “ratting out”, “narcing” or even “tattling”, your (potential) employers are going to know that you can’t be relied on to report when it’s necessary.

      Also, it’s not clear from your response – Do you understand how serious what you did was? “broke a rule” can be trivial, even if it’s technically a firing offense. So, are you clear about the severity of your action and the significance of this rule? If not, that would be an additional reason for your bosses to take the maximum option to respond.

    18. smoke tree

      It’s good to hear from you! For what it’s worth, one thing I noticed from your letter is language that sounds very social, discussing your trust in your friend, being ratted out by your mentor, not being given a second chance, and so on. It may help in your next position to transpose your thinking around these things a bit. In a professional context, close friendships and personal trust aren’t always as ironclad as they can be in personal relationships, particularly when it comes to security and confidentiality. It’s understandable that you feel betrayed by your coworker, but she probably felt obligated to say something. It’s also totally understandable that you’re disappointed about losing your job, but they might have just considered that kind of confidentiality breach too much of a risk going forward. It still sucks, but it’s not really personal per se, and perhaps it will help a little bit to think of it that way.

      1. Alanna of Trebond

        I’ve had to fire someone in a one-strike situation for what I genuinely believe was an honest mistake because it was too big a risk to keep that person on staff going forward. (I’m a journalist, there are only a few specific cardinal sins in our industry, so let’s euphemistically call this a case of inadequate attribution.) This was a person whose reviews had been glowing up until that moment and I am sure they are still upset that this came out of the blue. But at the end of the day, the reputational risk to my company, versus the relatively low-level risk of having to replace someone entry-level, was just too great to bear.

        It was super not personal, it was just a situation were second chances were not given, period.

        1. WomanFromItaly

          I have also had to recommend the firing of a personal friend. Pro tip: when working in mental health residential treatment, do not have clients write your staff logs. That was not an enjoyable situation at all.

          Sidebar: I love your username,

    19. Works in IT

      They may very well have not had the option to give you a second chance, whether you wanted to or not. If the policy says people who tell information to non authorized individuals must be fired… they could have been fired for not firing you. It might not seem to be that big a deal to you, but depending on what the information you shared was… it’s really easy to use seemingly trivial information for profit. If you’re excited about a new, increased source of funding, that shows your agency has money to spend. If you’re excited that your agency is moving into a new building… or buying land… someone could buy up the new building or land ahead of time for profit. Or the surrounding land if it’s something that will raise property values. It’s ridiculous how much a speculator can get from very little information, and this is why keeping anything secret until it is announced is important.

    20. Anonymous Poster

      It sucks this happened, and I’m sorry that this was the way it all went down.

      There are offenses, especially regarding releasing items, that would be serious enough to warrant immediate dismissal. It can, should, and does happen, depending on the details of what all happened. I have absolutely no clue in your situation, but there are times when it really can be appropriate to let someone go without any second chances. I’m sorry it happened to you, though, and it definitely stinks.

      Moving forward, the best way to handle it is be honest. I wouldn’t lead with it, but I wouldn’t hide it either if it ever comes up, and folks will likely ask about why you’ve left past jobs. Alison’s words are great to have prepared, and be super clear that you understand it was a problem, it was bad, and you take it very seriously.

      You can bounce back! I hope you find something good soon and can put this behind you.

    21. Me

      Unfortunately there are certain positions where you don’t get a second chance when the error knowingly breaking a rule. In jobs that require non-disclosure, active disclosure is a very big deal. Things can be the way they are for understandable reasons and you can still feel like crap about it. You are allowed to feel your feels about things, so long as you understand the reality. And it seems like you do. It’s no fun to be fired.

      In this case you will get a second chance – it will just be with another employer. Best of luck with your search.

    22. Lady Ariel Ponyweather

      Good luck with your job search! It sounds like you’re taking responsiblity for your actions and are doing your best to move on. You’ve got some great feedback from Alison and I hope it all works out for you. Remember to be kind to yourself: you’re human, you made a mistake and, as you said, you’ve learned from it. There are people who would refuse to acknowledge their error and go about their lives being bitter and blaming others. That doesn’t seem to be you, which is a great sign.

      This will sound very, VERY strange, but if you have the urge to share things you’re not supposed to, there’s a trick you can try: telling a fictional character in an imaginary conversation. It’s helped me when a friend has told me something in confidence but I really need to talk about it for whatever reason. I ‘tell’ the character and imagine their response, and the urge to share subsides. Like I said, very strange but it’s worked for me.

      Please keep us updated and let us know how things work out for you. Good luck!

      1. Jackalope

        So in regards to the “tell an imaginary friend” idea, I have also: openly disclosed highly confidential information to a) my cats and b) Jesus. All three have kept their mouths shut, at least to the best of my knowledge, and I can talk it over without worrying that I will cause a problem with my disclosing. I remember the first time (as a teen) that I had something from a volunteer position that I had to keep my mouth shut on. I went to a church where I attended youth group, sat outside, and repeated my news over and over to Jesus for about three hours before I felt certain I could keep it from anyone else (note that no one else was anywhere nearby). And I’m happy to report that I have never shared that news (still remember it bcs this was so hard that first time!). If something like this would help, maybe try it.

        1. Jackalope

          I will add that I consider neither my cats nor Jesus to be imaginary; the connection was someone you wouldn’t get in trouble for sharing with….

    23. Bend & Snap

      I’m in public relations/global communications. This isn’t “breaking a rule;” it’s potentially putting your organization in jeopardy.

      If you can’t keep a secret, this is not a field you should be in. I’ve been under NDA for things I can’t even disclose to my boss, much less a friend outside the organization.

      Discretion and brand protection are as critical to this role as promotion and talking to the media.

      Your failure to understand the gravity of your actions is alarming.

    24. Lily B

      Sorry this happened, OP! As someone who works in PR/comms, my recommendation is to tell future employers the truth and emphasize what you’ve learned:
      “I thoughtlessly mentioned an embargoed announcement to a longtime friend in journalism before it was public. While it didn’t result in any press, it was obviously a major lapse in judgment and I understand why it resulted in my termination. Although it was mortifying at the time, this has taught me a hard but valuable lesson about handling sensitive information setting boundaries in my relationships with reporters. Since this incident, I’ve taken steps like [saving journalist friends as contacts in a different phone, deleting my Slack channel, etc. whatever you think is appropriate] to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

    25. wittyrepartee

      I screwed up in grad school and had to go in front of an IRB board for being sent information that I hadn’t gotten full clearance for. My adviser listened to what was going on and was like “we have to tell”. So- bad judgement buddies? I’m thankful I did this in grad school rather than on the job.

    26. ThursdaysGeek

      I worked for a federal government contractor and we were awaiting news of whether we were getting a contract renewal. A very long-term employee who did excellent work, as a joke, made up a fake news release that indicated we got the contract. He shared it with one person, telling them it was a joke. They thought it was funny and shared it with a couple more.

      In a couple of hours, the news agencies were calling the federal government, to verify the news.

      I am very sure they didn’t want to fire him. He was valuable. But there was no way we were actually going to get the contract now if they didn’t.

      Sometimes their hands are tied too. Firing you was probably not what they wanted to do, and I’m sorry.

    27. Quandong

      LW I encourage you to ask yourself why you wrote this:

      I suppose I just lost their trust

      Your actions showed you were not trustworthy with confidential information. You did a thing that caused this outcome. Please keep reflecting on this.

      1. Quandong

        I realize you want to minimize your mistake!

        But your wording indicates that you don’t yet have insight into just how much you breached the trust of your company. And this will definitely have an effect on how you come across to people interviewing you in future.

    28. Girl Alex PR

      I’m also a public affairs officer for a government agency- one that almost exclusively deals with highly classified information. I’m also a supervisor. I would go through the channels to fire someone immediately over this, because it would make me lose all trust in them and if I can no longer be confident in their abilities to do their job effectively without spillage, they’re of no use to my team. I am assuming you had a clearance of at least Secret. You knew better.

      That being said, I think you can overcome this. Good luck!

  3. The Cosmic Avenger

    My guess is that the LW was fired for a first offense because they refused to take responsibility for their breach. If I had an employee that did this, I’d expect them to be mortified and I would expect to hear how seriously they were going to take embargoes from here on out, and the LW’s letter and response are almost the exact opposite. The embargoes I deal with are not earth-shaking (or even quivering), but the people involved are dead serious about not publicizing the information before a specific time.

    1. Engineer Girl

      Hard disagree.
      Some offenses are so serious that you immediately get fired. One of my coworkers saw another coworker sexually harassing a woman. It was bad. First coworker punched second coworker. First coworker was fired in spite of the fact that he was a brilliant and (normally) even tempered guy with years of work at the corporation. Second coworker only was put on an improvement plan.
      The OP actually committed a fairly serious breach. You don’t get a warning for things like that.

      1. SusanIvanova

        Another engineer girl here, at a place where people have been fired for leaks and it hits the news when it happens: there’s a warning during New Hire Orientation, and between that and our reputation, you’re expected to know it.

      2. LJay

        This.

        And especially, sharing information that you’re not supposed to tends to be the type of thing that will get you fired immediately without another chance.

        Share information about a Harry Potter book before it being officially released? Fired.
        Share information about the new roller coaster being put in at a theme park? Fired.
        Share information about a company merging before it’s publicly announced? Fired.

        Companies (and governments) want to carefully manage the messaging and strategy around information that is released in order to bring the biggest buzz and the best information to the public. If someone preempts that, they’re not happy about it generally. And even worse when it can have legal implications like for insider trading or government secrecy.

      3. Impy

        I’m sorry, what? Your second co-worker who sexually harassed a woman was put on a PIP? Does your company know she could have called the police?

        1. Jules the 3rd

          I wish I lived in your country. In the US, sexual harassment won’t merit a police response. It has to be violent sexual assault before they’ll even consider responding.

          I agree that the company’s response was wrong – the sexual harasser should have been fired – but in the US, authority doesn’t care. They care a little more in the last 2 years, but not much.

          1. Impy

            To be fair Jules, I was making the assumption that it had been, in effect, sexual assault, which may not have been the case. I was kinda thinking that an otherwise level headed and calm employee wouldn’t punch a colleague unless the other guy had been doing something truly egregious.

    2. remizidae

      Agreed. I’d like to know what LW said at the two meetings they gave her before firing her. I think that WAS her second chance, and I think something she said at the meetings (perhaps about how the problem is the coworker for being a “rat”) blew that second chance.

      1. EddieSherbert

        This was also my thought. Maybe a different (and appropriately mortified) approach from the OP in those meetings would of had a different result… or maybe not!… but the approach in the letter definitely would have convinced me to let her go if I was on the fence.

  4. ENFP in Texas

    Don’t blame the co-worker for “ratting you out”. Blame yourself for breaking the rules. Accept the responsibility for your actions and it will make life a lot easier going forward.

    And depending on the circumstances, if the co-worker knew you broke the rules and didn’t report it, then THEY could be in trouble also.

    1. A Person

      Agree with this. Where I work, there are policies that state an employee that finds out about certain kinds of misconduct is mandated to report it or face consequences if it comes out that they knew and didn’t report it. Don’t blame your colleague – she may have been obligated to report this.

      1. Works in IT

        Yes. Mandatory reporting is a thing that exists.

        I come across soooo much incidental information about people I know in the course of this job. I’m not going to tell them about it, unless it actually falls out that I end up being the person who is put in charge of telling them their thing is done. So far that has not happened. I’m also not going to tell anyone else!

        It sounds like OP is young enough that they haven’t learned that there are some jobs where gossiping about your workplace with your friends is okay, and some jobs where that absolutely cannot fly. I’m not sure whether this is something they can move on from or not, but they absolutely need to get themselves out of the mindset that their coworker ratted on them, because thinking that reporting things like that is tattling and childish is how corruption grows.

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch

      Even when it doesn’t require them to report it, it still could have consequences they don’t want to be a part of! Including their reputation being damaged. “She knew about a leak and didn’t say anything, who knows what else she is helping to hide…”

      My boss, in a well meaning way and to correct some weird barriers previously put in place by the person before him, told me openly that “if Big Boss [aka the owner] asks you anything, just answer him, it’s all good, you don’t need to filter things through me or anything.”

      And I just tilted my head and laughed at him saying “Even if you told me differently, I would tell him whatever he wants to know.” Which given our relationship he just giggled and responded with “of course and that’s the way it should be.”

      I wouldn’t be obligated by anything other than displaced loyalty if I wanted to try to be squirrelly of course but I respect myself way too much and have my own standards to just keep quiet about things.

