I’m addicted to snooping in my boss’s email

A reader writes:

I have access to my boss’s email account so that I can send email on his behalf/search for things in his folders. It’s not a privilege that’s supposed to be used often.

Unfortunately, I’m a compulsive snooper, and I find myself opening his account a few times a week to read emails. I’ve learned all sorts of things that I definitely shouldn’t know.

I know this is wrong, and I keep telling myself to stop, but I can’t hold off for more than a few days. I guess I’m just hoping you can explain for me why this is such a bad idea, because right now there just haven’t been consequences. Or maybe you have a tip for how to resist the temptation?

Well, it’s something that could get you fired if he finds out. And there are lots of ways that he could find out — for example, you accidentally leave a message marked as “read” that he hadn’t seen yet, or someone in IT could notice and fill him in, or he could start to suspect you’re doing it and ask IT to confirm it.

It’s also a huge violation of his privacy.

It’s a violation of other people’s privacy as well. When your colleagues email your boss, they’re assuming it’s private. If your boss and one of your coworkers are emailing about, say, performance problems the coworker is having, it’s really crappy if you’re eavesdropping on that without their knowledge or permission. The same thing goes if someone emails your boss about a serious health issue that they didn’t want others to know about. Or to report harassment. There are tons of situations where you could be seriously violating other people’s privacy. People deserve to be able to have private conversations with your boss without you secretly listening in.

It also means that you risk finding information that puts you in a really difficult situation, like if you find out that a close friend at work is in danger of being fired or laid off. You could find out something you’d really, really rather not know.

And look, I get the temptation. There’s a power disparity and an information disparity, and it’s legitimately interesting to get access to things you otherwise wouldn’t know. But it’s wrong for all the reasons above. And this isn’t like you did this once and then regretted it. You’re actively choosing to do this multiple times a week.

Honestly, if I found out that one of my staff were doing this, I’d almost certainly fire them — because it would mean that I couldn’t trust them not to abuse the access their job gave them, and that they were willing to violate my privacy out of idle curiosity.

It’s just a crappy thing to do to someone who trusts you.

And it’s a crappy thing to do to yourself — because you’re putting your job at risk, and because you’re being someone I doubt you want to be. Do you want to be the person who’s untrustworthy and who violates other people’s privacy?

Maybe every time you feel tempted to open your boss’s email, you should picture yourself hiding out in a closet in his office and spying on his conversations from in there … because this is basically that, and I bet you wouldn’t do that.

But I’d also really think about your values here and figure out why your actions aren’t aligning with them.

Because I assume this will come up in the comments section: Yes, employers generally have the right to monitor employees’ email. But this isn’t any kind of fair play turnabout on that. For one thing, employers that monitor employee email need to disclose that so employees know it’s possible. And for another, at decent companies that doesn’t mean going into someone’s email and just idly reading their messages; it’s typically only done in response to a specific concern or investigation.

{ 470 comments… read them below }

  1. (Mr.) Cajun2core*

    You were right with your comments about predicting that people would comment that the employer has access to the emails. I was thinking it as I read your response! What are you, some kind of mind-reader? :-)

    1. That Girl From Quinn's House*

      I worked somewhere where the email policy said something like, “[Company] has the right to read your work email at any time and employees have no expectation for privacy in their work email. However, managers may not read emails without sufficient cause, and snooping through email absent a valid business reason is grounds for termination.”

      Which made me feel good, because I had a boss many years ago who used to read everyone’s emails to make sure they were sufficiently “loyal” to her.

      1. Magenta Sky*

        Our policy is “It’s not your email, it’s ours. We pay for it, we own it. It’s like any other company owned tool that we assign to you to use to do your job.”

        But in the two decades I’ve been in this position, I’ve only ever pulled archives twice. Once to dig out some old financial info from a previous controller, and once for HR to give to the company lawyer for reasons I do not want to know.

        (There were also two instances of digging through proxy logs for web surfing, both disciplinary. If you do it on my network, I have a log of it. This is made absolutely clear in the employee manual.)

        1. Busy*

          It is funny cuz I found myself just yesterday having to explain this to a coworker of mine who is no where near new to the workforce. This was after I had told her to stop referring to a coworker as a “Whorebeast” and to definitely not type that to me in an email. She still doesn’t believe that they can just read your work email (and still doesn’t see how referring to another woman as a “whorebeast” is sexist and will land her exactly in a position where her emails will be read!)

          1. Observer*

            OMG. Gasping. And also, finally understanding people who laugh from shock.

            PLEASE tell her this IN WRITING, IN EMAIL. Also, find out what your company’s policy is on requirements to report issues.

          2. Jaydee*

            Oh. Wow.

            (Those are the words I finally decided on after my eyes widened so much they actually couldn’t open any farther and then a bunch of words were in my brain all at once.)

          3. Mellow*

            See, it’s people like that who I’d hear about when I was unemployed, and I’d think, “How is it you have a job and I don’t?”

          4. Database Developer Dude*

            Wow…just….wow……

            Does she think because she’s a woman, she can get away with calling another woman a whorebeast? I know as a man I wouldn’t dream of throwing an epithet like that around in reference to ANY woman….

        1. boo bot*

          Yeah, that’s one of those words I can’t even hear in a positive context anymore.

    2. Samwise*

      As employees of the state, all of our work email is part of the public record. All of it.
      This is why it drives me crazy that my husband has one email account, his work account.

      1. Cyrus*

        That would drive me crazy too. I can only assume your husband has been working for the state since before personal email accounts were widespread? It’s crazy either way, but if he’s only been working for the state for 5 years or something, it’s not just crazy, it’s unimaginable. Like, did he have one in the past, but had to delete and close it last week due to a weird data breach or doxxing incident or something, and plans to start another but hasn’t got around to it?

      2. Holly*

        That’s not only a bad idea privacy wise, but his work could automatically delete his email one day and they’d have the right to do that. He’d lose everything on there.

        1. GCox*

          Will rather than could – once he retires or finds a new job, I can’t imagine work will let him log in anymore.

          1. Ren*

            You’re quite right. My dad had troubles getting people to start using his personal email once he retired, and he had been using it already for a good 15 years. But folks whom he’d met in a professional capacity kept trying to email his government account, even though it was strictly for personal reasons by that point.

      3. doreen*

        I actually know a number of people who can and do use their work account for personal business- but they are hte sort of people who send maybe one personal email a month. Even as a state worker I am permitted to use my work email for limited personal messages , just like I have always been able to use my office phone for limited personal calls. I rarely do, and when I have, it’s been 1) when I was working at a location with no cell phones allowed and 2) for messages that I don’t mind people reading.( like letting my husband know I got stuck at work late)

      4. twig*

        Have him set up a gmail or something for personal stuff. Not for privacy, but so that you will have access in the event that something happens to him.

        I work at a state university — in the IT department. We had an employee who passed away after a long battle with cancer. a lot of her personal business stuff (including bill pay/account information etc) was in her work email. Her husband couldn’t get to it.

        Getting the department access to her email, so that someone could go through and find the information for her husband, required a lengthy bureaucratic process and permissions from the university president. –

        ** this may be different from your situation, since we are a University as opposed to a different type of state institution.**

      5. pancakes*

        I can’t get my head around this. It would take just a couple minutes to set up a personal account, it wouldn’t cost a cent, and there are so many good reasons to do so.

    3. smoke tree*

      I don’t think these things are really that equivalent, though. Presumably no one is writing anything in their work email that they would object to their employer seeing, since it’s reasonable to assume that you should just be using your work email for boring work stuff. But as Alison notes, there is all kinds of work-appropriate material that an uninvolved employee shouldn’t have access too, including private health information. It’s not really about the balance of power, but of the level of privacy people should reasonably be able to expect in both contexts.

      1. Observer*

        Exactly this.

        Reporting harassment? Well, of COURSE the company needs to see that. And I *WANT* them to be able to pull those emails. That doesn’t mean that I want Chris the Scheduler to see that report!

        Interactive ADA process? Same deal. Request for leave, compliance issues, etc. All of these, the same.

      2. Avasarala*

        Agreed, I was kind of confused because of course there’s a difference between using work email for private non-work things, and snooping on private work-related things. There are all kinds of things in this category, like performance reviews, salary information, dependent information, social security numbers, company projects and plans, hires and terminations…

        I’m not emailing my boss about something that shouldn’t be on my work email in the first place. But I am emailing my boss about something OP shouldn’t know about.

  2. Agent J*

    OP, you also have to be careful to not accidentally talk about or react to a topic with your boss or coworker that you shouldn’t know about. This could eventually catch up to you and even though there are no consequences now, the consequences if your boss finds out is just too high. Don’t risk your job just to be nosey.

    1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

      Ohhhh yeah. This is part and parcel with finding out things you shouldn’t know about. It’s gonna put you in a bad and also very sticky situation at some point.