    3. cmcinnyc

      So this. Because a) LW broke confidentiality. Then b) she felt so guilty she admitted it to a coworker. If I was that coworker, I’d have to think she’d continue to go around blabbing about this, and there is No Way I could just sit on it until *I* got called on the carpet. LW is undisciplined and has a big mouth. It’s going to bite someone–and this time the person it bit was herself, which gives her a good opportunity to work on discipline and discretion. I’d say forgive that coworker NOW–you put her in a terrible position by being a big blabbering blabbermouth. There’s truly no compelling reason to break confidentiality here. It’s was exciting and you couldn’t wait?! There’s no mitigating circumstance here.

  5. Peridot

    I think interviewers will pick up on the equivocation in your language here. You “technically” did something, your friend “happened” to be a journalist, “victimless” mistake, and so on. You want to minimize this, and that’s natural. And I’m not saying it was fair or unfair or whether your previous employer made the right call. But if you act that way about a mistake at a previous job, I think people might worry about the same behavior in the future.

    1. Rusty Shackelford

      Yes, this. Your tone is very this wasn’t a big deal and I shouldn’t have been fired for it, when it really should be I made a foolish mistake which I deeply regret and I’ve definitely learned my lesson.

      1. Poppy

        it really should be I made a foolish mistake

        It’s more a case of “I broke the rules bigtime and expected someone else to cover up for me.”

    2. PollyQ

      Good points, and good advice for anyone who’s apologizing for anything. Taking full responsibility isn’t just the better moral choice, it’s the more effective one.

      1. KHB

        Yes. I’ve been thinking a lot about apologies in general lately, and one of the most thought-provoking pieces of advice I’ve seen is to always err on the side of assuming that whatever you did was a bigger deal than you think. From the other person’s perspective, it’s always easier to say “Oh, don’t worry, it’s not that bad” than to get a half-hearted minimizing apology for something you’re really stinging from.

        1. PollyQ

          There’s a great blog called SorryWatch (.com) that analyzes & critiques apologies made by public figures. Fascinating (and fun!) reading.

          1. TootsNYC

            oooh, off to look!

            (I thought Al Franken’s apology to the fellow entertainer was pretty good, actually. I’m going to go see how they reviewed it.)

    3. Another government worker

      I came here to say this. This incident was a huge violation of trust. If OP doesn’t recognize and own up to that, that’s going to be a bigger red flag for potential employers than if OP said, “I made a mistake, learned from it, and it won’t happen again.”

    4. Wednesday of this week

      +1 on the choice of language and framing. Take full responsibility.

      This issue recently came up for me as an interviewer. We were interviewing someone who had broken the #1 cardinal ethical rule in our industry (a branch of health care). I’m not going to spell out what it was, but it was completely unethical and immoral, and she’s lucky her license wasn’t permanently revoked for it. It was absolutely drilled into all of our heads during grad school and training that you can never, ever do this. Like, it’s so obviously wrong that people don’t even talk about it.

      When it came up during her interview, the candidate said it was “complex” and that she’d learned from it. She showed no contrition or reflection. For me, that was it. I don’t know if she’ll do it again, but I’m certainly not going to take the risk on someone who doesn’t even seem to be sorry.

      1. Anax

        I suspect you’re referring to a case where a patient was put in danger, but where no obvious harm occurred – like a psychiatrist consensually sleeping with their patient, which an unscrupulous psychiatrist might see as a “victimless crime”, but which is incredibly risky behavior.

        I think in both cases, part of the concern is this… retroactive removal of risk.

        “Things worked out this time, so I was right! There wasn’t any risk, my judgment was good!”

        It’s like winning the jackpot in a slot machine – then declaring that you KNEW you were going to win, so it wasn’t really gambling at all. And maybe you should go next week, because the slots love you and you always win.

        They weren’t right. They were lucky.

      2. Autumnheart

        She cut a guy’s LVAD wires so that he’d be bumped up to the top of the heart transplant donor list?

    5. Jesse

      We need to be careful about using terms like “victimless” mistake. Disclosing confidential information has, at best, resulted in nothing, and at worse, resulted in injury/death, or even political systems toppling.

  6. Uncle John's Band

    I’m a publicist. And honestly, you broke an embargo for your own company. I would have serious questions about your judgment if I found out you told any reporter about something that was confidential. I’m sorry, but I think you were fired with pretty good cause and it would be important to own that or you won’t be able to spin the story for future employers. I would argue if you acknowledge your error in judgment, it would work more to your benefit, then classifying it as a one-off mistake and overreaction by your company.

    1. Alanna of Trebond

      I’m a journalist and I’d concur — and depending on how sensitive/important the information was, and what a big deal it was when it did break, you might have put your friend in a tough spot at her job by giving her a news tip she couldn’t pursue or share with her colleagues. All journalists are human and many of us have spouses/friends who do things that are news, and this is a situation where good boundaries can protect everyone. (For example, my BFF works at the Pentagon. I would not immediately snap into “how can I report this?!” mode if she told me a general were harassing her, unless making this public is something she’d want. But she also would not tell me if she spent a day at work planning for a war!)

      You made a mistake. I empathize — I LOVE being a person who is in the know and I can be impulsive. I gossip too much, including at work. None of this makes you a bad person, untrustworthy, or unemployable. But you should try to understand how this happened (why that friend? what did you want to get out of sharing with her? how else could you have met that need?) so that you’re ready the next time it happens at your next job.

      1. Alphabet Pony

        Absolutely this. When I was a journalist I did not appreciate people giving me tips I couldn’t use!

    2. DJ

      Something LW has not seemed to understand: the fact that you worked for a governmental agency is not the issue, the fact that you leaked info early is. The difference is if the potential for and type of jail time you risked.

      If you had the same role in a public company, you could have have been fired because of regulations preventing insider trading. Even a private company would consider this a breach of trust, and could could consider firing.

  7. The Man, Becky Lynch

    You put your coworker in an awful spot by telling her this information. If she hadn’t told the superiors, she could have been on the hook as well if it came out that you told a journalist confidential information and then told her about it. So please think about that aspect when you’re thinking about how she “ratted you out”. She has to protect her job and reputation as well in the end, she shouldn’t have to risk her own job stability due to your choices!

    1. Countess Boochie Flagrante

      Yeah, this is a big part of it. OP, I can understand why you would want to talk to someone who was mentoring you about something like this, but when you tell someone you work with that you committed a pretty serious breach of duty — and sharing nonpublic information is pretty much always a serious breach!! — quite a lot of people are going to feel as though you’re making them an accomplice in your bad behavior.

    2. BottleBlonde

      +100. If I were in the coworker’s position, I would need to do the same thing. I would feel terrible about it, definitely, and probably think about it for a while after, but ultimately, I’d need to prioritize my family and act in a way that would protect my job/salary/health insurance so I could continue to provide for my them. Just a bad situation.

    3. Alanna of Trebond

      It wasn’t particularly kind to her friend, either. Maybe the information was a big deal to the agency but not externally (say getting a big grant funded), but if it was something that was legitimately important news, her friend would have been at least a little torn between loyalty to her friend and loyalty to her job. (Even if it’s not an area she covers, she likely knows the person who does, and journalists share tips/info all the time.)

  8. PRLady

    I work for a public university’s PR office and I 100% know I’d be fired if I shared info with anyone before pub date. Despite a good track record and being with this team for a few years now, the rules were made very clear to me and I know I wouldn’t be given a second chance in that situation. It stinks but in this industry, that’s a deal-breaker for many.

    1. EddieSherbert

      I don’t even share work release information (good or bad) early with my spouse. He’s in an unrelated field, it doesn’t affect him at all, and he wouldn’t really care outside of “knowing what’s going on in Eddie’s life”… but he’s a chatterbox and there’s a decent chance he’d forget and say something to someone.
      So, he learns about things at the same time as the public, and he just knows when I’m extra busy because there’s a “big release coming”, or “someone messed something up”, etc.

      1. Jay

        Confidentiality can stink at an interpersonal level, everyone tends to talk about their work and it can be hard to hide things from people we care about. BUT, that shouldn’t excuse leaking things, and there’s a big difference between a spouse or a journalist, though I can understand why it can still be difficult.

  9. CaliCali

    As a fellow human being, I absolutely get the impulse to tell someone about something! super! exciting! But unfortunately, the rules of your job are such that you just…can’t. And especially in the field you’re in, leaks are a big deal, and ESPECIALLY leaks to a member of the press. It doesn’t matter that it’s a good friend of yours who happens to be a journalist — she’s a journalist, and her JOB is to tell people about things she finds out about.

    In fact, think of it this way: you put your journalist friend in a situation where she was potentially sitting on a scoop but she actually kept mum to protect you. That’s a good friend — but you put her in a bad position. You made yourself very vulnerable, your mentor knew that, and unfortunately, you’re now bearing the consequences. So I’d do what Alison says here, and save your “OMG I can’t keep this in” confessions for your pets.

    1. ExcitedAndTerrified

      Came to say this also.

      My 2cents, LW – if something was so exciting you couldn’t keep it in, you were in the wrong field. Learn that about yourself, and move on

      1. Fortitude Jones

        Or, she just needs to buy a journal and write the good news, and her feelings about same, down and go on with her job. Having a natural, human reaction doesn’t mean she’s in the wrong field. She just needs to learn discretion.

        1. Amethystmoon

          Yeah, but never let anyone else see it, and absolutely still use code names in case someone does see it. Certainly not an electronic blog.

      2. CastIrony

        These comments seem harsh for the most part.

        LW, we are all human. All we can do is learn, rest, and go on another day.

        In 2014 or so, I once slapped a superior in the face because they were yelling in my face because I was stepping on freshly mopped floors. Even though I was only suspended for two weeks, it hurt so, so much. I felt as defensive and upset as you.

        I am very, very lucky. What I ended up doing is learning to avoid mopped floors as much as possible and warning people to be careful around them. That, and I never slapped another plucky again. Now I just leave and cry and deal with the long-term consequences, like never moving up.

        1. Introverted Not Shy

          What!!! You committed battery. How could you have felt defensive about getting disciplined for that? And all you learned was to avoid freshly mopped floors? Really?

    2. boo bot

      I wanted to add to the part about putting your friend in a bad position: she’s a journalist – it’s a competitive industry and being first with the story matters a lot. Giving her information relevant to her beat and asking her not to share it is basically asking her to stand on the sidelines and fail to do her job, while somebody else gets the scoop.

      I’ve been in the position of having the relevant information, and even if it’s hard, you just can’t tell your journalist friends unless you’re okay with them using it: it’s what they do, and it’s not fair to ask them not to.

    3. Ask a Manager Post author

      I don’t know, I think that’s overstating. Journalists get embargoed or off-the-record information all the time and are able to play by those rules. (I don’t know if the OP explicitly said “off the record,” but it’s not like journalists don’t handle that all the time when people do.)

      1. Alanna of Trebond

        I was talking about this upthread before I saw this discussion. It’s not a big career risk for her friend the way it is for her, but depending on what the information was, it could have put the friend in an awkward position.

        Embargoes and off-the-record information are for journalists who are actually covering a story and in most cases that information can be shared in the newsroom (by saying “a source told me off record” if confidentiality is really important) and acted upon (you can start to write out a story to be ready when the embargo lifts, or call work to corroborate the off-the-record with on background or on record sources). It’s also something that happens in a business relationship rather than a personal one, because the assumption is that personal relationships are entirely off the record.

        As I read it, LW’s friend couldn’t pass the information along at all. If it was something that was a big deal to LW but not huge news externally, yeah, it’s not a thing. If it’s something that would be a big deal for LW’s friend’s news outlet to report first, not being able to say anything to the reporters who could write about it — even, hey, I hear this might happen, you should make some calls! — would be frustrating if she had a good relationship with them, or if she cared a lot about the reputation of her publication as a whole.

        And, yeah, that happens, it’s part of being a human. Say I have a friend working on a presidential campaign, and she tells me there’s a bunch of debate about the candidate’s strategy, I have to decide whether to mention that to my colleague who covers the candidate. But if I did, it’d basically just be gossip (“I hear Senator Y’s staff is really frustrated”) that they could choose to report out in detail or not, and definitely wouldn’t be traced back to me. If I know that Senator Y is releasing a health care plan on Monday that would require mandatory surgery for every American, and he has bipartisan support for it, that’s a much more specific news tip, and I’d rather my friend just not tell me and save me the heartburn.

        1. Fortitude Jones

          And off the record requests from journalists aren’t mandated by law. Unless things have changed since I was in j-school (which is a possibility), “off-the-record” arrangements are basically the journalistic equivalent of a pinky swear.

          1. Ask a Manager Post author

            Of course. I was trying to disagree with the idea that it puts journalists in a terrible position to receive off-the-record info, not that it would ameliorate the employer’s concern.