      1. valentine*

        OP, you also have to be careful to not accidentally talk about or react to a topic with your boss or coworker that you shouldn’t know about.
        Your knowledge will blend, obscuring provenance, and you’ll let something slip, OP. You can’t otherwise. You’re breaching security (and wasting time). You might do well to read the letter from the person who leaked to a journalist who happened to be a friend.

      2. pancakes*

        It’s already putting the letter writer in a bad position, in a way – even if there’s no slip-up in conversation, every few days they’re doing something that they want to stop doing. It can’t feel good to be confronted with one’s own inertia and lack of willpower over & over again.

    2. animaniactoo*

      This was the part that would be the biggest concern for me. The necessity of keeping that poker face/not acting on information I’d seen in the slightest way – pulling that off would be hard to do. I’d be busted eventually.

    3. Jennifer*

      That would be difficult for me. Like if I knew an employee was getting laid off at the end of the month and heard them talking about wanting to make a large purchase soon or trying to adopt or get prego. That’s why I wouldn’t want to know.

    4. Lynca*

      This was my thought. It’s the other half of the “knowing things you shouldn’t” problem. If you’re presented with something you feel compelled to act on- you’re going to get outed.

    5. Kes*

      Yeah – there have been no consequences so far because they haven’t been caught yet. But OP is playing with fire. Over time, the chances that they’ll slip or someone will notice something and find out will go up and when they do, the price will be high and OP will most likely get fired.

    6. fposte*

      And it’s likely a bit of a double personality whammy, because those of us who like to snoop really like to demonstrate our insider knowledge.

      1. SueAnn*

        Just want to offer my own cautionary tale on this. I haven’t done this in a professional setting, but back in college, in a moment I’m not proud of, I snooped in my ex-boyfriend’s email. I had his password from before we broke up, he had low-security standards, and I couldn’t resist reading up on what he was doing. We remained friends after the breakup, and we were having a conversation one day and I inadvertently dropped a name I could only know from his email. Definitely, an “oh shit” moment. I apologized profusely, but let’s just say we’re not still friends now. On the plus side, it absolutely cured me of my snooping habit in general.

        1. Amy Farrah Fowler*

          Yeah, just imagine how creeped out he felt (and how creeped out you would feel if someone was doing that to you). I went on a couple dates in high school with a guy who hacked into my email and then told me about it (because he wanted to see if I’d read an email he sent me yet). I promptly dumped him and never spoke to him again.

      2. RUKiddingMe*

        I am being totally genuine here, completely sincere and not snarky at all… That said, *why* do you “like to snoop?” What do you get out of it.

        Seriously I don’t get it but I know there are people who like to snoop and I’m just trying to understand. I’m on the other end of the spectrum at “Does it pertain to/affect me? No? Why are you telling me?”

        1. Indigo a la mode*

          While I wouldn’t consider myself a snoop, I am the type of person for whom more information is always better. Even if it’s something terrible that will haunt me. Even if it isn’t relevant to me (yet). I just like to know everything I possibly can about everything so I have the most data to make my decisions from, or be able to spout interesting facts to friends, or advise people, or whatever.

          I know a lot of people here aren’t into personality-test-type-things, but we did the Strengthsfinder test at work last year and two of my top five strengths are “Learner” and “Input.” I’m guessing compulsive snoops probably share those strengths.

          1. SigneL*

            I don’t snoop (partly because I can’t keep a secret) but I’m curious about almost everything. I’ve hard to work really hard to stop asking nosy questions (even questions that would offend me!) because I want to know!

          2. Anon for This*

            Oh, this is me to a T. Learner, Input, AND Context. I want to know everything. It helps me set up my array of future possibilities. It helps me avoid surprises– and I really don’t like surprises. Really. REALLY. (Like, I used to find where my parents had hidden all my Christmas presents in advance. That was fun! It was intellectually challenging! Being surprised Christmas day? Ehhhh.)

            What keeps me from being even tempted to snoop for private data is context. I know I’d endanger my employment. I know the knowledge I find could hurt someone. I know it’s unethical and I would lose respect and trust. Moreover, I know these consequences are unpredictable. In fact, they’d be the WORST kind of surprise. So its just not tempting.

            I still spoiler myself on Marvel movies though. Boy do I. Zero regrets.

          3. Alianora*

            Agreed — I would definitely have to resist the temptation if I had access to my boss’ inbox, and it’s because I see information as power. I accidentally came across info about some of my coworkers’ salaries in a box of files my boss asked me to shred, and there’s a real thrill to knowing that stuff. I’m not seeking that info out because I realize it’s a violation of privacy, but I can’t say I wish I hadn’t stumbled across it.

            (I happened to do the strengthsfinder test too, and Learner was in my top five as well.)

            1. Granger*

              Same @Alianora.
              For me learning private information is like an adrenaline rush and I’ve had to learn to consciously overcome my sneaky ways.

              OP – I’ve (mostly) conquered my snooping hobby by:
              1) the moment I realize I’m getting that feeling I remind myself that I want to be a good person with integrity MORE than I want to have the rush and get the information, and
              2) I remind myself that no matter how much I try to convince myself that no one will know, someone will ALWAYS find out. Sometimes it takes a long time, but the truth has a way of finding the light of day eventually.

              1. Granger*

                Oh! one more –
                3) I don’t want to pay the consequence of tons of shame and feeling horrible about myself.

              2. Katherine*

                I’ve used the same strategies to mostly stop snooping, too! Another thing that I do is remind myself that by being patient, eventually I’ll learn most of the stuff I could have found by snooping anyway but without actually having to snoop. I won’t find out every single thing of course, but enough that it’s a really good motivator for me. And I don’t have to feel guilty or keep secrets, either!

          4. Ginger Peachy*

            Totally me. I am an information junkie. Thank goodness I don’t have the kind of access OP does, it would be hard to resist. No question that kind of breach would be a firing offense where I work.

          5. OhNo*

            Agreed. I’m not much for snooping, but I do collect information in other ways because I just want to know everything. Personally, I don’t know how most folks make decisions without collecting all the facts. For me it’s just a matter of keeping up with organizational politics so I know how best to get things done, but apparently it’s considered a bit weird?

            1. pleaset*

              “Personally, I don’t know how most folks make decisions without collecting all the facts.”

              Trying to get all the facts is sometimes too much – I’m busy. For me it’s important to know the limitations of the information I have and my assumptions, and also to state those limits/assumptions when I’m talking/presenting to others.

        2. NW Mossy*

          I’m generally pretty good about not acting on my snoopy urges (being both introverted and inclined to sloth) but I definitely get a buzz when I hear a piece of significant info that’s limited-distribution. It feeds a sense of being special for knowing this thing that others don’t, and to the extent that it’s gossip shared, it bonds me somewhat to the person who told me. There’s power in knowledge, and having power can feel pretty good.

          1. Granger*

            This is interesting NW. For me the rush is knowing things that people don’t know that I know – discovered by accident or covertly rather than by people / gossip.

        3. fposte*

          That may be one of those “Why do you like chocolate?” questions that’s not explicable to somebody who doesn’t feel the same way. But what the hell, let’s try.

          I’ve always liked it even since I was a little kid, and I don’t know that it’s changed much since then. Something shaded or hidden from view has an additional glamor to it–there are whole tenets of garden design built on that notion–so the uncovering of it is like a prize. I’m curious if you like detective stories at all–it’s a similar pull of putting the clues together to find an answer. Then add in the fact that I really, really like knowing stuff, and I’m thisclose to knowing this thing that you know and I don’t; it’s sort of a knowledge greed and also a siblingesque impulse to level the playing field.

          It’s actually gotten much better as I’ve gotten older because 1) I have too freaking much to do and 2) social media means so many of people’s secret things are all splayed out there for me to see whenever I want (we just had an amazing NextDoor thread that will keep me sated for weeks). But I still identify strongly as a snooper, and it does tie in to other characteristics that are pretty unambiguously positive–the ability and persistence to problem-solve and decode complicated challenges, for instance, and the general pattern of intellectual curiosity.

          Does that get you any closer? I thought it was an interesting question–thanks for asking it!

          1. Courtney*

            This is so interesting. I identify with everything you say here except the actual snooping part. I hate snooping and feel sick to my stomach if I so much as accidentally overhear something I shouldn’t. I would never actually TRY to snoop! I can’t even imagine being willing to deliberately breach someone else’s privacy in that way, it’s utterly beyond the pale for me. I’d be so embarrassed!

            But I absolutely love detective stories and puzzle-solving and learning new things etc, I just have never see them as at all connecting to snooping, which to me has always seemed to be about lacking boundaries and being selfish and controlling.

            As I said, it’s really interesting, thanks for sharing.

            1. Product Person*

              I’m exactly like you, Courtney!

              Perhaps the people who like snooping can learn to channel their curiosity in a different way, something that doesn’t involve invading other people’s privacy?

          2. RUKiddingMe*

            It does thanks! Thanks to everyone else too.