            1. Fortitude Jones

              Oh yeah, my response wasn’t to you – it was just to continue what Alanna said.

        2. boo bot

          This is a much more fulsome explanation of what I meant! I think it’s also something to do with the fact that if you tell a journalist something newsworthy, you’re not just talking, you’re offering a thing of (potential) value, which is an entirely different action from sharing news with a friend.

    4. pleaset

      People leak or share things to journalists they know all the time, with agreements by those journalists on how to share it. This has to be, and often is, done formally, with agreements to give something secret in advance so the journalist can prep a story for later, when it’s OK to share. And they’ll be first with the story.

    5. katherine

      I’ll add one point: You don’t know that she didn’t leak it. Just because a story wasn’t published about it doesn’t mean it wasn’t discussed internally among coworkers. Journalists discuss things all the time that don’t make it into published stories, or make it into stories that get killed, or get used for shaping further investigation, or even just as gossip.

  10. Mr. Tyzik

    I’ve worked in the banking industry for a couple decades and this would be a fireable offense on the first instance, no ifs, ands, or buts. Confidential information is meant to be confidential and not shared with anyone. I hope you mean it when you say you understand the magnitude of this mistake and why you were fired for it.

    Take this to heart in your next position and deal with sensitive information. No matter how small the company, they trust you to safeguard the data, and you didn’t do that. Instead, you gossiped about it and risked an announcement before things were ready.

    If I were you, I would examine WHY I decided to tell my journalist friend the info. That’s an important impulse to explore to avoid other similar situations with gossip.

    1. Jerk Store

      Yes, when I worked at a financial firm I believe that exact question was on a privacy training test: “If I run across the name of a celebrity in the client management system while performing my duties, it’s okay to tell friends and family about it, True or False?”

      1. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy

        Medical too. A few weeks ago I worked on a medical chart for A Big Rockstar, but not only do I get fired if I tell anyone which one, I get fired if I open up a single page of his chart that I can’t explain, if asked, what the exact and specific work-related reason for opening that page was.

        1. Countess Boochie Flagrante

          Same here (investing). Any info I pull, I have to be able to explain why I pulled it and what I was doing with it.

          1. always peturbing the data

            Me too in Government. Any tax or benefit records, any survey or census records – if I access them without good reason it’s a firing offence.

            1. Works in IT

              I’ve been poking around in our payroll system for the last two weeks. I would absolutely be fired for checking out things for curiosity, I only have access in the first place so I can see whether people are currently clocked in (if you change their access to something while they are actively using it, odd things happen, so I need to check to see if they clocked in that day before I begin). No checking out salary information permitted!

        2. Rob aka Mediancat

          I have to deal with famous folks at well; I work for a company that handles federal medical insurance and every once in a while I might run across Justice X, Senator Y, etc. And if I tell anyone, including a coworker ,that I processed said claim, my butt could very well get in a lot of trouble. (Many of these claims have to be handled by specialists who have security clearance, but not all of them.)

        3. Anax

          Similar in IT – in my first internship, I had access to about 40,000 social security numbers.

          Even innocuous-sounding information, like the name of a database, can be a huge security risk.

        4. seejay

          When I worked for the bank in the security investigation department, we had systems in place that monitored Famous Peoples’ accounts and would flag them if they were opened/touched. Someone would then check into it to see if there was a valid reason for someone to be poking at it. If not, an investigation would be started on which employees were poking around in Famous Person’s account and why.

          Just *looking* at the account would get you noticed and your hand slapped (if you were lucky).

          I had friends who would jokingly-semi-serious ask me if I was poking around their accounts and such while I was working there and I would deadpan look at them and say “your finances and personal information isn’t interesting enough to lose my job over” and then change the subject.

          So yeah, confidential stuff is confidential for a reason.

          1. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy

            Yep! I remind people about once a year that not only can I not look up their medical info on my own, I can’t look it up even if they ask me to, and I get in even more trouble if I look up my own medical info. Like, firing on the spot if I access my own chart.

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch

      Especially in banking! A breech of confidentiality like that can land you and others in jail.

      Since it’s a government agency, I have to wonder if there are regulations in place about this kind of leak as well, most places that deal with confidentiality clauses aren’t messing around with them.

      1. pleaset

        And even more so in ballistic missile submarines!

        If you got the launch codes for the missiles, that’s a big no no to share.

        If that got into the wrong hands it could even result in the end of civilization.

        1. Miss Pantalones en Fuego

          Sure but I think it’s highly unlikely that someone at OP’s level would have access to that.

    3. Leela

      I now work somewhere where I have access to sensitive information, including my own. I’m literally barred by policy from opening up my own files unless there’s a work related reason I could lay out to do so

      1. Mr. Tyzik

        Same here. I used to handle accounts, but could not handle my own. In fact, if I ever got a query from someone I knew, I was required to hand off the query to a colleague.

        Funny story: My mom used to call the bank I worked at where she had an account. I was in tech there and had worked on a new interface for agents, let’s call it TEAPOT. There were maybe 50 of us on the team for the app. She would ask every rep if they were using TEAPOT o service accounts, and would proudly exclaim, “My daughter built TEAPOT!” She thought she was connecting with the people who helped her. I’m sure they thought she was a fruit cake. And I told Mom, so so so many times that I didn’t build it myself!

  11. Emily K

    LW, first, I want to offer sympathy. I made a similar dumb mistake in my first professional job by sharing something that wasn’t sensitive but was nonetheless governed by a broad company-wide confidentiality policy – a complaint email sent to our company’s “contact us” address by a customer whose name and address I had omitted. Fortunately, I was not fired for the mistake, but my employer did call me on the carpet for a very serious discussion on why we can’t share any information that we only have access to because we work there, regardless of how sensitive or not sensitive we think it is on a case-by-case basis.

    It’s not the end of the world as long as you adjust your thinking going forward and really try to understand why confidentiality policies exist. It’s especially challenging if you’ve grown up immersed in social media, where confidential emails with the names and sensitive details blacked out are frequently posted on Facebook or Twitter or someone’s blog, where they go viral. I’m thinking of the Elizabeth who went on a 20-email rage about being called Liz, or even the old 1970s memos from the Tiger Oil CEO that found new viral life in the digital age.

    But despite how liberal we’ve gotten with sharing information, you really do have to be very strict about upholding confidentiality policies without making any exceptions.

    I also wanted to address a couple things that jumped out at me in this part: “Also, am I even allowed to bring up the fact that someone ratted me out? Does that matter? Or does it only matter that I broke a rule?”

    For #1, You’re certainly allowed to bring up anything you want in an interview, the question you should really be asking is, “Will it help or hurt my candidacy to bring this up?’

    For the other 2 questions, I would simply urge you to remove the phrase “ratted out” from your professional vocabulary. Concepts like snitching, tattling, and ratting out don’t apply in the workplace. You’re not in a gang or on a schoolyard playground or fighting with your sibling in the backseat of the family station wagon. Everyone in the workplace has an equal obligation and responsibility to ensure that rules are upheld because that’s what keeps the company operating smoothly and in business and able to provide jobs to you all. Reporting misconduct is the right thing to do, and that’s how an interviewer is going to see it. If you say, “My coworker ratted me out,” an interviewer hears, “My coworker reported my misconduct.” You’re the one who comes off looking poorly there, not the coworker.

    1. lawschoolmorelikeblawschool

      Excellent points, especially LW’s use of “ratted out.” Alison has said so many times that there’s no “tattling” in the work world. Same applies here as you stated.

    2. SisterSpooky

      Yes! If someone used the words “ratted me out” or “told on me” in an interview, that would be pretty much an immediate DQ for me as it shows a total lack of personal responsibility and maturity. Even if you feel that way, definitely don’t say that!

  12. CM

    I think it helps that you told your coworker. Then your story isn’t just “I did something wrong, they found out, and I got fired,” it’s “I did something wrong, I knew it was a mistake and told a senior member of my team about it, and as a result I got fired.” The more you can acknowledge that you took responsibility for your mistake, the better it sounds for a potential employer.

    1. Lusara

      Yes, own it. I was fired from a job and when I started interviewing for following ones, I kept trying to spin it and it did not work at it. Finally I decided to own it at the next interview and I got the job.

    2. Blarg

      Yes! This is what I wanted to say but you said it better. That OP knew it was wrong and felt guilty about it is a sign of strength. Assuming OP was correct and journalist friend never would have said anything, OP could have pretended it never happened. My guess is that’s where some of the defensiveness in the initial letter comes from — that no one would have known if not for the self-report. And that is a hard pill to swallow, for sure. You did wrong, fessed up, and got fired anyway.

      OP, take a deep breath. You did a dumb, impulsive thing and when you took time to consider it, you did the right thing. If you weren’t human, you wouldn’t make mistakes. This will suck for a long time — writing this post has made me feel anxious thinking about my own lapses and consequences from years ago — but it all works out in the end. If it hasn’t worked out yet, it isn’t the end. Best wishes!

  13. CatCat

    In addition to 100% needing to own it when asked about it, I think OP may also benefit from focusing the job search on jobs that don’t involve handling sensitive or high profile information. What happened is reputation-ruining for such jobs so re-assessing what is realistic in terms of job expectations after this is important to moving on successfully
    and starting the work of rebuilding reputation.

    1. Stained Glass Cannon

      +100 to this. I have worked and volunteered at government-related organizations before. Never mind firing for leaks, they don’t even hire people who appear to have poor judgement about confidential information. At some workplaces, the hiring process includes security checks that even go into your social media profile, blogs, etc, to see whether your personal communications display a suitable level of discretion. They would definitely see any mention of confidentiality breach as a huge red flag and drop OP from the hiring process at once.

      OP: Move to a sector and a position where you won’t be called upon to handle confidential information, and admit that you are doing so because you’ve recognised your own limitations and are willing to actively avoid being a liability to your future employer.

  14. Lynn Marie

    I did something similar over 20 years ago. My boss and I had a very serious conversation about it, and I think the only reason I was not fired was that I immediately and unequivocally took responsibility. I can remember almost exactly what I said: “It was wrong of me to put that information out. At the time, I thought it would be ok since it wouldn’t cause a problem, but I realize it was not up to me to make that judgement. It was the wrong thing to do, and I’m sorry.” The info I released did not in fact cause any problems, but I tremble now because it so easily could have, in even slightly different circumstances. Once info is out in the community, you have no control over where it goes and any and all ramifications. And there was no social media then, so 100+++ times that now.

    1. Lusara

      Unfortunately accepting responsibility doesn’t always work in some workplaces, it just digs your hole. Per my story above, when I made the mistake that I was fired for, I did take responsibility at the time, and they fired me anyway. I was new to the field and had no idea how dysfunctional that workplace was. When I finally came clean about it an interview, the response from the hiring manager was “that’s ridiculous, I would never fire anyone for that.”

  15. Marie

    OP, specifically following up with Alison’s advice above, you were fired because you showed your employer that your first reaction when learning about confidential information was to text (1) someone outside of your company who was not authorized to know that information and (2) someone who was a journalist, who by profession is at risk for leaking said confidential information EVEN IF you only know them as a friend and EVEN IF you promise pinky swear that they would never ever do that.

    You undertook those actions while working for (1) A Large Governmental Organization, who is answerable to Congress and to the general public for the actions undertaken by their employees, in the (2) Communications department, which is a department where employees will specifically, systematically, regularly be exposed to confidential information that should be kept confidential until such time as it is explicitly said to be something that can be shared publically.

    Your coworker then followed proper procedure when learning of this data breach- their actions were not “ratting you out”, their actions were following proper protocol for what an employee who is working at a company that frequently deals with sensitive data is tasked with doing once they learn of a data breach. I guarantee you that somewhere in the company handbook for the Government Agency where you worked there is a paragraph about the obligations of an employee who learns of a data breach.

    I want to encourage you to drill deeper on something you said in your letter: “I did feel guilty”. That guilt is because you KNEW you did something that was explicitly not allowed, and you went to your coworker in the hopes they’d absolve you of your guilty conscious. When they took the only course of action they could have taken and still kept their job and notified your employer of your actions, you became defensive of your actions.

    If you own your mistake, meditate on it, learn from it, and learn to tell the story of how you learned from it, then you might be able to get another job in the communications industry working for a company that does not handle sensitive client data, or in another industry where there are no potential confidentiality issues with your job. However, it is unlikely that the circumstances of your firing will be able to be overlooked by an employer who needs to trust your judgment with sensitive data, definitely for the foreseeable future, possibly for many years into your career.