            “Something shaded or hidden from view has an additional glamor to it–there are whole tenets of garden design built on that notion–so the uncovering of it is like a prize.”
            –This clicked with me. I was like “ohhhhhh…”

            I’m still not nosey about stuff I don’t need to know though. I mean if I need to know it, or it will be something I need to know at some point, sure, bring it on, but other peoples’ business that isn’t going to affect me…I have only so much RAM inside my head and I need to leave room for the stuff that matters to me. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

            My mom was the kind to look out the closed curtains to see what was happening and then try to compel me to go find out for her, so that probably had something to do with why I am like I am too. Police in the street…ok let’s see what’s happening, two neighbors having a conversation…nah.

            1. Lissa*

              I think we all spend some energy on things that we don’t need to know strictly – it just varies what it is. I know people who spend a lot of mental energy on tv shows, or model trains, or getting into online arguments about sports teams or whatnot – none of that is strictly “necessary” so I think it’s interesting that you’re kinda framing it as “but I don’t NEED to know it so I don’t want to”. I’d argue a very small percentage of what we do/talk about is stuff we really “need” to know.

            1. fposte*

              Interesting question. I think it breaks down that I’m fairly forgiving about the kind of snooping I’d actually do–neighbors watching me as I take my garbage out? Sure, fine–but I’m weirded out by somebody who’d do stuff that I wouldn’t do, like go through my phone.

              (Plus a lot of this was a lot less curbed in childhood, and I’d be more forgiving of kids.)

        4. CMart*

          I’m not a snooper per se (though I do enjoy a good spontaneous browse through my husband’s saved photos on his phone or his group chat with friends — something he watches me do and something he does to me, it’s fine I promise) but I am an insufferable gossip.

          People are really interesting to me. People’s actions are interesting, and their motivations are even more interesting. How they live their lives and make decisions and act around people who are not-me, it’s all fascinating.

          And so reading my husband’s texts to his friends where I am not his audience gives me a glimpse into how he acts around others and gives me a more full picture of him as a person. Knowing who announced a pregnancy, or is being whispered about leaving the company, or bought a house that backs up to train tracks because apparently they’re a train geek, or whatever is just so satisfying for me to know. I really like other people, and I like knowing them as well-rounded individuals.

          So, while I don’t seek out information sources to go rummaging through, I can’t say I wouldn’t fully relish the opportunity to comb through my manager’s e-mails.

          1. CMart*

            Fast addendum: I’m a gossip-gatherer. I don’t share things about other people. I’m a dragon and personal information is my gold, I keep it warm and guard it jealously.

            1. OhNo*

              Ah, you put it so much better than I could. I’m exactly the same way! It’s nice to know I’m not the only one who wants to collect gossip like my own personal dragon hoard of mostly-useless facts.

            2. Database Developer Dude*

              CMart, OMG me too!!!!! It’s been said about me behind my back that I am where gossip goes to die…..

          2. designbot*

            I’d also identify as a gossip. I both hoard and share according to the situation, but I believe *strongly* in productive gossip. Being able to give someone context of a situation they may not know, or a heads up about something coming down the pipeline is pure gold. Getting them to share that type of stuff with me when they have it is even better. My workplace is very opaque in its decision-making, so establishing a productive gossip network is the only way not to go bonkers here, IMHO.
            A note on what I call ‘productive’ gossip: I don’t care about whose partner is leaving them, or who got too drunk at an office happy hour. I care immensely about who’s going to be promoted, fired, get onto certain projects, or the best avenues to get an initiative I’m championing moved through approvals. I want to understand other people’s workplace motivations, so that I might speak their language when I need something, or know what projects to try and pull them onto. To me productive gossip is the kind of gossip that makes everyone do their jobs that much better or find the right moment or way to make a request.

            1. CatMom*

              I consider myself to be…a protective gossip, is that makes sense? I generally keep personal info to myself, I wouldn’t say nasty or personal things about someone for no reason, but I’m not about to foster any missing stairs! If I know someone did something messed up, I’m going to make sure people know — discreetly or not, as appropriate. (This is more in a personal context, though my industry is very wrapped up in Me Too, so there are definitely places for it in a work context)

          3. pancakes*

            Oh my. I know it’s fully consensual in your case but I can’t get my head around a couple doing this! The lack of privacy is unsettling, and the material you’ve described makes it hard to understand the draw. There are so many great biographies, autobiographies & volumes of published correspondence out there, and there’s pretty much an endless supply of it. The Warhol Diaries alone are 800-something pages. Cecil Beaton’s diaries are multiple volumes, and then there’s The Unexpurgated Beaton. The correspondence of people like Noel Coward, Dawn Powell, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Jessica Mitford, etc., make for brilliant reading, full of fascinating gossip and observations and written with style. In terms of more contemporary material, any biography by Stacy Schiff is brilliant, and Grace Jones’s autobio is a fun read. How many of the people in your husband’s group chats insist on shucking their own oysters backstage! (Not a euphemism, the woman is a force of nature).

        5. EH*

          I’m a massive optimizer – I instinctively want to find the best, most efficient way to do everything (Enneagram 1 ftw!). This means that, among other things, I want to know pretty much everything about anybody – the better I know someone, the more likely I am to communicate effectively with them, work effectively with them, etc. Plus, I am naturally very curious about people, even folks I don’t interact with directly. Sometimes the most boring-seeming people will have some weird hobby or have been through an unusual experience, and I love finding that stuff out. The more information I have about humanity in general, the better I get at spotting behavior patterns/red flags/etc.

          On the other hand, integrity is really important to me and my memory can be spotty due to some health conditions, so I make a serious effort *not* to get information I might have to pretend not to have later. The less of that info I have, the more I can rely on my brain to remember the handful of things that *were* shared in confidence.

        6. Lissa*

          Ooh great question. I just like knowing things – Harriet the Spy was very relatable to me as a kid, though I was/am way too cautious to ever really “snoop” in a way that could be damaging. But I think part of it is unexplainable, like why someone likes doing anything really. (My personal “I don’t get it” about something most people like is photographs. I don’t like taking them at all and don’t get anything out of looking at them.)

          For me it is about finding out about the way people tic, analysing situations with more knowledge than I had before – a lot of things I think. I said down below that I really enjoy history in part because of finding out about the little details of people’s lives. That moment of “wow, that’s relatable” from some duchess who lived 300 years ago is amazing to me. Or finding something out about how two people reacted in the workplace and it giving me more information that makes me go “oh, NOW I understand!” The “aha” moment.

        7. smoke tree*

          I feel like most people who like reading advice columns can probably identify to some degree! I consider myself a fairly nosy person, in that I’m really curious about the lives of others and get a weird thrill from seeing behind the scenes, even for really mundane things. That being said, I don’t snoop, because I’m a terrible liar and would probably feel guilty and confess immediately.

          1. RUKiddingMe*

            The advice column thing is kinda interesting. Ok all advice column junkies…raise your hand … ::raises hand:: but for me it’s less about seeing into the lives of others and more about sitting in judgement. Hey, I wanted to be a judge until I learned it meant being a lawyer first, so… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

            I think I’m a lot more like my dad kind of naturally, disposition-wise than my mom. My dad taught me very young “not your business, don’t get involved,” whereas my mom peered from behind the drapes. Even without him teaching me that I think my natural misanthropy would still keep me from being interested. With the exception of being all judgmental and stuff. LOL

        8. L.S. Cooper*

          I don’t usually go snooping around, because I don’t want to disrespect people’s privacy, but I just…like knowing things. And I’m a very fast reader– I have read a great many texts I shouldn’t have from a face-up phone that lit up with the notification, just because I read the entire thing before my brain went “IT’S NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS”.

        9. GreenDoor*

          I have an anlyatical mind so once I”m given a research project, I love seeing what kind of paths it can take me on and how you can find pieces of random information in different spots that, when connected, shows you the full picture in a way you weren’t aware of at the onset of the research. I love seeing how far I can go in a quest for information. Occassionally in my job I have access to confidential information. Not snooping per se. But I get the lure of snooping because it helps you connect dots in a way that someone without secret information would be able to. Once you see that secret document or read that private email it’s like “Oh NOW I get why Bob quit so abruptly.” Or “NOW that weird thing Mary said makes sense.” And then it’s the rush of having info that no one else does.

        10. techRando*

          See, I can see snooping for specific information more than general snooping? There’ve been rumors about layoffs at my office and if I had access to my boss’s email, I would be super tempted to look for anything about that or anything mentioning me by name. I don’t think I’d do it, but I think I’d probably spend some time thinking about it.

        11. Oranges*

          It’s a bit of a security blanket. Like if I’m in the know about things then I won’t get blindsided. For me it’s a healed scar from trauma. (It’s as healed as it’s going to get and it doesn’t cause me any issues (unlike the LW)).

          Also, people utterly fascinate me and I want more data points. Mmmmm… data…

        12. Avasarala*

          Same reason we’re here reading an advice column about someone else’s problems. We’re curious. Even if it doesn’t pertain to/affect us.

      3. Lissa*

        it me. I said yesterday to my friend that I didn’t know which I liked better, being told juicy gossip or telling someone juicy gossip. (I do not snoop in people’s emails though! I was just talking about how a friend had been added to a facebook chat and obviously someone hadn’t looked above at all the messages in the thread before adding her so she found some drama out and was semi-joking about how that would be my dream come true.)

        This is probably why I like history so much. So much gossip and drama going on but all the principles are long gone.

          1. Lissa*

            Yesss my favourite is finding out details about some historical person’s personality and relating it to how people behave today, just with a totally different context. Like my friend has an ex who reminds me so much of Henry VIII. Or which emperors would be huge social media pains. Or looking at how what was a duel in the 18th century would be a Twitter war today.

    7. Elizabeth West*

      Dating parallel: accidentally mentioning something to your date that you found while secretly stalking their social media accounts.

    8. Artemesia*

      It may already be too late. This is a ticking time bomb. The OP could have it go off any time there is a review of her email for whatever reason even something innocuous and the IT person pulling it notices her constant snooping. Those records are just sitting there forever. If I were her I would NEVER do this again and hope that months or years go by until someone has cause to look at her email by which time perhaps those earlier records wouldn’t be reviewed.

  3. DaniCalifornia*

    Yikes! OP I get it, my tendencies used to lean on the wanting to know side. I had suspicions that my supervisor’s child (yay nepotism) was “reporting” to her on my activities throughout the day because of how my supervisor was interacting with me and the questions she had. I was supposed to check my supervisors email while she was on vacation, and I saw an IM with my name pop up. Well I snooped. And all it did was get my feelings hurt to learn the mean things they were saying. So all I did was hurt myself, because there was nothing I could do about it. There’s not even a satisfaction from finding out someone is talking $h!t about you.

    Perhaps you can really focus on the excellent points Alison made about coworkers and others privacy. Remind yourself that you wouldn’t want your personal info in the hands of someone else every time you need to check for legitimate reasons. I really hope you’re able to stop!

    1. Database Developer Dude*

      I would say you learned stuff you needed to know. If it were me in that position, I’d be glad to know, because I would then not feel guilty looking for a new job.

  4. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

    Insofar as resisting the temptation goes, OP, consider finding a redirect. In other words, when that urge to go pull up your boss’s email arises, do something instead of sitting there trying to continue what you were doing before while the itch grows stronger. For example, if your workload allows it, step away from your desk and go look at your phone. Check Twitter/Tumblr/Reddit/Facebook for five minutes. It’s a lot easier to substitute one action for another than to sit and resist taking any action at all.

    1. Eulerian*

      True. Research shows that we don’t break bad habits – we simple replace them with better ones.

    2. Elizabeth Proctor*

      Instead, go to AAM and click “show me a random post” and then read that.

    3. Hapless Bureaucrat*

      This. And. Make it as hard as possible for you to accesss that email account. Since you use it seldom, make sure that account isn’t on your list of Outlook folders or anything that makes it convenient to accesss it.
      When the urge comes on, it’ll be a lot easier to stop it if you have to go looking for the account than if it’s one click away.

    4. WakeRed*

      Yes, this was my first thought. Do the NYT mini-crossword, get up to get a water/fizzy drink of choice, take a 15-minute walk if you can, etc. I would probably have to physically remove myself from the temptation.

    5. Merpaderp*

      Maybe one option for OP is to write a document for themselves to remind them in their hour(s) of need. Something like: “Reasons not to snoop: 1), 2), 3)” along with “My Professional Values: 1), 2), 3)”. Anytime you have a moment of weakness get up, grab a drink of water and look at it on your phone or something.

      1. pancakes*

        It’s almost certainly overly-cautious on my part, but I don’t think it’s a good idea to put that in writing. If the person is ever caught snooping in a context that results in legal action being taken, that document could turn up in discovery even if deleted from the device. If a visual aid is an absolute must, hand write it on paper, keep it at home, and burn it when its purpose has been served. Snooping at work comes with another layer of risk that snooping in personal relationships generally doesn’t.

        Alternate strategy: Maybe think about what people who aren’t snoops think of snoops? I read constantly and widely, can’t get enough information, love detective stories, and think they’re lower than snakes. Not that my opinion matters in any way, but a lot of people in another recent thread here were horrified by the idea of being judged by others, so maybe it would help to think about it.

  5. ThatGirl*

    I get it. I think Alison is absolutely right, of course, but I am a bit nosy by nature and enjoy poking around places, sometimes about things that aren’t really relevant to me or feel private. I like having access to information. And once you get into that habit, it’s hard to break. But you definitely gotta break this habit, fast. If you have a link or a saved password somewhere, can you delete that? Hide a view? Make it so you can’t get to it as easily? Maybe change your routine up a little while you’re at it to help break the cycle?

    Good luck to you, OP.

    1. Betty*

      I was going to suggest the same thing– make it much, much harder to get into the email account if you can. Like, delete the password from your password manager/saved passwords; unlink the account so it doesn’t show up as a “switch accounts” option, etc. If you have to log yourself out every time and look up the password somewhere, it may help you stay mindful about this.

      1. Lil Sebastian*

        Yes, make it harder for you to simply access the email account.

        I’d also suggest putting something in your line of sight that reminds you of your goal not to snoop. It doesn’t have to be a large, glaring note to yourself, but just a small note that says something like “stay strong”.

        1. CastIrony*

          This reminds me of yesterday’s intern who put up so many of these kinds of inspirational messages. :D

          But in all seriousness, that’s a good idea. Good luck, OP!

      1. Anonym*

        Putting a few steps in the way of it can be really helpful, though. It gives OP time to think for a moment and makes it easier to resist the impulse. (It worked well for me in reducing time spent on Facebook!)

        1. Bee*

          Same re: Twitter. If I have to log in every time, I have to stop and THINK about it, which really reduces the frequency with which I suddenly realize I’ve jumped over there because I hit a part of an email that was mildly difficult to phrase.

          1. Future Homesteader*

            THIS. “I’m just going to open this browser to check something on our website.” Ten minutes later…”look at that dog! Wait, what was I doing?”

        2. Falling Diphthong*

          One of the more depressing realities I’ve run across in Actual Research is that taking the doors off the refrigerator and freezer cases significantly increases sales. Our ability to resist impulses depends on whether we would have to go to the immense difficulty of opening a lightweight glass door before we grab it off the shelf.

      2. Jessen*

        I think the suggestion is more to put the password somewhere secure but not immediately accessible. So if you have to go into a locked drawer to get the password, for example, or have to access a file on your computer that is itself password protected. It’s still accessible, just a bit slower, and you can put something in the way that reminds you not to snoop.

      3. boo bot*

        Yeah, I think that makes this so much harder! But logging out by default creates a second step in the process that might help her break the habit – if she has to type in the password every time (or ideally, look up the password every time) it means she has to do something active in order to access the email, rather than having it just sitting right there whenever she wants to look.

        I think it might be helpful in the same way that people sometimes find it helpful to block sites they get distracted by – like, you set up the site blocker, so obviously you can disable it and go on Twitter whenever you want, but the step of having to disable it kind of forces you to ask yourself, “Do I really want to do this right now?”

        1. Alexander Graham Yell*

          Yeah – something like burying the password in a password-protected Excel file down even a small filing rabbit hole (think a folder structure like “Important Info – Backup – PW for backup”) could be enough to ensure that it’s more mental trouble than it’s worth.

          1. CMart*

            I did this with Chrome at work, which I use to read Ask A Manager in my downtime, ha.

            Got rid of the taskbar and desktop shortcuts, unpinned it from the Start Menu, so I have to actual go searching for the application to open it. It’s maybe 3 seconds of extra work, but 3 extra steps and usually by step 2 I’m thinking “ugh, stop, you have actual work to do, knock it off.”

        2. SarahKay*

          Agreed. Someone here recommended an app called Forest, for use on smartphones, which you set to block access to as many of the other apps as you want. I block all games, and it’s made a huge difference. I can easily over-ride the app if I want – but it means killing the virtual tree I’m growing, and so far I haven’t done so. Now if I hit a block at work I’m about 50 times more likely to keep going, rather than skive off for 5 (or, reality, more likely 20) minutes playing mindless games on the phone.

      4. JSPA*

        Then OP can make it so that she can only access via logging in at the boss’s own, actual computer–and make a rule to never sit down in the chair–or on an old tablet with a cracked screen and not much battery that’s generally stashed in a drawer at home, in case of a “please log in from home” emergency. Basically, set it up so that it’s inconvenient and uncomfortable to do it for more than a few minutes at a time, and can’t be done thoughtlessly in a weak / “I’m bored” moment.

        It’s like putting the chocolate chips behind the flour in the high cabinet–not inconvenient if you’re doing actual baking, but you’re not going to pull out the step-stool and move the flour and baking spices on a whim. (Guessing I’m not the only one to do this to make sure that there will be chocolate chips for baking when I need them?)

      5. Avasarala*

        Honestly, considering OP has displayed such a lack of integrity and concern for confidentiality, if these habit-breakers don’t work, I think OP should look into moving into a position that doesn’t allow that level of access. If OP can’t trust themselves to not look, they shouldn’t put themselves in places where they are trusted not to look.