    1. Clisby

      Agreed, except for this: “a journalist, who by profession is at risk for leaking said confidential information”. As a former journalist, I can assure you journalists don’t “leak” information, unless it’s something confidential about their own employers. Journalists seek out and report information – that’s their job. They have absolutely no obligation to keep secrets for government agencies or private companies.

      1. RC Rascal

        There is a greater issue here regarding judgement. This may have been part of why the manager took the steps she did. Judgement errors tend to repeat themselves.

      2. boo bot

        “journalists don’t “leak” information, unless it’s something confidential about their own employers. Journalists seek out and report information – that’s their job.”

        Indeed.

      3. Working Mom Having It All

        I think that speaks to exactly why this was such a breach, though. There could be a situation where it might be the journalist’s job to share the information LW thought they were telling to “just a friend”.

      4. ArtsNerd

        Is this the appropriate place to bring up Anthony Scaramucci not even uttering the phrase “off-the-record” during his bizarre call to Ryan Lizza and then being upset when his words were published?

        I just want to remind people that it happened.

  16. FairfieldJen

    Having worked in communications and journalism for the past 15 years, I think this is…honestly really bad. As a communicator, you’re likely to be privy to confidential information on a regular basis during the course of your career, and if that information leaks for any reason, it could have serious repercussions for the organization — especially if it’s a government body. When you’re put in a position of trust like that and then abuse that trust, you really leave the organization with no other option but to let you go, even if it is your first offense. My worry, OP, is that you don’t see this as sufficiently serious to warrant a firing — but I promise you that in most communications positions, it really likely would be. (The fact that your friend is a journalist makes it particularly egregious.) I’m glad you’ve learned from your mistake, and I really hope you take this experience to heart as you continue your communications career.

    1. Heidi

      Agreed. The emphasis on how not harmful the infraction was is totally hurting your case, OP. People are going think, “If OP can minimize all the responsibility for this incident, she is going to be able to rationalize it away some other time in the future. If she really understood or valued confidentiality, she would not be trying to convince us of how victimless this was.” The focus moving forward should be about realizing how serious a problem it was, how badly you feel about it, and how you’re committed to not making the same mistake again.

  17. Countess Boochie Flagrante

    OP, it’s great that you trusted your friend enough to be confident that she wouldn’t share what you told her. But what you were effectively asking your employer to do is trust a totally unknown (to them) journalist not to publish something that was apparently such exciting news that you, bound by confidentiality, simply couldn’t keep quiet about it. That’s a horrendously burdensome thing to ask!

    Maintaining confidentiality is a foundational occupational requirement in a lot of fields. I understand that you get that what you did was a very big deal as a single event, but I think you might need to spend some more time examining for yourself why you would describe this as a “victimless crime.” The fact that your friend didn’t — as far as you know — tell anyone else about your bombshell doesn’t meant that nothing happened. Your employer lost control of this information, even in a very small way, and that’s a big deal.

    1. Properlike

      If we think about this, not only did she trust her journalist friend, she trusted her coworker not to tell anyone either. And then that coworker did tell someone, and she was fired.

      So the judgment on trustworthiness is flawed.

      1. Clisby

        I don’t know whether you meant it this way, but the co-worker is not untrustworthy for reporting this. The co-worker’s obligation is to the employer, not to the OP.

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch

          I didn’t read it that way, it’s not a question of the coworker being ‘Untrustworthy’, it’s a matter of the OP not being able to judge who she can trust to keep things quiet.

          Coworker did nothing wrong and isn’t untrustworthy but OP erroneously decided to trust her which is key.

          That’s how a lot of people get found out in the end, it doesn’t just stop with telling that one friend. So seriously, just don’t tell anyone at all, fight the temptation, it’s an icy slope.

          1. Observer

            Exactly this. OP, think about your choice to share with this person. The fact that you were surprised and angry (to the point of calling her a rat, essentially) speaks to the fact that you actually do NOT know who you can expect to keep things secret, at least not as well as you think.

            1. Falling Diphthong

              Yes. If OP reasoned “I told mentor, confident that there was NO WAY she would let anything slip” it throws a lot of doubt on her parallel reasoning of how certain it was that the journalist wouldn’t let anything slip.

    2. fposte

      Right. Much as we like to think confidentiality is transferrable–that as long as the people we tell keep things confidential we didn’t breach confidentiality to tell them–it’s not. If you told, you breached confidentiality, no matter what the other people did.

    3. Agile Phalanges

      And not even trusting her not to publish it, but what if SHE got so excited by the news, just as LW did, that she just had to tell someone, and she picked someone that she trusted implicitly, and told them in strict confidence. And then THAT person got so excited that they just had to tell someone… Each person thinks they’re only telling one other person, and that they can trust that person. And maybe they can, and maybe that chain will end with someone who doesn’t forward the info on, or peter out once the information does become public in this case. Or maybe one of those people isn’t quite as trustworthy as the person who told them thought they were, and they tell the wrong person, or tell multiple people, or write an article about it because they’re also a journalist. That’s why your organization wants it to stay within their walls (and possibly HAVE to keep it within their walls by law)–they can’t control what outside people do, whether they’re only one person removed (your journalist friend, who apparently DID keep the secret in this case) or hundreds of people removed if the gossip chain goes long enough. They can only control what their employees do, and that’s why they have those rules, and not much leeway for people who don’t adhere to them. It’s the only way they can maintain control of the information.

  18. Warm Weighty Wrists

    Situations like this are one reason I think workplaces with confidential/sensitive information should regularly remind their employees of what confidentiality means for them, rather than leaving it as a blanket statement or only discussed during new employee training. I’ve seen many workplaces that don’t spend an amount of time discussing confidentiality that is commensurate with its importance, or that don’t go into specifics about when it is and isn’t ok to tell somebody something you heard at work, and a general statement tends not to hold up to the in-the-moment excitement of “oooooh I know THING about CELEBRITY!” or whatever.
    The best workplace I ever saw in this regard was a law firm that specializes in foreclosure (I am not a lawyer, but I worked there in another capacity). We got walked through several juicy gossip or personal information scenarios during our orientation in an interactive way, so we could experience the kind of decision-making they wanted, and it was much more memorable. Then, when someone particularly notable would enter our database, we would get a reminder email not naming names but reminding us that no matter how interesting the information is, it’s private and not ok to share. In my experience, it was highly effective.
    I’m not saying the employer didn’t do these things or even if they didn’t that it’s anybody’s fault other than LW that this happened, but it’s a good way to stop situations like this before they happen.

    1. Countess Boochie Flagrante

      Every employer I’ve worked for (finance) has done annual or semi-annual privacy/information security trainings, and while they’re tiresome for some of us, they’re certainly helpful in continually reinforcing hey, this is a very very very very very big mcf**king deal.

      1. Jerk Store

        The financial firm I worked for had mandatory quarterly compliance meetings with examples of Don’t Be This Guy Because He Doesn’t Work Here Anymore.

        1. wittyrepartee

          The hospital I was working for last year had the best of this kind of presentation that I’ve ever seen.

          “Let me tell you what happened to the people who were not on the care team and accessed a newsworthy medical case. We asked them why they did it. Depending on their responses it ranged from retraining, to suspension, to immediate dismissal.”

    2. Rectilinear Propagation

      This reminds me of how Northwestern Hospital had to fire 50 employees back in March for violating HIPAA by accessing Jussie Smollett’s medical records.

      1. PollyQ

        FIFTY?! Damn, that’s hard core. Appropriately so, but still, wow.

        I do have to wonder if the hospital failed to educate its employees on how freaking serious that kind of breach was, although I’d still put the failure on the feet of the violators.

        1. CNM

          Every hospital I’ve worked at requires yearly HIPAA compliance training. I’m in Chicago so I read about those firings with interest. People just seemed to… forget that with Epic, even one second of accessing a chart is recorded. And that even one second counts as a HIPAA violation.

          1. fposte

            Right. They fell prey to the “It’s just a quick peek and it won’t hurt anybody” fallacy.

            I think also this illustrates how hard confidentiality is; these are trained and likely reasonably experienced people who still couldn’t resist this temptation. The rules are severe because people need externals to keep them motivated.

        2. periwinkle

          Everyone – absolutely everyone – employed at a hospital has to undergo annual HIPAA compliance training. I was an HR coordinator at a hospital and even though I did not deal with patient records or patients or anything remotely health care-y, I was required to take the annual training and accept compliance as a mandatory part of my employment. Taking a quick peek at someone’s medical records just out of curiosity? Noooooo.

          1. EnfysNest

            Yup. You can’t even take a look at *your own* records if you are also a patient at the medical facility. You still have to go through the same information request as someone who doesn’t work there. Access rules are very, very strict, and there are reminders all the time.

        3. Rusty Shackelford

          I do have to wonder if the hospital failed to educate its employees on how freaking serious that kind of breach was

          And also failed to inform them that the system tracks who looks up a particular patient’s record…

      2. Mr. Tyzik

        This is how old I am. I remember the line of people walked out the door for looking at OJ Simpson’s records when he was arrested.

    3. doodles

      Yep, we regularly are reminded about FERPA requirements (academia) and staff members have gotten in hot water for not promptly picking up student transcripts from the printer (for instance).

    4. Holly

      I work for a government entity and believe me – if you need a reminder not to text a journalist non-public information my line of work is not for you. Any of our PR folks would be immediately fired.

      Plenty of folks are friends in my business – lobbyists, journalists, staffers … you can’t lose control of your impulse to share information.

      1. Boots

        Yeah, seconding this. Handling confidential information discreetly is a day to day part of working in communications, particularly for government entities (I say as someone in this field). Training in this area is important generally, but a communications/ PR person should not need to be reminded to keep sensitive information confidential – that’s a very basic aspect of the job.

    5. Aquawoman

      I’m a fed and we have annual mandatory training out the wazoo on these kinds of rules, as well as frequent reminder emails from the ethics folks and/or the IG’s office.

    6. Musereader

      UK government has fired people for looking up records of contestants on reality TV series, multiple times

    7. Autumnheart

      I work in retail, and the company has yearly mandatory training on “How to handle confidential info”. Everything from what’s going to be on sale for Black Friday, to customer financial data. Leaking anything that could put those things at risk is an insta-fire offense.

      I totally get how it can be really exciting to hear about cool things, and the impulse to tell the people close to you. I personally just try to “forget that I know” until the information becomes public.

    1. Countess Boochie Flagrante

      I won’t lie, I’m tremendously curious, but I also know this is just one of those things I will never get to know.

      1. Lynn

        I admit to being incredibly curious as well. There are, unfortunately, many things I am doomed to not know even though I would really like to find out.

      2. New Jack Karyn

        Well, it has been released now, so technically we could. But doing so would likely out the department LW worked for, and probably LW herself.

      3. Works in IT

        I’m more curious about what KIND of exciting information it was. Specifics don’t matter, but to me, being able to explain “you told your friend your employer was about to buy this farm to build a park so they bought the farm so they could raise the price and make a profit” would make a huge difference in terms of making the OP aware of the consequences of their actions

    2. PollyQ

      Nah, I think the odds of what’s “super exciting” to a government agency being equally exciting to me are pretty slim.

      1. CaliCali

        Plus, I think part of it was that it was exciting BECAUSE it was secret, and now it’s apparently common knowledge. Like “X candidate is running for president!”

        1. Emily K

          Yep. In my job I often get embargoed advance copies of speeches that politicians are going to give – they send them out to press to help us start working on getting most of a story written and cleared so we can just drop in a few quotes and crowd reactions and publish the story within 5-10 minutes of the speech ending. Those usually come out the morning of the speech. Or we’ll often hear from contacts on the Hill about something going on behind the scenes, like that a bill is about to be introduced. It can be exciting to know what’s going to happen before it happens, even when the news itself isn’t *that* thrilling.

      2. animal secrets

        I used to work at a public Zoo that was owned by the state, and so we were all state government employees. Frequently there would be confidential news like, “The tiger had her baby and it’s a girl!” or “We’re getting hippos!” that we couldn’t share with the public for a few days (to be sure the baby was healthy and would survive past a critical period, or so the news could be shared in the way the marketing department deemed appropriate, or whatever.) I DEFinitely sometimes shared those tidbits with friends and family who were big tiger/hippo/etc fans.

      3. Boomerang Girl

        Perhaps something like the announcement of the new Amazon HQ? That has an impact on real estate values and could make a government employee excited.

    3. Precious Wentletrap

      Yes, but let’s face it, there’s no way it’s as exciting as what any of us are imagining it to be.

          1. PollyQ

            If it’s the government, they’d be defending Area 51… unless it’s a false flag operation, and the point is for the invasion to occur, but show nothing suspicious, because the government already relocated all the aliens!