  6. Quickbeam*

    I’d frame this like we do in nursing…access when needed, pretending the access is not there when we don’t. It’s a personal discipline issue.

    1. MissGirl*

      This is a good point. I work in healthcare data and could access anyone’s entire health history in our system. I don’t. It’s illegal immoral, and unethical. The LW has two of these three going for her and curiosity isn’t a good enough reason.

      If she can’t stop herself, she needs to figure out a way to transfer the email responsibility to someone else. If she can’t do that without outing herself, she needs a new job.

    2. LW*

      Hmmm good idea, I would never look at donor files that I’m not supposed to so maybe that’s a good analogy!

  7. rggggg*

    OP, I highly suggest getting yourself into therapy. You probably have some insecurity and/or control issues and it’s manifesting this way.

    1. government worker*

      This is a pretty large leap. To me, it sounds like OP gets bored at work and decides to snoop and she what’s new. Obviously that’s a bad idea for the reasons Alison stated above, but being nosy isn’t necessarily pathological.

      1. Butter Makes Things Better*

        Agree about the general diagnosing, but part about OP not being able to stop goes beyond that though, so therapy could be a good option.

        1. Moray*

          I’m going to agree. Compulsively doing something potentially harmful to yourself is unhealthy, regardless of what form it takes. CBT might help if simply being more conscious of possible consequences doesn’t stop the habit.

        2. Purt's Peas*

          Yes, completely. We all read advice columns in part to peep in at strangers’ lives; nosiness isn’t pathological, as government worker said, but acting on it in this way IS a problem. I don’t think it’s out of bounds to say, “hey, you’re doing something compulsively even though you know it’s wrong, and this is something specific that therapy could help with.”

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Yeah, I don’t think suggesting therapy is armchair diagnosing, and I think it’s okay to say “if you genuinely want to stop doing this and can’t, it might be worth talking to a therapist.”

            1. Dankar*

              It seems like there’s a big difference between a statement like that, though, and “[y]ou probably have some insecurity and/or control issues.” That just seems speculative and, frankly, rude.

        3. Jennifer*

          You’ve never found it difficult to stop something? I’m sure many people have sat down to watch only one or two episodes of a show on Netflix and ended up watching twice that or more. Probably more than once. It doesn’t mean they have a compulsion that requires treatment. It means they are human.

          1. Mellow*

            …except watching too much Netflix isn’t the same as snooping.

            I work with someone who eavesdrops, casually scans the contents of a plastic bag someone is holding, comments on every breath the rest of us take, and otherwise gives off a vibe that the more discreet the rest of us are, the harder she’ll try to know what we are “hiding.” I agree that it could be a control issue. Knowing my coworker, that is the informal department consensus about her.

          2. Avasarala*

            It’s not “simply human” to lack the integrity to read your boss’s emails when you are trusted to do so only when needed and with discretion. That’s a breach of trust and if someone can’t help doing that, that’s closer to being a compulsive liar than binging Netflix (not immoral or inethical).

          3. pancakes*

            Watching too many episodes of a show isn’t unethical, let alone nearly unanimously considered unethical, and unless the watching takes place on the clock it doesn’t put anyone’s job or career at risk either.

      2. Jennifer*

        Agreed. I think some people never feel the urge to snoop or be nosy and suspect the worst of those of us who do.

        1. Goofy*

          I mean… yeah. Being nosy and snooping is inappropriate, especially in the work place.

          Revise your comment to say “I think some people never feel the urge to have sex in the office bathroom and suspect the worst of those of us who do.” If something’s not okay, it’s not okay.

          1. Jennifer*

            I never said it was appropriate. I’m saying it’s an urge many people have.

            Something I have noticed here is that a good number of people feel the need to restate that something is inappropriate when there’s really no need. We know it’s inappropriate. I just don’t think she’s mentally ill for having an urge many people have.

          2. Jamey*

            You can have an urge to do something that you know isn’t okay, and then not act on that urge and not do it.

            I’m not here to judge people for having an urge to do something inappropriate, as long as they don’t do it. As long as you’re not ACTUALLY having sex in the office bathroom….. it’s none of my business if it has ever crossed your mind before or not.

      3. Pippa*

        Armchair diagnosing is a bad idea, but the OP did frame it as something they do that they don’t want to do but can’t help doing. “I find myself opening his account”, “I know this is wrong, and I keep telling myself to stop, but I can’t hold off” etc.

        I’m side-eyeing that framing, myself, because it divorces OP from agency and sort of excuses a deliberate choice as a thing that just keeps happening. But I can see why someone would take it seriously and respond to a psychological framing with a psychological recommendation.

        1. government worker*

          I guess. But impulse control is something most of us struggle with, to some degree. I’m not saying CBT is a bad idea (for most people it’s extremely helpful!) but to armchair diagnose the LW as having insecurity or control issues that are “manifesting” is kind of ick to me.

        2. AKchic*

          That was how I saw it too. The LW really minimized their own conscious choices here. Everything was subconscious. They didn’t choose to do the actions, but the actions were done by them anyway, as if by magic, or as if a demon had possessed them and did it for them and gee, since they were already there – in for a penny, in for a pound, right? The emails aren’t some star-crossed lover in a badly-written, trashy romance novel where the two are destined to be together forever. It is the LW and someone else’s email account that they aren’t supposed to be in unless their supervisor has told them to go in there. Destiny isn’t dragging them together, LW’s compulsive need-to-know curiosity is.

          The fact that LW can very well be fired for multiple breaches of confidentiality (we don’t know what sector the LW works in, but depending on industry, there could be some serious legal issues at play here), and it could follow them to other jobs, or even keep them from getting jobs in the same field. This is a serious issue and therapy isn’t a recommendation that should be dismissed out of hand as “overboard” or “over the top”. I don’t think anyone is armchair diagnosing when the LW themselves are writing such minimizing language as “I find myself opening his account”, “I know this is wrong, and I keep telling myself to stop, but I can’t hold off” etc.
          There is definitely something that causes a person to do actions that are detrimental to their wellbeing. This individual is asking for help and one of the ways to help is recommending that they get professional help to figure out the root cause of why they are doing what they are doing so they don’t continue the behavior, and so they don’t redirect the self-destructive behavior onto another self-destructive path.

        3. JSPA*

          Dan Savage used to call them “How’d that Happen” questions. Either you’re doing the thing with awareness, and minimizing that awareness in presenting the problem, or you’re going into a state with a certain level of cognitive disconnect. Either own the thing–take responsibility–or recognize that “disconnect” states–a lack of presence and agency–commonly flag something that could use further unpacking (or rather, that finding a way past the block to the point of having awareness of the entire process, and owning it, is the first step to finding a creative replacement habit that responds to the same mental drivers and scratches the relevant itch).

        4. MM*

          I’m side-eyeing that framing, myself

          Yeah, honestly, to me the “unfortunately I’m a compulsive snooper” framing read less like “I am concerned about my inability to control myself on this” and more a kind of cutesy minimization, like how people will say they’re “so OCD.” I felt like OP was giving me a nudge to laugh and go “Oh, I know, isn’t it ever so tempting.” Like someone on a diet talking about how they just can’t control themselves around brownies and expecting me to join in. This was reinforced for me by the heart of the question really being “Can you remind me why this is bad?” I feel OP needs to take the whole issue far more seriously overall.

        5. Avasarala*

          Agreeing to this and all the below comments. OP doesn’t seem to think this is a problem as long as there are no repercussions and that’s not OK. Hopefully this shows OP that they’re subconsciously downplaying it and divorcing it from conscious choice.

        1. Artemesia*

          And you could be watching the ‘Cats’ trailer (which ought to put you off cat videos for awhile.)

      4. JSPA*

        CBT isn’t 0nly for diagnosable pathology, though. “I’m doing this thing that’s problematic and potentially self-destructive and I need strategies to block it” is a perfectly good enough reason to enlist aid.

    2. banzo_bean*

      I think it’s really unfair and not nice to diagnose/speculate on the mental/emotional issues of others unless you’re a mental professional and they are a patient in your care. Especially when all you know about the person is from one letter. It’s more harmful than you think, and it can play into the stigmatization of mental health.

      1. Moray*

        Framing therapy as a dire suggestion only to be made for serious mental illness is sort of also a stigmatization though. “I need to break a habit and it’s unexpectedly hard” is a perfectly fine reason to see a therapist, no diagnosis needed.

          1. Morning Flowers*

            +1000. I have a therapist I see only sporadically, for when I’m having a hard time with a specific issue or event in my life and need to talk through it / want professional advice / aren’t sure what to do. Like, twice a year on average. It’s insanely useful, and thanks to good health insurance, insanely cheap too. The idea that you have to be “bad enough” to see a therapist has kept a lot of my friends and family members from getting help with stuff that they needed or would have at least benefitted a lot from.

        1. banzo_bean*

          I’m definitely not framing therapy as something for people only with some sort serious mental illness, any one can go to therapy despite their mental state. I just don’t think it’s nice, polite, or helpful to tell someone they should go to therapy. I’ve been on the receiving end of that type of speculation, and despite already being in therapy, I found it very hurtful.

        1. JSPA*

          I read this more as, “needing a compulsion to do you actual harm before you prioritize stopping it is, itself, an iffy approach to life, which may mean there’s more you need to unpack than this one example.” It wasn’t hugely helpful to throw in the “for instance” terminology, but the core point stood without the specific diagnosis.

          More generally, “another name for feelings of X plus Z is term Y” is not really a diagnosis. Calling a sense of “feeling compelled” a “compulsion” or labeling someone who feels that and accedes to it to a point that they themselves find problematic, “compulsive,” is correct application of the English language, not diagnosis.

          It may help that I read “control issues” as potentially including both “self control” and “anxiety about not knowing”–both things that spring fairly directly from OP’s own words–not “wanting to control others” (which would be something of an uncharitable over-reach).

      2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        I don’t think anyone is diagnosing or speculating on OP’s mental health, although I do think it’s unhelpful to say someone probably has insecurity issues that are manifesting in OP’s current “addiction” to snooping.

        All we know is that OP has self-admittedly described a lack of impulse control, and OP may be able to explore more effective strategies for strengthening that control by speaking to a counselor/therapist. rggg may have been a bit brief in their advice, but the central recommendation (consider talking to someone) is useful.

        Part of the stigma of accessing therapy is the mistaken belief that it’s only for people with mental health diagnoses. I’m personally of the belief that everyone can benefit from a counseling/therapeutic relationship, and this is a good example of a situation in which OP may be able to reprogram their habits and benefit from that additional support.

      3. carrots and celery*

        Yup. That happens all the time in the comments here, though, which is disappointing. Look at the intern letter yesterday where so many people assumed they had mental health issues based on nothing more than positive posters in their cube. The smallest thing sets people off on diagnosing or spiraling to the worst case scenario on here.

        It’s definitely prevented me from writing in and I know others who read AAM in certain circles who’ve also been hesitant because they don’t want commenters to diagnose them or want to have to write super detailed letters to avoid diagnosing.

        1. Snark*

          This is why Alison repeatedly, and futilely, requests that we not. It’s not helpful, it’s generally reallllly not on point, and it’s usually not sufficient to change anything that Alison told the LW to do. All it seems to do is either perform wokeness about mental health issues, or indulge in the writing of advice column fanfic, and either way it’s a waste of comment space.

          1. carrots and celery*

            I think a lot of things people bring up in the comments veer into performative wokeness in ways that are more about patting themselves on the back for being an ally or progressive than about helping letter writers, but I don’t really see how that’s going to stop.

            Regardless, yes, I agree. It’s not helpful and I wish so many comments didn’t immediately jump to diagnosing or thinking of sometimes very extreme worst case scenarios.

            For the OP, therapy may help you in this regard, but it might not. That’s really subjective. I’d think about if there’s anything beyond being bored and snooping that’s driving you to read emails. If there’s an underlying issue you find, maybe work on that. If it really just is boredom and nosiness, I’d suggest trying to make it harder for yourself to access the email. There are some good suggestions in the comments on how to do so.

            1. pancakes*

              The letter itself used the word compulsive to describe the behavior at issue, though, and asked for tips on how to stop. It isn’t a diagnosis to say that therapy is often helpful for working on compulsive behavior. There’s nothing in the letter to indicate that boredom has anything to do with the matter, either.

        2. JSPA*

          Hm, I think the comments yesterday were meant to be protective of anyone who might be using affirmations as a mental health strategy, and warning that OP not to risk unwittingly wading into someone else’s medical stuff. Not because that was the most obvious reason to have the affirmations–they’re very largely a cultural thing–but because the consequences of stomping on in there were extra, extra problematic in that scenario. And because part of not stigmatizing mental health diagnoses is to make space where we admit that we all function differently in various ways. “It’s not unusual, so make space for it, and the side benefit is it’s generally helpful and open-minded” is not the same as, “I know what the pathology is, so you must handle it this way, which is different than what you’d do for someone normal.” The first is broadly supportive, the second is narrowly stigmatizing.

      4. remizidae*

        It’s not “a diagnosis” to point out obvious mental health problems. This person is engaging in behavior that she knows is risky and wrong, but doesn’t feel she can stop. That’s a problem.

          1. remizidae*

            There is a rule not to armchair-diagnose others because a potential diagnosis of someone other than the letter writer is not actionable. But advising the letter writer to seek therapy for their compulsive and self-destructive behavior is 1) not a diagnosis and 2) actionable advice. You don’t have to be a psychiatrist to notice this sort of thing.

    3. Memyselfandi*

      I don’t think this is such a big leap. I had the same tendency to give into temptation and although I never directly addressed it in therapy, I do think that therapy that gave me a better sense of myself helped me stop doing things similar to what is described that I didn’t feel very good about but couldn’t seem to help myself from doing. Some age-acquired maturity helped, too. There doesn’t need to be any serious problem to go to a therapist. If there is something you don’t like about your life it helps to talk to someone with some training to get some perspective.

      1. LSC*

        But have you brought this specific issue up in therapy? If not, it might be a good idea to do so.

      2. JSPA*

        Interesting! I tend to assume people post here with these sorts of questions when they don’t already have professional guidance on the topic. Not sure what strategies and insights and risk-assessments you’re likely to get here, that your therapist, who knows you, can’t give you.

        I’m not saying this with snark–I’m wondering, literally, more precisely what sorts of feedback you’re hoping to get. Were you expecting stories of how people got caught? The shame people feel? How that trashed their careers? Whether they ever knew exactly what they were fired for, or only suspected it, and have never known? Whether it took a decade for them to find out that’s why they were not being promoted, and how they found out? Whether someone bothered to set a specific trap for them? Or were you expecting to hear, “It’s no big deal”?

        If so, then maybe tell your therapist, once you find the answer….if you did get those vicarious stories, how would you respond to the vicarious shame / vicarious resolution / vicarious sense of not knowing about the sword of Damocles over head / the one boss who said, “I know you read my email, it doesn’t bother me”–how would any of that change things for you?

        Basically, if you know whether it’s a mechanical process like kicking the chair, an “it fits together” like playing Tetris, or the “thrill of the forbidden” that cuts in due to privacy violations, you have a better chance of breaking the pattern.

        If it’s a “violation is intense,” and you can own that, as with any other violation, people find creative, harmless ways to play around with the concept, without actually violating privacy or putting their jobs at risk. The sooner you can name it, the sooner you can figure out if it’s something you want to get from somewhere (just not here) or something you can live fine without.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I’d think she was looking for a work-specific perspective, as opposed to a therapeutic ones — i.e., what are the ways this could go wrong at work? (I don’t know if she was looking for stories from others; my sense is that most people who write in to advice columns are looking for the advice columnist’s response more than they’re looking for the comments on it, although comment sections can be a bonus.)

          1. JSPA*

            Fair enough, but consider the way the negatives were already sort of laid out in the question. “I’m doing this wrong and dangerous thing, so far it hasn’t hurt me, explain exactly how it dangerous (and how wrong is it, actually) and how do I stop” is a type of question format that relationship / sex / “practical morality” columnists get endlessly. That class of question is often not primarily motivated by wanting a new answer.

            In some cases, people want to hear their own answer reflected back by someone in authority. In other cases, they’re in it for the constructive schadenfreude of the “for-examples.” In some cases, they’re getting a vicarious kick from the examples. In some cases they’re looking to scare themselves into panic mode, in hopes that it’ll give them the extra self control (but that’s…not often how self-control works, in that we don’t deceive ourselves less when in a state of heightened anxiety). And in plenty of cases, the act of asking the question is itself is part of the “playing with self-exposure / playing with shame / playing with getting caught / playing with feeling invulnerable” process.

            She did explicitly ask for tips. As it turns out, “consider therapy” comes in the context of her already being in therapy. So then the question becomes, “what can you take from this experience that will illuminate how you interact with your craving to do this, that might render the therapy more effective.” Maybe it’ll illuminate what’s driving the “need to know.” Maybe it’ll illuminate what’s blocking her avoidance attempts. If partial disclosure / the risk of being caught is involved, that’s an entirely different problem than if she’s driven by fear that others are talking about her behind her back, and so forth, for so very many different issues that could be powering this urge.

            She may be able to step back a level and ask about the level of enticement, fear, excitement, disgust (etc) in her reactions to the stories of others, to suss that out.

            She’s been paying good money to a psychiatrist for years; how is she needing to ask a business management columnist for tips on “not doing that bad thing that I know could get me fired”? (That part is not a question that requires management skills to address–literally anyone who’s ever held someone else’s unlocked phone is equally an expert–or not–on this question.) You’re brilliant, level-headed, concise, and all sorts of other good things, thus your personal opinion even outside the realm of management is therefore of broad value; but I can’t help but feel there’s something else going on in the sending of this question.