    4. WellRed

      It’s hard to imagine what at a government job could be SOOO Exciting! that one would be unable to resist texting a friend.

      1. Precious Wentletrap

        Here’s one: You work for the Census Bureau , which runs demographic surveys beyond the decennial Census, and came across [popular celebrity]’s personal info, perhaps noting they live near you. The Census Bureau does NOT play with that sort of thing, and you would indeed be given the boot as soon as the breach was uncovered.

        1. Anax

          Here’s another – “the state Supreme Court will probably make a decision on voting district gerrymandering soon.”

          (This one happened to me, and was probably the most exciting confidential information I got access to – my desk was close enough to the GIS employees that I could see the increased traffic out of their area and infer that Something was Happening. Long since past, now.)

          We also got early warning that legislators were… “encouraged to resign”, a day or two before the press releases.

      2. Lily Rowan

        I hope there are things at your job that are exciting to you! I can imagine all kinds of things that wouldn’t be that exciting to the world but that I would still want to tell a friend.

      3. Holly

        This comment comes across as quite clueless – I work for a government entity where nonpublic information often affects people’s day-to-day lives and pocketbooks and people put a lot of money (lobbying) into knowing what’s happening. Our newspapers report quite frequently on gossip of what’s happening behind the scenes. If I ever texted a journalist about nonpublic information I’d be fired.

      4. anon for this one

        One from my own real life, years ago:

        “Same-sex marriage is going to be legalized tomorrow!”

      5. mark132

        I think it most likely would be very boring, but some stuff like the jobs report a few days early would be very interesting to unscrupulous investors.

    5. Nanani

      Nah

      I work in patents, and regularly see information that can definitely not be made public and has to be sent back and forth with extra security measures, but would also be tremendously boring to everyone but the IP team for a few specific rival companies in a very tiny field.
      Sometimes I see stuff that is cool to nerds of that particular field, but 95% of my Secret Information from clients is not even interesting to them.

    6. Alanna of Trebond

      I’m a journalist, so, yes. But I’m a journalist who’s covered federal agencies, so I know “super exciting” to agency employees does not necessarily equal “huge news” for everyone else.

      Examples that most journalists would find pretty snoozy (although journalists who cover the agency super-closely for trade publications, Politico Pro, Bloomberg Gov, etc, would still be interested):
      –Our grant program is going to be fully funded by Congress!
      –We got [Celebrity Y] to promote a big public health initiative!
      –The secretary is going to be featured at [cool upcoming event]!
      –Policy change that is a big deal to staff that works on it, but very in the weeds for the general public (regulation is going to be changed in a way that is technically important but at most a medium-sized deal)

      Fairly real examples that would be much bigger deals:
      –Head of the department who everyone hates for non-scandal reasons is stepping down amid a scandal
      –High-profile thing the president wanted and agency employees opposed isn’t going to happen
      –President issuing an executive order on (issue the agency deals with)
      –Regulation people have heard of is going to be changed/repealed and it’s a big deal
      –[Well-known bad person] is going to be fined/punished/arrested

    7. mark132

      Based on the post it’s probably public now, so I would guess it’s likely not too exciting. Though there are a few that would be exciting.

    8. Gumby

      I know it isn’t the actual incident since the details don’t match (no twitter or cake pictures mentioned in OP’s case), but I was assuming it was something like the NASA gravitational waves thing. That makes a certain subset of people *extremely* excited.

      (Also the NASA leaker didn’t get fired. Even though she’s made the same mistake 2 times…)

    9. KatieZee

      As others have noted, it probably isn’t anything especially exciting. I work as a contractor on a program that just announced 10 new cities will be joining. If someone had been privy to the list of cities prior to the announcement, and leaked it, they would 100% have been fired. At the same time, though, it’s a program the average American would likely never have heard of and would give less than a crap about. (I mean, I think it’s a great program, but I’m realistic about things lol.) There’s a lot of admittedly not very exciting info the federal government is “sitting on” at any time.

  19. Rectilinear Propagation

    I think particularly since it’s the government, they couldn’t take the risk of it happening again and it becoming public that not only was their a breach of confidentiality but that the person responsible had done it before. That would likely lead to your manager also getting fired (for not firing you in the first place) and also make your entire department/agency look bad to the public (who’d be wondering who else still working there has done something similar without getting fired).

    1. Green great dragon

      Yep, I think it’s worth LW remembering that while she knew she’d never leak anything again, her boss and co-workers don’t. If they’d covered up for her/not removed her access to confidential info and she did it again, their jobs would be on the line too the next time.

      And there are reasons the rule is “don’t leak”, rather than “don’t leak (except to people you’re *really sure* won’t tell any one else (except people who they are really sure they won’t tell anyone else (except people they’re absolutely positive won’t tell anyone else…)))”

    2. Genny

      It’s also possible that she got caught in a broader crackdown on leaks and thus wasn’t given a second chance when she otherwise might have been. I recall a year or so into this administration at least a couple federal departments making A Big Deal out of leaks because it seemed like every other story (usually negative) was quoting an anonymous source sharing sensitive information they weren’t authorized to release. Then the stories died down and the pressure with it even though there were still occasional leaks. I can see a manager getting pressure from the top to reduce leaks choosing to fire someone over even a minor leak.

  20. Polymer Phil

    Most companies will not say “so-and-so was fired for doing x” in a reference check. If you were fired for an embarrassing reason that would torpedo your chances in an interview, say that your position was eliminated. Almost every situation I know of where someone was fired for cause was presented publically as a “position elimination.”

    1. Countess Boochie Flagrante

      Well, you certainly can do that, but it’s one hell of a risk, and a continuation of poor ethics.

      Also, I’ve seen plenty of firings that were absolutely not presented as “position elimination.” Even if the exact reason wasn’t shared — employer isn’t going to say “Oh, Jane took home a spreadsheet full of MNPI” — they will absolutely share that the ex-employee was fired for cause, not laid off.

      1. TootsNYC

        The terminology is often “not eligible for rehire.”

        And every time I’ve ever given a formal reference, that has been one of the questions: “Would you hire her again?” or “Is she eligible for rehire?”

      2. Fortitude Jones

        Yeah, we don’t want to go down the road if encouraging the OP to continue acting unethically – that will ensure she stays unemployed. Being honest going forward really will help OP to repair the damage to her reputation and show she has integrity.

        1. Courageous cat

          Ohhhh come on. Like it’s going to be easier to find a job because she has the integrity to say she got fired. You know that’s not how that works. More employers are still going to be turned off by that than impressed.

          1. Lance

            Yes… and that’s the consequence they now have to live with. Sure, it’s not going to be easy, but being honest and upfront will serve them a whole lot better than a potential employer finding out from a different source (and it’s not unlikely that they will find out).

    2. Brett

      Government tends to operate differently. They are pretty free with stating exactly why someone was fired.
      (Especially since termination hearings and the related records are often public records once the employee is terminated, so any concerned employer could just do a records request and get the whole story.)

      1. Rectilinear Propagation

        Oh, I wish I’d seen this before replying.
        Yeah, if the LW is in the US or things operate the same way in their country, there’s no point in trying to lie or even waffle about what happened.

    3. Rectilinear Propagation

      But would the government do that? We don’t even know where the LW is; Alison has gotten letters from outside of the United States before.

      It’d be much safer for the LW to ask HR what they’re going to say to other employers asking for references. It could also end poorly if the employer actually sees a job opening posted for the position the LW claims was eliminated.

    4. Ask a Manager Post author

      Noooo. When they call for a reference, many employers will absolutely say if you were fired or laid off, and they will give detailed references. If you’re found to be lying, that’s an instant rejection in a way that a well-explained firing would not be.

    5. Bilateralrope

      I disagree. I say don’t lie during any part of the job application. If you lie during the interview and the truth later comes out, that’s enough to get you fired.

    6. BRR

      I strongly disagree with this. While they may not state why someone was fired, I’ve found it pretty common to state that someone was fired (or laid off etc) and if the person is eligible for rehire. It’s a huge risk that if discovered by the employer would likely result in being blacklisted from the company and if the LW is employed there immediate termination.

      1. Countess Boochie Flagrante

        Yep.

        My mother got a reference-check call recently regarding someone she’d managed and then fired. When telling me about the call, she said that when the checker said the guy’s name, she couldn’t stop herself from bursting out, “Wait, he told you to call me?!”

        That really set the tone for the reference she gave.

        1. Drew

          “We let him go for incredibly poor judgment…like putting me as a reference, for example.”

    7. irene adler

      Except that when the reference checker asks if the candidate is eligible for re-hire (for the position they left or any other position) should the opportunity present itself, the response will be “no”.

      Then what?
      Candidate must then come up with a good reason why former employer won’t re-hire given they merely eliminated the position.

    8. MommyMD

      No. That’s a flat out easy to uncover lie. Better to say in a single instance of poor judgment I let a piece of information get outside of the company to one person which I immediately knew was a mistake and I notified someone in my company. I was then let go but will be extremely vigilant in the future to never let this happen again. That’s what I would do.

    9. Spek

      Many Government Agencies have specific rules about reference checks. Some agencies will only provide title and dates of employment, which is a lucky break for you. Not advising you to lie, but you can present the circumstances in as flattering manner as you like. Other agencies will provide title and dates, and whether you are eligible for rehire. That’s when it gets tricky. And, of course, some agencies don’t have a policy and, when contacted can provided whatever info they feel is relevant. Your first step should be to contact your old HR department and ask about their policies for reference checks.

    10. Falling Diphthong

      You know that saying “It’s not the crime that gets you, but the cover-up”?

      This is why that is a wise old adage.

    11. Polymer Phil

      I was under the impression that most big companies had a policy against telling a reference checker anything beyond dates of employment. I’ve heard complaints from folks who aren’t allowed to give positive references to former coworkers who earned them. Spek raised a good point- find out what your HR policy is so you know what to be prepared for in an interview.

      Re-evaluating my original comment, I’d still consider lying if attempts to explain the firing in interviews end up in disaster. Better to have a 30% chance than a 0% chance.

  21. Bookwerm

    I work in communications for a large organization and I see this as a trust issue with leadership. The communications team is often brought on board to develop strategy for organizational decisions that may not be public for weeks or even months. Sometimes the news is a dreadful burden to bear (staff reductions of people you know, elimination of services you think are important) and sometimes the news is exciting, you have the inside scoop and can’t wait to share it. But leadership has to know that if they share confidential material with us that it will stay confidential. You would never want someone to find out from the news media that they no longer have a job, for example. I tell my team that if it leaks from us, they cannot work here. A first offense is still a breach in trust. We cannot do our job with our leaders if they cannot trust us.

    I’m sorry this happened to you, OP, I’m sure it feels devastating, and it sounds like some of the details were inflated … but there is a good reminder here for all of us as some things can’t be undone. Having said that, as a hiring manager, if you were able to talk to me about how this one-time error in judgment caused a deep shift in thinking and was a critical pivot point in your professional development… I would hear you out. I might consider you as a candidate who truly “gets it” in a way that someone who hasn’t been tried by fire might not.

    1. Alanna of Trebond

      This is a good way to think about it. I’ve definitely been guilty of sharing exciting but not-yet-announced news with colleagues. I stopped when my boss had a stern talk with me about it, but also because I noticed that I was getting the bad news later, too (other people at my level were told about layoffs the night before, I was told shortly before the companywide announcement) and I realized I was getting a reputation as someone who could not be trusted to keep my mouth shut.

  22. theletter

    It may help you to know that the dreaded “why are you unemployed right now” question doesn’t come up in every interview. If it does, you can explain calmly that in a moment of weakness, you broke a serious rule regarding sending information to someone outside the company, but you’ve learned a hard lesson you never intend to repeat. At the end of your explanation, look your interviewer in the eye, and don’t say anything else. They might try to use silence to get you to say more. Don’t fall for it.

    People find new jobs after being fired all the time. Sometimes it can be a blessing in disguise.

    1. Fortitude Jones

      Yeah, one of my former coworkers, who was allegedly fired from our company for bringing a gun to work, found another job a couple months later in our same industry. I’m sure the OP will find a new job.

      1. Agile Phalanges

        I replaced someone who had embezzled from the (small) company. My boss wanted to press charges, but his business partner didn’t, so they just fired him. He was employed elsewhere within a few weeks. No one ever called for a reference.

  23. NW Mossy

    Since you touched on it in your follow-up, OP, don’t look at this as “not getting a second chance.” You are – it’s just going to happen at another organization.

    When we’ve made a mistake, it often feels unfair when we don’t get an opportunity to explain, defend, and/or redeem ourselves. But when you’ve broken someone’s trust, they don’t owe it to you to offer that opportunity and shouldn’t offer it unless they sincerely believe that you could meaningfully repair the breach quickly and comprehensively.