    4. Director of Alpaca Exams*

      I second therapy, though the underlying cause could be any number of things—anxiety, OCD, who knows. It’s great that you’ve recognized you have a serious problem, LW. Get professional-grade help with fixing it.

  8. Lance*

    I think, first and foremost, Alison’s original point is key: this can get you fired. No warnings, no PIP, no second chances, just straight fired. Your boss is trusting you with responsible use of his e-mail, and it’s so, so easy to slip up in situations like this. Hinting, or directly stating, you know something you shouldn’t without thinking about it, the aforementioned chance of your boss seeing something ‘read’ that he didn’t get to first, IT doing anything that might point out how very much you’ve been accessing the e-mail.

    Please, try and find other avenues for curiosity; research, learning new job skills, something. This snooping needs to stop, immediately, for your own sake as well as others’.

    1. Antilles*

      Not just “can”, “will”. Why?
      Because your boss would never be able to trust you with privileged information again.
      And almost every job comes with plenty of information that you’re expected to exercise discretion with – information you specifically encounter as a natural part of your job (client contact information, how we budget projects, etc), unintentional things that you find out by accident (papers left on the printer, overhearing a loudmouth)…plus all sorts of files randomly buried on the network.

      1. londonedit*

        Absolutely – imagine having to tell future interviewers that you were fired from your last job because you were caught snooping through your boss’s emails. I can’t imagine any employer looking sympathetically on that – they’d immediately assume you couldn’t be trusted.

    2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      Hard agree. I would fire someone in an instant if I found out they were doing what OP is doing.

    3. Snark*

      Oh yes. I would be absolutely livid. I would not only be firing the LW, but also going into full on damage control mode about whether they’d accessed classified/sensitive/FOUO/no public release information. It’d be a whole thing with my bosses, legal, HR, the whole works.

      1. fposte*

        Wouldn’t the boss also be on the hook in such cases, though? This sounds like a pretty loosey-goosey access arrangement.

        1. MissGirl*

          It would depend. This is really common access for admins. It would be entirely on the admin to exercise discretion and be fired when the violated that.

          1. Escapee from Corporate Management*

            Which is why some larger companies put admins for senior executives into a separate employment category. There is an expectation they will be handling confidential information, so the job description usually explicitly includes the requirement to maintain confidentiality.

        2. cmcinnyc*

          I’m an admin, and I’ve done legal secretarial. It’s impossible for a senior executive or a top lawyer to do everything themselves, which is why admins & secretaries have jobs. If I breached confidentiality it would be 100% on me. That my boss gave me access to confidential material is kind of a given in my position.

    4. Tinybutfierce*

      Not only that, but it would absolutely TANK any hope of any kind of decent reference from this employer, as well as seriously damage the OP’s reputation among their coworkers, and those kinds of repercussions can follow them loooong after the actual firing.

      1. Sarah N.*

        This. This wouldn’t just be like getting laid off with a good reference. It could jeapordize both this job and your ability to get future jobs.

    5. JSPA*

      I had to clean out mixed (70% work, 20% junk, 10% personal), hard-copy files after my boss died (with their family’s OK). I read fast, so I would physically flip open a folder, cover the top page with a piece of paper, and tug it down just enough to determine if this was a file that was needed for the company, a personal document that needed to go to the family, “straight to recycle” (old sales flyers from a decade prior, etc) or “check if this needs to be shredded for work privacy concerns.” Personal emails, even from within the organization, were not automatically “work relevant”–some were personal. Even death does not mean that people who have physical access get to read your personal stuff. Yes, I was curious; that’s why you have make it near-impossible to see things by accident.

  9. Anonymous Poster*

    As far as ‘breaking the habit’ goes, you have to try and identify whatever is triggering you to go snooping and replace your reaction – snooping – with something else, or avoid the trigger, or both.

    For example, is it when you get bored that you go browsing? Then try and break the trigger with a long-term project so you’re never really ‘bored’ per se. Or, set times in your calendar when, and only then, may you go into your boss’s email for work-related purposes. You’ll be limiting the amount of time you ‘have’ access to it, which is the only time you really have to get work related stuff done. Best would be trying to do both – have a project going that you fall back to as your “I’m bored” project, and have calendar reminders of when you may and may not access the account.

    You could also try adding additional clumsy steps to access it, like only allowing yourself to access it from a certain computer (if you have multiple), or removing yourself once you’re done accessing his account and re-adding yourself when necessary, so that you have the extra time to think, “do I really need to see this?” This option may not be available in all email programs, but I think you get the idea. Artificial barriers help stave off the temptation and sequence of events that come with bad habits.

    Best of luck. Bad habits are hard to break. You really have to break this one.

    1. AndersonDarling*

      I was also wondering if this was an action taken from boredom. When I get bored, I look for stimulation in news articles, new emails, anything that could keep my attention. I could absolutely see myself digging into whatever I had access to just to stay awake.
      I’d suggest starting a free online class on a topic that is work related. Project management, data, marketing, whatever subject may be interesting. As long as work would be OK with it. It would be easy to pop up a browser window and read/watch a lesson whenever the snooping temptation strikes.

    2. Competent Commenter*

      I wondered about this too. It seems like an impulsive act (I have ADHD and know all about impulsive acts) that the OP is having trouble controlling. For me that is often veering away from work and onto the internet to read articles…which is why I’m here right now actually.

      I’m taking a leap here, but I read some really useful advice in a NY Times article called “Why You Procrastinate (It Has Nothing to do with Self-Control).” One of the quotes is “People engage in this irrational cycle of chronic procrastination because of an inability to manage negative moods around a task.” And knowing that was really helpful for me in analyzing why I would procrastinate by going online. It’s because I’m anxious. My job is overwhelming and I get really anxious and zip online to relieve that anxiety…which isn’t helping at all. Knowing that, when I get that anxious feeling and think about reading online, I instead think, “That’s not going to make you feel better. If you want to feel better, you should work on that project.” This has hugely cut down on my procrastinating.

      The OP might consider what are the feelings and thoughts that precede her going into her boss’s email and try to head them off using this type of technique. She might be stuck in an anxious cycle, for example, and the anxiety caused by having checked the email is only going to trigger more email checking to relieve the anxiety.

    3. Gussie Fink-Nottle*

      Adding on here – it may be helpful to keep a log of when you get the urge to snoop, how you’re feeling, time of day, any other triggers that could be initiating the impulse besides or in addition to boredom. Identifying any patterns may allow you to implement some other commenters suggestions about blocking the impulse more effectively (ex: instead of blocking all non-work websites, maybe you only block those that lead your mind down a snooping road). And YMMV, but if you can identify a safe, ethical way to scratch that itch without making it worse, that could help – maybe you can read very dramatic advice columns to satisfy the feeling of knowing what’s happening in other people’s worlds, maybe you can subscribe to industry newsletters so you have an “inside knowledge” feeling that can be productively channeled. (This may not help, maybe “cold turkey” is better for you. If you do this on work time still treat with caution, as you don’t want to have a different problem of always being distracted at work) good luck!

  10. Jennifer*

    Not saying that it’s right, but I do understand the compulsion. I remember so many times I was nervous about something I suspected was happening behind the scenes. Snooping would have been so tempting. I would have resisted the urge because of everything Alison said. Maybe save this letter somewhere on your phone and read it every time you feel the urge. I hope you are able to get past this. Best wishes!

    1. boo bot*

      Oh, I understand it too! I’ve got a really strong sense of “this is my privacy over here; that is your privacy over there,” so I certainly hope I would resist this kind of temptation, but having access to information you’re not allowed to look at is really tough!

      It’s really, really easy to feel like what we’re doing is innocuous, because WE know we mean well; we can so easily fall into the mindset of, “This would be bad if someone else were doing it, but I’m not going to do anything wrong! I know my own motivations, and I will never misuse this power!” I think that’s the unofficial motto of most major tech companies and governments. But of course, just like the world’s governments and tech companies, you can’t predict all the potential consequences of your actions.

      I think it will be really helpful to keep Alison’s list of reasons in mind – especially the one about hiding in his closet! It might sound a little silly, but it’s a great way to frame it: because there’s a detachment with email, it really doesn’t feel as bad as listening from the closet, or looking through his wallet, or putting a tracker on his car. But it’s not actually different, it’s just easier to get away with. Good luck, OP! Stay strong.

    2. fposte*

      Oh, yes; I so sympathize with this letter writer. I would hate to be in the position of having privileged access to something I was honor-bound not to dig more into.

      OP, I think people are making some good points about how to redirect the habit (I suspect you’re looking at these emails when some of us are reading AAM, in fact :-)), and Alison has made some good clear points about what’s at risk. Can you add in some internal identity characteristics that will help you be somebody who stays out? For me the “honor bound” thing has power–I can preen about my great virtue in not looking at the stuff and find some genuine satisfaction in that. Are you that, or are you somebody who’d hate to see hurtful things about other people and keep it from them, or who really values being trusted by their boss? Because sometimes that kind of reminder about how you want to think of yourself can help at the key moment and then you can distract yourself with a juicy subreddit.