    In a roundabout way, they somewhat did you a kindness by firing you. They looked at themselves as an organization and realized that the damage was irrevocable. Rather than leading you on and allowing you to continue to work for them under a cloud of mistrust (and all the downsides that come with that), they made a clean break and released you to get a fresh start elsewhere.

    Alison’s given you great words to say – now it’s to you to live out your learning with sincerity and build trust with a new employer.

    1. Anonya

      This is so well said. I completely agree that in the long run, this was a kindness. Because I can almost guarantee that your reputation in that organization would never recover, even if you had remained employed.

    2. Jennifer

      I’d stay under a cloud of mistrust if that meant a steady paycheck if I didn’t have anything else lined up. I don’t know the OP’s financial status but if she needed the $$$ it’s not that easy to look at it as a kindness in the moment.

    3. TootsNYC

      ” they don’t owe it to you to offer that opportunity”

      That reminds me of the guys who say, “I know I cheated on you, but I want a second chance.”

      The person you wronged is not obligated to give you that second chance with them.
      And in fact, NOT getting that second chance with them might mean that you take it more seriously and handle the next relationship in a trustworthy manner.

    4. Burn before reading

      Honestly this feels well intentioned but not right. LW already feels wronged. This makes it seem like they owe LW something, to be loving and release her to her best life. Nah. She screwed up, and they fired her because that’s what she deserved. She can come to value the lesson while seeing it all clearly.

  24. Elle Kay

    I question that there are no details about your Monday meeting with HR here. Did you apologize profusely and then explain that there was some miscommunication here? As in “I am so, so sorry! I know that I messed up and I shouldn’t have told anyone; in a moment of weakness I texted one of my best friends. It was spur of the moment and, as soon as I realized what I’d done I circled back to her to clarify that that information was confidential. *(assuming that you did so)* She covers a totally different subject area so it never even crossed my mind that her career would be an additional conflict. I’m so sorry and I will never do anything like that again.”

    Or did you double down on “not my fault”, “not a big deal”, and “co-worker shouldn’t have said anything”? Because, if you did the first apology option then I think it would be (more) possible you’d get a 2nd chance. If it was the 2nd option then, yeah, they were going to let you go.

    As a sidenote: *Even if* you think it *wasn’t* a big deal, when you get hauled into the boss’ office and told it. was. a. problem then you APOLOGIZE and APOLOGIZE rather than defend yourself. (IE: if they think you f*cked up, then respond like you did, however you actually feel)

  25. MommyMD

    You texted proprietary information to a journalist. Doesn’t matter if it was a friend. Employer found out and had grounds to fire you. This violates workplace compliance and trust. It’s going to be a hurdle.

    Your former job will probably only verify your employment unless you broke a governmental regulation. I guess you just say “I inadvertently let an important piece of information get out and I will take extraordinary safeguards to never let that happen again”.

    1. PollyQ

      You could say that, but it’d be a lie, which would be an automatic dealbreaker for many potential employers, and there’s no guarantee that the previous employer would keep the cause for firing secret. And if we’ve learned anything from this letter, it’s that information that’s supposed to be kept secret isn’t always.

      1. MommyMD

        I meant inadvertently as they were confiding in a friend not willfully giving information to the press. OP is in a pickle for sure. The best case scenario is former company only verifies employment.

        1. LSC

          I don’t believe this falls under inadvertent, though – OP deliberately gave that information to her friend. Inadvertently, in my view, would be something along the lines of “had confidential documents in a briefcase that you accidentally left behind at a coffee shop”.

          Sorry if this sounds like nitpicking, I’m only pushing because, as PollyQ said, if OP uses this as a reason and her former employer tells a prospective employer the reasons for her termination, it will appear that she was lying and make her look untrustworthy.

          1. Rusty Shackelford

            I agree. This disclosure was not inadvertent, and trying to frame it that way could backfire pretty hard.

  26. OhBehave

    1. Sharing HIGHLY CONFIDENTIAL info. Maybe you get a 2nd chance IF you were contrite enough and blamed your excitement at the new teapot program.

    2. Sharing HIGHLY CONFIDENTIAL info with a JOURNALIST? Bye. No 2nd chance especially because you knew it was a no-no before you shared.

    If you had stayed, they would never have trusted you again.

    If you are still defensive or dismissive about this, it will come through in an interview. Practice talking about it until you can truly pull it off. This is a tough lesson to learn.

    1. MommyMD

      Also in any governmental job or any job governed by many laws and regulations (such as medicine, law, dentistry, etc) they are laws and compliance regulations in place that must be abided by and every employee had to sign such an agreement usually yearly but at least upon hiring. It’s a risk when you ignore these compliance issues especially willfully. Accidents happen inadvertently but this is not the case here.

    2. Iris Eyes

      “If you had stayed they would have never trusted you again.”

      This is a great point LW. Moving on from that company is probably a mixed blessing. Yeah it totally sucks but now you at least have a chance to start fresh. Life may not look better in 6 months but I bet it does in 3 years.

  27. MommyMD

    To be clear, you were fired for admittedly breaking confidentiality not because of your coworker. I doubt she had it out for you and rather was worried you confided a big breech to her which could adversely affect the company. She probably felt she had a duty to disclose it and she may well have. It may be a requirement of employment regarding compliance. This is your making, and while I wish you luck, you have zero cause to be disgruntled with your coworker or employer.

    1. Countess Boochie Flagrante

      Yeah, this is an excellent point. Your coworker was not at all in the wrong here, OP. This is 100% on you.

    2. OhBehave

      And if the coworker didn’t tell and it somehow got out that she knew – another job lost.

  28. Dust Bunny

    I don’t work for the government but I do work with what are technically health records, although they’re not full patient charts or anything. But if I found out a coworker was sharing this information with just anyone it would be a probably HIPAA violation and, yes, I would need to tell my boss. Whether nor not anyone got fired might depend on context, but somebody would at the very least get a serious talking-to.

    Some of the stuff I handle is really interesting logistically and historically but I just do not have the right to get carried away and share it. Period. You believe your friend is trustworthy but, wow, the optics of sharing with a friend who is a journalist are really bad, and . . . how trustworthy somebody actually is is never certain. If *you* got that carried away, you can’t guarantee that she won’t, either.

    1. Beth

      Practically everything I do in my job is confidential to some degree. When there’s something I really want to share with my wife, I mask it, pretty much what we do here — talking about how the client invested in llama shearings, or called up asking about rumours of purple llamas, or asked us to sell all their teapots — that kind of thing. The point of the story is the funny way people behave. She’s never even heard any of the names of our clients, except for a couple she met once at an adjunct social function.

    2. sheworkshardforthemoney

      Yes, I did filing in a small-town law office where almost every name was familiar and nothing I read or saw left the office.

  29. UKDancer

    I am trying not to be too harsh but yes you screwed up. Look the UK Foreign Office is currently knee deep in a police investigation into information that’s been leaked to journalists and the consequences are potentially extremely serious. A senior UK diplomat has resigned over the matter. I fully expect that whenever they find the source of the leak the people involved will face some pretty serious consequences up to and including dismissal and possible criminal proceedings. UK officials are bound by the provisions of the Official Secrets Act and people have gone to prison for giving information to journalists before now. Disclosing Government information to a journalist (even a friend in confidence) without permission is a major breach of confidence and I’m not surprised it resulted in a significant sanction.

    It’s not a victimless crime and you have to understand the seriousness of what you did, even unintentionally. Even in the private sector, there is information that is classified, sensitive or commercially in confidence and not to be shared.

    All this said, I think Alison’s approach is the best one when you’re applying for jobs.

  30. Beth

    The violation was only “victimless” by accident — and confidentiality rules don’t hinge on whether or not the leak is known to have caused damage. The damage from most leaks isn’t visible until much later, but it can be massive. The enforcement has to be based on the idea that the leak was damaging.

    If you live in a place where it’s illegal to shoot guns into the air, and you shoot a gun into the air and the bullet does not actually kill anyone in its fall, you have still broken the law and placed others in danger.

  31. Zipzap

    Hind-sight is 20/20, but the LW should have thought twice about sharing that “leaked” incident with any coworker, especially a mentor who likely would be obligated to let the higher-ups know. (Obviously it would have been best not to give her journalist friend the info to begin with.) I think she was trying to lessen some of the guilt she felt, but really she should have just sat with that feeling and let it fuel her resolve to never share confidential info with an outside party again. She would have learned a valuable lesson and still kept her job.
    All of that being said, I wish her the best in moving forward and finding another job – she’ll bounce back and be the wiser for it.

    1. Falling Diphthong

      She should have just sat with that feeling and let it fuel her resolve to never share confidential info with an outside party again.

      This. Negative emotions are a learning tool–feeling guilty is very uncomfortable, so we don’t repeat the behavior that led to the feeling guilty. Ideally.

      OP, it’s worth examining whether trying to assuage your guilt by sharing this with your mentor, rather than with some outside person who doesn’t touch on your industry, was a version of getting post-mortem permission. “If Jane knows, then it can’t be too bad.”

      1. TootsNYC

        This. Negative emotions are a learning tool–feeling guilty is very uncomfortable, so we don’t repeat the behavior that led to the feeling guilty. Ideally.

        This can’t be said often enough, so I’m going to repeat it.

        i think we often send the message (societally) that making someone feel bad is a mean thing to do; it’s not.

        We see people destroy themselves with guilt, and so we try to tell people there’s no need to feel guilty or ashamed. But when the guilt is deserved, it’s got a purpose. It’s like pain (heck, it IS pain); it’s telling you something important.

        1. Jennifer

          I think people beat themselves up enough internally without us having to do it for them most of the time.

          1. Countess Boochie Flagrante

            There’s beating themselves up, but then there’s also understanding and feeling properly appalled that they did something really unconscionable.

            Unfortunately, a lot of times people mistake the first for the second.

          2. Close Bracket

            Sometimes they do, and other times they tell the person telling them that they or their actions negatively impacted another person that *they* are the ones in the wrong for telling them something that made them feel bad. Sometimes they go so far as tell the bearer of the news that they now have to soothe them bc it’s their fault they feel bad. TootsNYC is talking about this latter case.

            (sorry for all the “theys.” English has a pronoun problem.)

    2. Dankar

      I don’t know that I agree she should have thought twice (since going to a mentor is a good thing to do when you’re in a difficult situation), but I think that’s absolutely the lesson some people will take away!

      I understand that the breach was very bad and that the organization needed to take some disciplinary action, but it seems to me that firing an employee who fessed up to something like this to a senior coworker sends the message: “If you mess up bad enough, don’t tell anyone. Just keep it to yourself or you’ll get fired.” And that’s…not great?

      1. TootsNYC

        this is one of the reasons why it’s best to have a mentor who is NOT at the same company as you.

        Because when your mentor is a coworker at the same employer, you cannot, cannot speak as freely.

      2. PollyQ

        It’s not great, but some breaches really are that serious, and employers can’t always be like the library giving amnesty for late fees if people bring the books back.

      3. Dust Bunny

        It’s no worse than “our organization doesn’t protect classified information no matter how badly an employee disregards policies”.

        It was sheer luck that she didn’t get caught by some other means. If the friend had blabbed, she’d have been fired, anyway, even without confiding in the senior employee. The message there is “don’t violate confidentiality policies”.

    3. TootsNYC

      this is nicely said.

      I had the same thought–that was very unwise.

      I didn’t know how to say it without seeming to condone the breach.

      but if you mess up and by the skin of your teeth get away with it, just DO NOT talk about it with anyone at the company. Find somewhere else to tell it in order to release the steam valve.

      (the confessional? I don’t think you have to be Catholic.)

    4. Jennifer

      I agree. If her friend never told anyone it never would have gotten out. I doubt she is the only person that has ever done anything like this. Having a mentor at a different organization in a similar role might be a good idea for the future.

      1. Burn before reading

        That’s the wrong lesson to learn. ‘Build sneaky protections into your life so you get away with violating important rules’ is NOT what LW needs to learn.

        ‘Don’t reveal confidential information’ and ‘fully own up to your shit’ are good lessons.

        1. Jennifer

          She already got that advice from Alison. I’m not trying to teach her a lesson, necessarily, she seems to have gotten the point. Sometimes people screw up and they still really need their jobs. That’s real life.

          1. Dust Bunny

            If people really need jobs, they need to act like they really need jobs. That’s also real life.

            The fact that the LW just couldn’t resist sharing this tidbit should have been a red flag that maybe her friend couldn’t, either. She’s assuming the friend has more self-control than she does, which is precarious at best.

            1. Jennifer

              Of course, but if you think that there aren’t tons of people out there who’ve made huge mistakes and managed to keep it from getting out, you’re kidding yourself.

  32. anna green

    My first thought was of the whole JK Rowling / Robert Galbraith fiasco.

    “The Solicitors Regulation Authority has also issued a written rebuke to Christopher Gossage, of Russells solicitors, who confided to his wife’s best friend that Robert Galbraith, author of The Cuckoo’s Calling, was really one of the most famous and wealthy authors in the world.
    Gossage said he believed he was speaking “in confidence to someone he trusted implicitly”, but the story subsequently appeared in the Sunday Times, to the dismay and rage of the author of the Harry Potter books.”

    1. Arctic

      I will never not believe the publisher did that intentionally and threw him under the bus.

      They made much more money off of the JK Rowling name.

      1. PollyQ

        You really think a lawyer would publicly (extremely publicly) admit to doing something he hadn’t done, for which he was sanctioned and fined by regulators, and permanently ruin his own reputation in the process?

        1. PollyQ

          Additionally, J. K. Rowling won a lawsuit against the lawyer and the firm. This is a long way to go for a publicity stunt.

    2. Lily

      when we had a high school shooting, a student I knew (10 y old) and who got into it (gladly uninjured) got a visit from his own uncle who was a journalist that very evening, who came to “visit the parents” and then proceeded to try to get his nephew to talk about the details. Until the boy’s parents threw the uncle out. ^^

  33. AnonAcademic

    The sharing of information is a violation of your professional duties and ethics and would get me 60% of the way to firing someone if I were your boss. But what might walk that back to a performance plan would be a sincere, unqualified apology showing understanding of the gravity of the error. Since that didn’t happen I’m not surprised you weren’t given a second chance.

    For context I work with PHI covered under HIPAA for my job. Sometimes that PHI belongs to people I know. I have information that I have kept confidential for more than a decade that I know the patient’s wife does not even know (think undisclosed criminal record). I have a whole bunch of very personal medical information swimming around my memory and I while some of it I’ve wished I could share with my spouse, I never have. I consider it my greatest ethical obligation in my job, because I have been entrusted with sensitive information and I treat it like I’d want mine to be treated. I do not believe in using it for personal gain, even the minor personal gain of sharing juicy secrets with someone.

  34. Jennifer

    I understand your irritation with your former coworker. It would have been nice for her to warn you that she was going to report it, or even given you a chance to do it yourself so it would have gone over a bit better. But at the end of the day, Alison is right. You broke a rule and you have to take responsibility. That will go over much better with future employers.

    I have been fired for a dumb mistake. So have a lot of other people who have managed to find other jobs. People don’t talk about it very much but it definitely happens. It can feel like the end of the world but I promise you it isn’t. You might have to take a step back in your career to come back from it but you can you bounce back.

  35. Cass

    If I were your coworker I would have done the exact same thing. If you shared something with me that I didn’t ask you about or probe for, and just knowing it could jeopardize my reputation or career you bet your ass I’d share it with our manager. Your coworker didn’t choose to know this information and does not owe you silence. You shouldn’t be upset at your coworker, if anything she should be upset with you for putting her in that situation. I know I’d be pissed at you. I hope you’re able to learn and move on from this, OP.

  36. Falling Diphthong

    Recurring theme here is that “tattling” isn’t a thing at work. The same goes for ratting out. If you lean over a cubicle and whisper “I broke the rule! I will be in so much trouble if anyone finds out!” your blindsided coworker is not required to enter into a cover-up conspiracy with you.

    Lose that part of the defense completely, OP. This is awkward to frame as apparently it would have passed unnoticed if you hadn’t taken aim at your own foot and then pulled the trigger–it would be better if you were fired after fessing up to your superiors, rather than involving anyone else. I imagine optimal framing varies by industry and so I’m not sure what to advise there. But this was a self-inflicted wound, and you shouldn’t frame it otherwise.

  37. Augusta Hawkins Elton

    In addition to Alison’s script, I think it also reflects well on you that you reported what you had done. Granted, it was to your older co-worker rather than your boss, but that still shows you felt uncomfortable with your actions. You might add to Alison’s script, “I knew immediately that I needed to report my indiscretion, and I did so right away. Understandably, the agency had to let me go.” Something to show that you didn’t get caught – you confessed.

    1. Lily

      it doesn’t count as “they reported themselves” if they later say they were “ratted out” by the person they “reported” it to.

      1. PollyQ

        Agreed. In this situation, “I reported myself” is simply false, given OP’s expectation that her mentor wouldn’t pass along what she knew to anyone else.

      2. Augusta Hawkins Elton

        You are right. I missed the phrase “ratted me out” in the original message, but given those feelings, it doesn’t really count as self-reporting.

  38. Malarkey01

    I don’t want to beat up on the LW, but I do think they fundamentally need to understand that the loss of trust made it impossible for the agency to give you a second chance in this position. There’s no way your managers could safely assign other confidential projects to you after leaking the information on this project. As this was almost the entirety of your job they really couldn’t keep you around. This is one of those very serious offenses for which there are no second chances in many organizations, even when the breach is accidental or through slop practices and not intentional.

    And, to be fair, based on your language about technical leaks, victimless, and ratting out I don’t think your organization could entirely trust that you understand the gravity of the situation and wouldn’t repeat the mistake. I’d spend some time processing how you felt and trying to learn to take accountability and personal responsibility for this (and seriously it’s something that’s really uncomfortable and hard for everyone but it helps so much).

    1. Allonge

      This was more or less what I was thinking. Honestly, I might be more likely to dismiss (or not hire) someone who, like the LW, does not seem to understand what exactly they did, what it could have caused than someone who, for personal ethical reasons, deliberatly leaked information, but understands that this is Not OK.
      I mean in the end there is not a lot of reasons to trust either, but demonstrating ongoing cluelessness is not a good way to sell “this will never happen again”.
      LW, please, please look hard at what happened and how you can promise yourself first of all that this was the last time. You got a hard hit, and I am sorry for all the difficulty that causes. You can get through this, but be honest with yourself!

  39. xxx9

    > On Monday, I was called into a “fact-finding” meeting with HR. I was sent home, and then fired over the phone a few hours later.

    You kind of glaze over this, OP, but if you spoke in this meeting as you did here then I wonder if that’s the real reason for the firing. Like you said, it was a breach and that’s serious on a professional level (your friend is a journalist, too! That’s the real clincher here for me) and on a personal level with management – your position is one of trust and you violated the basis of your work. That said, if this was going to be public anyways, your boss may have been inclined to write you up rather than fire you if you were sufficiently remorseful/petrified/mortified. Likewise, they would have fired you anyways regardless because they now feel that they cannot trust you with information. Either way, if you commit an offense, it’s best to never go with “it’s not that big of a deal anyways.” Owning up to your mistakes at the right time is hard and the natural instinct to defend yourself is strong, but ultimately that’s the best thing to do and garners respect.

    Also, if your mentor went through the trouble of having a conversation with you about your duties and seemed concerned, I doubt she was out to get you – she probably felt it was her duty and to her best interest to report now that you have made her an accomplice-after-the-fact in any potential breach (say, your friend was the one out to get you and it leaked before your department had any plans for dealing with a leak, this mentor would also be in trouble for not reporting it as soon as she knew if they found out she did)

  40. Observer

    OP I want to comment on one aspect that I didn’t see anyone mentioning directly. You say that the information eventually became public, and you seem to think that this mitigates the problem. But it absolutely does not mitigate it AT ALL. If you want to work in comms, you need to be crystal clear that the TIMING of disclosure is a crucial issue. This is an issue in most fields. For example, a lot of insider trading is based on the TIMING of someone finding out information. So, if you find out that company X is going to be reporting a surprising drop in profits next week, the person in the company who told you this is gone. It doesn’t matter that the information is going public next week. RIGHT NOW it is totally privileged information and it needs to be treated that way. (They could be facing prison time.)

    1. animaniactoo

      Even when it doesn’t rise to the level of “legal shenanigans might happen”, it can be pretty serious.

      The project I’m currently working on has confidentiality and embargoes that are all geared toward creating a marketplace “moment”. It’s part of driving a media and product blitz where it basically shows up out of nowhere because everyone has been working on it quietly so it would all be ready for the big day. A large part of this is creating the interest that will drive The Thing, and the market/desirability of The Thing. For a market where most of this stuff lives in a big way for one season, and then only has some ongoing staying power? That’s a big deal. Letting stuff out early could mean that goes off with a whimper instead of a bang and might be a financial difference in driving extra purchases for that initial season, and the implication of The Thing’s staying power if it doesn’t do well enough during that time.

  41. NoMeetingRequired

    The company I work for uses keyloggers and text scanners on our computers to catch these kinds of issues. (Most companies that use these kinds of scanners don’t let employees know. I found out accidentally.) It might not be that the coworker reported you. It might just be that the scanners caught it and notified security.

    1. sheworkshardforthemoney

      Back in the dinosaur era (early 80s) the director’s secretary was the only one tasked with typing up yearly evaluations on high-level staff. No one was allowed to approach her and her desk for the week and every night she locked up the removable ribbon from her typewriter because it could be unspooled and read.

  42. nnn

    Possible scripting adjustment: “I mistakenly shared some non-public information with a friend outside the agency before it was officially released to the public

    It might possibly be seen as less bad that the information shared was intended to be made public anyway, as opposed to it being information that wasn’t ever supposed to get out. Or that might not make a difference on how it’s interpreted.

    Note: You don’t want to frame this as “It would have been made public eventually so I did nothing wrong.” Your tone is still very much acknowledging that you messed up. This is just an opportunity to choose words that allow for the most generous possible interpretation (similar to how you say “with a friend” rather than “with a journalist”).

    1. Observer

      OP, there is another thing to keep in mind. Confidentiality is not just an issue in communications. It pretty much doesn’t matter what field you are in – the higher up you go the more likely you are to be privy to information that you MUST NOT share – no matter how excited you may be.

  43. Yikes All Around

    a coworker at my company was discussing a future potential release at a bar loud enough that someone heard it, and then posted it on a public forum. someone in another department saw the post, reached out to the person who made it and asked for information about the person they had heard it from. the coworker had an obvious physical feature that the poster mentioned, so the company was able to figure out who was discussing it in a public place and *fired* them for it.
    still can’t believe that happened.
    (i hope this story still makes sense with all identifying details purged, but hopefully it’s clear from context uh… why i am purging all those details smdh)
    one last post-script: this person wasn’t super good at their job, but was a teammate i worked closely with, and doubt they had been put on a PIP prior to this. obviously i can’t know that for sure though.

    1. Anon attorney

      Quite recently, a client of my firm contacted us to say they had heard staff in a bar gossiping about another client. I don’t think we fired anyone but the need for absolute confidentiality was reiterated. It should go without saying: a breach of confidentiality could and would wind up in a bar complaint in my jurisdiction.

      I’ve represented or advised friends, friends of friends and the occasional famous person, and nobody else knows anything about it nor will they ever. I’ve had the occasional day when I’ve really wanted to tell someone “I met X today!!” but you just can’t. I deal with it by having friends in the firm who I can say it to (but not in a bar!)

    2. FedSecAnon

      Yup. This is an actual security headache/nightmare for my government department as it’s so common for people to go out to lunch and start discussing what they’re working on while eating. On the non-security side of things it’s fascinating to learn what the folks in the booth behind me are working on as I’m quietly eating lunch, but it’s a serious security violation to discuss that kind of thing in public and it makes me cringe so hard when it happens.

    3. Working Mom Having It All

      This reminds me of the story of the Apple employee who left a prototype iPhone in a bar by mistake, before the official release. It being Silicon Valley, not only was the phone found, it was immediately identified for what it was. Within hours, there were writeups on tech blogs about the new iPhone before its official release. Cringe.

      1. C

        I used to work in a one-industry town. We all developed what we called the “[cityname] twitch” of looking over our shoulders before we talked about work stuff in a public place. And most of the real socialising happened at house parties and dinner parties, not restaurants or bars. Much safer.

        1. ArtsNerd

          My philosophy is that it doesn’t matter what city you live in, it’s a small town. If you talk about sensitive stuff in public you best be sure you’re actually anonymizing what you have to say.

  44. Megasaurusus

    In my first job out of college in the insurance industry I reinstated someone’s coverage without verifying that they had had no claims in the lapsed period – they immediately called claims and filed a $40,000 claim. I was new, too eager to please, naive and I let the client rush me instead of following established protocol. I did not get fired for the offense, but I genuinely learned a great deal from the experience and it changed the entire way I interacted with clients, for the better. Later when I moved on, it became my absolute best interview topic when asked about a mistake and how I handled it.

    Everyone makes mistakes – at all points in our careers. Some are minor, some are devastating. How you analyze the situation and internalize the lesson is more important than wording for future employers right now. When you are genuinely accept the error, analyze why you made it and address how to alter yourself to not be vulnerable to this kind of mistake again, it will naturally come across when you talk about it in interviews because you’ll be genuine and not trying to find a strategic angle – and that genuine quality will land well with other mature professionals who have made their own mistakes.

  45. PR Girl

    As someone who practices public relations, calling this “victimless” gives me a lot of anxiety. Letter writer, it sounds like you’re new to our field and may not understand the importance of keeping confidence. We will always be privy to confidential information in our roles, it’s the nature of what we do. The consequences are serious and could have legal implications if you’re representing a government or publicly traded company.

    I encourage you to get involved with PRSA. It’s a great professional resource with a lot of professional development around ethics. Before I hired you, I’d want to know you were familiar with – and in agreement – with our ethical code, which talks a lot about protecting our clients.

    1. TravelJunkie

      PRSA is an excellent suggestion! Calling this ‘victimless’ shows OP still doesn’t have insight into their behavior. The coworker did the right thing. I would have “ratted” you out too. I work in the auto industry in media communications. I previously worked as a journalist. I constantly have journalist friends asking for confidential tips, and there is no way I would ever give up any information. If you can’t keep your mouth shut then you need a new line of work.

  46. Blue Eagle

    The letter makes it look like you only told one person out of turn, but actually you told two people. Both your friend AND your co-worker. If you hadn’t told your co-worker, then they could not have “ratted you out”.
    Sorry that this happened to you (I’ve made stupid mistakes too) but you may want to consider keeping problems like this to yourself.

  47. Alphabet Pony

    I used to be a journalist, I have lots of friends who are journalists and I never tell them anything that I shouldn’t, even the ones I really trust. I’m sorry but it would definitely be a good idea to recognise that this is a really big deal and learn from it.

    1. MissDisplaced

      Oh yes. I do a lot of trade shows and we always remind booth staff of what to say (talk points) and what not to say to trade journalists. And sometimes at shows they don’t identify themselves as press immediately.

  48. Leela

    OP if I was part of an interview for you, and you brought up this situation the way it’s phrased here, I’m sorry to say it would be an immediate pass. Not necessarily for the leaking but for the way you’re talking about it. I’d instantly think that you’d learned nothing, that no information we kept around you would be secure, and that anything we brought to you as far as behavior we needed you to change would suddenly be labeled as “victimless” and “only because *truly irrelevant fact here*” and “unfair”.

    I don’t mean to sound harsh but you really need to break out of this frame of mind. Show prospective employers that you can reflect on your actions and learn from mistakes, because that’s not at all what I’m seeing here.

  49. Arctic

    LW best of luck! Many, many of us in similar positions have made similar mistakes. You’ll get another job.

  50. Massmatt

    OP I don’t want to pile on, many people have made the point that this would be a very big deal in many industries, and that your coworker was not responsible for your being fired, and indeed may have been obligated to report the violation.

    You asked how to handle this in future interviews and one key is owning the mistake, taking responsibility for it. But from there you can talk about what you learned from the experience and how this makes you a better employee/candidate now.

    I once interviewed someone with a great resume but had switched specialties within the field. When I asked about the job move he said he had failed to make a required disclosure on a sale and so was fired, but how he took it to heart and had behaved since. It was a refreshingly candid answer and so we wound up hiring him.

    You can get past this, if you learn from the experience. The first job will be the hardest but gradually you are less and less likely to be asked about an older job.

  51. Fieldpoppy

    Alison, I really liked your advice, because it can apply to any situation where the person has truly done something egregious but has to move on. Yes, this was a fireable offence, but I’m less interested in the nuances of violating confidentiality than in the bigger picture question “I have done something where I really screwed up — how do I move on?” (Someone above mentioned someone bringing a gun to work (Dwight?); I’m also thinking of someone I know whose work depends on his being able to drive who got a DUI last year, and someone who essentially had a full emotional breakdown in a workplace I was in when I was a lot younger, who ended up under her desk sobbing and throwing things). People do stupid or extreme things all the time; their lives don’t end, but they *can* be turning points for a downward spiral. I’m curious about how to turn the page, and I think your advice is really good about this — own it, let go of the defensiveness, be ready to talk about changes you’ve made so it won’t happen again. I always appreciate your combination of kindness and firm clarity.

  52. Sally

    When I read the letter, it struck me that the “VERY EXCITING” nature of the news was more of a reason NOT to share it. Where I work, I cannot legally share information about very exciting things that are happening/about to happen. I’m so paranoid about it, that I only talk about what the company has already shared publicly. It’s too difficult to know which internally-discussed information is confidential and which isn’t. It’s extremely tempting to want to be the person in-the-know, but my motivation for keeping things confidential is stronger: I don’t want to ruin my reputation, and I don’t want deal with the fallout of severely disappointing my colleagues, whom I respect and like. And that doesn’t even take into account that I could be prosecuted for divulging any private information.

  53. Bopper

    You got fired because you:

    1) Broke a rule
    2) Told someone you broke a rule

    and that person did what they were told to do and reported it.

  54. Bopper

    OP:
    You are disappointed you didn’t get a second chance.
    But imagine you are the government and someone leaked information. They got caught.
    And then they did it again. Wouldn’t you ask why the gov’t didnt’ fire them the first time?
    YOU know you wouldn’t do it again, but nobody else can really know that

  55. Working Mom Having It All

    Yikes. This is a bad enough screw-up that I would be contemplating a career change, or at least a pivot to an area of communications where things like confidential information and media embargoes aren’t ever a factor.

    I used to work for Marvel Studios. They take information security and confidentiality so seriously that they make delivery people who come to the offices sign an NDA just in case they were in the elevator with Sam Jackson. In my role there I was sometimes privy to confidential information that was not to be shared with the public. Nothing dangerous, and while I was there it honestly wasn’t even anything that would be a big scoop or exciting dinner party story. But they took confidentiality very seriously, and I signed an extremely ironclad NDA, so I never told anyone any of the interesting tidbits I found out about from working there. Because I said I wouldn’t, I knew there would be consequences if something like your story happened to me, and also because, how’s that going to look to a potential future employer that might value confidentiality equally highly?

    While I was working there, I started dating an entertainment journalist who then covered some Marvel projects, and there were definitely things that happened at work which I did not share with him because of my NDA. Even though he loves the MCU and would have enjoyed the anecdotes.

    This seems like a no-brainer to just not do, and if you did, certainly not to tell someone at work that you did this.

  56. Jennifer

    I see a lot of people saying that it’s always wrong to share confidential information with the press, and that’s not necessarily true. Leaking information can actually be the right thing in some cases. It can bring vital information to the public who have a right to know. It can take down evil people who mean to do others harm. I get why maintaining confidentiality is important, and I understand why the OP was wrong in this particular situation, but balance is also needed.

    1. MissDisplaced

      True, but you’re talking more about deciding to become a whistleblower over something potentially dangerous to the public. Before someone decides to do that, I encourage them to get legal representation. It’s definitely not a spur if the moment decision.

      1. Jennifer

        I agree. That’s not really a response to the OP but more a pushback on some the comments. Some seem to imply there is no reason ever to leak information, which isn’t true.

    2. Working Mom Having It All

      I think if the OP had framed the situation as, “how can I get another job after being fired for being a whistleblower after I shared important but unfortunately confidential information with a journalist because the public has a right to know”, these comments would be very different. But that’s not what happened here.

    3. Malarkey01

      I would push back slightly on the leak to press part. That’s the very last reporting step for something illegal/dangerous. In a truly dangerous/vital public information sphere there are agency heads/regulators/IG offices/congressional members/even the police depending on the issue that you should contact before going to the press. Leaking to the press can come with criminal penalties and you need to be very careful with how you report illegal/dangerous information for your own protection.

      1. Gazebo Slayer

        Unfortunately these days a lot of the regulators are crooked and will never do anything about problems without a lot of public pressure (and sometimes not even then).

    4. Gazebo Slayer

      Thank you for pointing this out! There are lots of situations in which leaking information to a journalist would absolutely be the right thing to do, and we should absolutely encourage it in those cases. But OP’s situation sounds like more of a case of “I am just soooo excited about Cool Thing that I had to tell” rather than “something dangerous or corrupt is going on and the public should know.”

  57. MissDisplaced

    I’m sorry this happened to you OP, yeah, in communications at nearly any company this in indeed A VERY BIG DEAL. Communications professionals are privy to so many deals and information that can’t be divulged to even spouses until they become public.
    But you see that now I hope. And while you felt mad at coworker, really you’re mad at yourself.

    I hope you get past this, it may bar you from future government work, but not other placed hopefully if you follow Alison’s advice and really own up to the mistake.

  58. ArtsNerd

    Well, this is both unkind and off-base. The coworker did nothing wrong that we can see from the letter.

  59. Lady Catherine de Bourgh

    Remember when Beyoncé lip synched at Obama’s inauguration? The communications person from the Marine Band was immediately fired when it was discovered she had leaked this information. And that wasn’t even technically confidential.

    The government takes this stuff very very seriously.

  60. Observer

    OP, there is another thing to keep in mind. Confidentiality is not just an issue in communications. It pretty much doesn’t matter what field you are in – the higher up you go the more likely you are to be privy to information that you MUST NOT share – no matter how excited you may be.

  61. agnes

    Accept responsibility for what you did. I encourage you to spend some time really thinking about this and absorbing the very good feedback you have generally received here. This is a very important life lesson, both for your professional and personal life. You are fortunate to get the opportunity to learn it early when it hasn’t resulted in severe long term consequences. We’ve all made mistakes. It’s what you do with what you learn that is important.

  62. Lily

    Another point: you didn’t just accidently tell about it. You unpromptedly wrote a message to the friend. It’s a big difference if you sit together at a bar, your friend mentions chocolate teapots and you say “oh, this morning I was asked to design a llama-themed one” before you realize that you really shouldn’t have said that. Or even if you sit at the bar and the llama design keeps crossing your mind and you talk before you think. It shouldn’t happen but I’d understand if it did.

    But that’s not what you did.

  63. Autumnheart

    Maybe consider a career in advertising, where it’s your job to tell people about exciting things.

    1. Observer

      Actually advertising is not going to be any better. People working on campaigns get to be privy to all sorts of information that is not intended to be public. And they also need to have an acute understanding that the timing of disclosure makes a HUGE, TREMENDOUS difference.

  64. CanCan

    This is why you never ever confidentially share work-related things with colleagues. Think of speaking with a colleague like speaking with your boss. You colleagues are often the closest people to you, so it makes sense to want to tell them about your problems (which include work screw-ups), but you can’t. They are not neutral. They might tell superiors accidentally, out of frustration (e.g. because your performance / screw-up affects them, or because they feel they are being compared to you and want to put the record straight to defend themselves), or out of a sense that they have an obligation to report (whether or not they actually do). If you need to share with the boss – do so. If you don’t need to / want to share with the boss – share with your closest family/friend, assuming they don’t work at the same place or have friends/contacts there.

    Screw-ups happen. Good luck to you, OP, with getting over this one.

  65. Oblique Fed

    One of the things that is emphasized very heavily at my agency is that your own perception of how “important” a piece of information is does not give you enough information to decide if it’s “really” a big deal. Besides the stuff that has already been discussed upthread like potential for insider trading, unfair advantage in things like competing for federal contracts or grants, or derailing a communication’s strategy, one of the biggest reasons to keep work information private is due to counterintelligence concerns. Basically, one of the key ways that spies get information is by social engineering – picking up seemingly minor information through friendly chat that they can then combine together to make more. A lot of times, the actual employee might not be important, but they might know something like when a key senior person works, or gossip about so-and-so, that is then used to either help with hacking, help with fraud, do additional social engineering where they know just enough about a topic to lead the conversation, or in some cases to put pressure on a higher-level person to try to get them to give further information or make certain decisions. Given how much we have learned about foreign intelligence operations in American social media in the last few years, this is yet another reason why information security of all levels is taken so seriously. In fact, if you are being sent overseas, you have to take a special counterintelligence training before you go that includes tips like “don’t wear items with your agency’s name written on them while you travel” and “never park next to a panel van.”

  66. Micklak

    I’m interested in the fact that the journalist friend is described as 100% trustworthy. I wonder how trustworthy the LW considers themself (sp?)? 100%? Because they turned out to not be trustworthy. If each person tells just one person it can end up being a lot of people.

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