  11. Project manager*

    I sort of had an experience like this.

    I was an admin and I had access to my boss’ email, and was expected to flag things for him and schedule meetings from the email. I also needed to log in to send emails on behalf of him. I would ALWAYS see things that I shouldn’t – when I wasn’t really trying to, but not trying not to. I also saw some pretty nasty stuff he said about me.

    I don’t know if it was really a privacy violation like yours is, but I assume my boss thought I just wouldn’t click on things that were not for me, the issue was I had no self control, and it was hard to tell what was relevant. I ended up always feeling guilty and bad about things I accidentally saw.

    Just don’t check – I know it’s hard but it’s either that or find a job where this won’t happens

    1. Rusty Shackelford*

      It’s interesting that people will give access to their email and just expect the other person to never see anything they shouldn’t, whether accidentally or on purpose.

      1. banzo_bean*

        I don’t know if its that they will expect you won’t see those things or they don’t care if you do.

        1. Escapee from Corporate Management*

          Of it they assume you have the judgment to either (1) stop reading when it’s clear the information should not be read, or (2) pretend you never read it if you did.

          1. Booksalot*

            Schrödinger’s employee: terrible enough to trash talk, but saintly enough to pretend not to know about it.

    2. Jennifer*

      That’s a good point. It would stand to reason that you are going to see things you shouldn’t even when you aren’t looking if you have to log in and search for emails or send emails on your boss’s behalf. It’s pretty shortsighted to leave confidential info there when someone else has access.

      1. Project manager*

        Yea, in his case I don’t really think he cared. It was convenient for me to have email and I don’t think he would bother to hide things.

        I take the OP at her work she isn’t supposed to be looking often. It’s just that she sound like an admin (sending emails on behalf), so I wonder what the framework her boss gave her inbox access for. Like if she needs it to look for things, it’s reasonable she would come across things. She still shouldn’t be looking without cause.

        1. londonedit*

          I’d imagine it as the boss saying ‘Can you look in my sent items and find an email I sent to John Smith last Wednesday about the Alpaca account, and forward it on to Jane Jones for me?’ So the OP has one task – search sent items for ‘John Smith Alpaca’, forward email. OP shouldn’t then spot a juicy-looking email in the boss’s inbox and decide to click on that and have a read while they’re there. Even though yes, we all know it’s tempting. And they definitely shouldn’t go into the boss’s emails for a general snoop-around when they haven’t been specifically asked to do something email-related.

          1. That Girl From Quinn's House*

            If the email is configured to have the preview pane set up, it’s impossible to not see the contents of the email. And if you’re a fast reader, emails are short. By the time you decide the message isn’t the one you needed, you’ll have read the bulk of it.

            1. Rusty Shackelford*

              This. I have the preview pane, and I’m a fast reader. (sidebar: I’ve learned that some people read word by word and other people read in chunks. I read in chunks. Maybe even a sentence at a time.) I’ll have consumed the contents of a short message before I have time to realize it’s not for me and back out of it.

              Also, even if that’s not the case, there’s always people who use subject lines like “Discpline for Rusty…” :-/

            2. JSPA*

              Make the window tall and skinny. unclick “preview.” Always start with a search function. Hold up a piece of paper. Squint. Tilt your head. Remove the temptation by not seeing the beginning of what it’s hard to stop reading.

              Whatever works for you 99% of the time.

              Have a defined, robust process, stick to that process, and forgive yourself for the very few inappropriate items that slip through.

              Frankly, it’s like reading the text on someone’s clothing. If you’re going to be boob-staring or ass-staring or crotch-focused to finish reading it, fix your eyes on their face, and don’t start reading.

        2. Jennifer*

          Even if she’s only supposed to be looking in there every once in a blue moon, it’s impossible not to accidentally see something you shouldn’t, especially, as someone else mentioned, if the preview pane is enabled.

      2. Slow Gin Lizz*

        I agree, I assume that any boss that gives an employee access to their email should realize that after that nothing is confidential. So while I think the boss should understand that OP might see confidential and/or personal emails, OP should definitely a) use a huge amount of discretion regarding what they see and b) not be just randomly checking the email but instead should only log in when boss wants them to.

        Of course, that doesn’t answer the OP’s question about how to stop. I like other folks’ suggestions about making the email that much harder to log into, but what about maybe even asking the boss what OP should do if/when they see confidential info in boss’ emails? Maybe a general, “I am not sure what to do about seeing your private emails. Is it a problem that I can see them?” Then OP will know how much of an issue it is.

        1. Slow Gin Lizz*

          On second reading I see that OP mentioned that they’re not supposed to use the privilege of checking boss’ email very often, so I think that maybe OP shouldn’t bother talking to boss about it after all. I rescind that part of my comment. OP, if you are checking the email on a website, can you block that website for yourself and unblock it when you need it? There are websites that can do that for you.

    3. My Name is Not Jane*

      I had the same kind of access to a boss’ email when I was an admin. Thank goodness I never saw any nasty stuff he said about me but I saw all of the disgusting p*rn memes and naked pictures that his friends would email him. I quit that job as soon as I could and resisted the urge to forward all that stuff to his wife (who did the accounting for his business).

      1. My Name is Not Jane*

        Clarification – not the same kind of access as the OP, I was trying to reply to the person who said they had access to open and respond to their boss’ email. :)

      2. JSPA*

        brings up another hypothetical risk–what if soeone in OP’s shoes sees something illegal & reportable? When the boss gets caught, the sneaky reader will likely also get caught for having seen and not reported. That’s not just firing, but potential prosecution. Or they report, boss gets fired and prosecuted, sneaky reader “just” gets fired. For all the reasons, it’s bad to be browsing.

    4. Pommette!*

      I’m sorry that that happened to you. Especially having to read negative things about yourself, and not being able to react or respond: what an uncomfortable situation!

      I had similar access to a boss’s email account, and found the experience bizarre and deeply stressful. I’m not someone who is naturally inclined to snoop, so I didn’t have to wrestle with the temptation to read emails that weren’t meant for me. (I’m the kind of person who’s more scared of forbidden knowledge than tempted by it. I’m not saying that to be smug, just to explain that I understand that the OP’s situation was harder than mine.) I really tried not to see the things that I wasn’t supposed to. But I still had to read through lots of emails to find the things that *were* meant for me, and couldn’t avoid seeing lots of private information, or things that hinted at it. Even just seeing the subject line and sender info was pick up on some things (coworker X was wayyy behind on a project; supervisor Y was really aggressive in his requests and dismissive of my boss’s work; my boss’s child’ was having behavioural issues at school… etc.) that I was then stuck knowing about without being able to acknowledge publicly. I tried to maintain the polite fiction that I couldn’t see any information beyond the information that I needed to act on, but doing so always left me feeling kind of duplicitous and gross.

      1. Project manager*

        This is a much more eloquent explanation of how I felt.

        I saw things, mostly from the subject line, or from looking for something else. and did not usually want to. I would click on an email if my name was in the subject line, which was wrong, but I didn’t have the self control not to. The whole thing was so uncomfortable, and made me feel gross, even thought it was not *entirely* my doing.

        1. Pommette!*

          Honestly, I’m just grateful that I never saw my name in any subject lines, except on emails where I’d been CC’ed anyways or whose subject line was self-explanatory, à la “Please call Pommette to arrange a meeting”.

          That’s just a cruel situation to expose someone to, and one that was bound to be uncomfortable even if you didn’t follow the (very normal!) impulse to read an email about yourself.

      2. emmelemm*

        I’m mostly the same way – I’m more scared of forbidden knowledge than tempted by it.

  12. Denver Dave*

    I had the perfect job; few hours, high pay and all in a field I loved. I had this access to this information as well and abused it (complaining to a close peer of being left out of meetings and projects I felt entitled to). Within a week of my boss learning about it I was demoted and within a month, fired. Don’t do it.

    1. Butter Makes Things Better*

      Great first-hand experience on this — thanks for sharing it; I hope OP sees this and takes jt to heart!

      1. Falling Diphthong*

        Seconding, I always appreciate insight from people who have trod down a given path ahead of an OP. This is not the sort of thing likely to be addressed with gradually escalating small consequences each time they catch her.

    2. sheworkshardforthemoney*

      A similar situation to my friend. She had email access and then gossiped about what she read. Worst for her, she started mocking her boss in emails to friends. One day her boss was looking for an old email, saw her name and read a string of unflattering texts. My friend was fired the same day. Lucky for her it was a summer job and she could erase it but she learned a hard lesson.

  13. IT Guy*

    Working in IT, my team and I have this type of access at our company. However, it’s also fairly easy to track what emails someone has read. So with great power comes great digital paper trails, which can hurt you if you don’t have a legitimate business reason for accessing those messages. Do yourself a favor and only look at the bare minimum you need to do your job.

    1. Lizardlady*

      I was just coming here to say this, if you have admin access to everything then you definitely need to be able to resist the urge to look. Even when your boss wants to know who has access to his email and is being weird and cagey, or when you have to purge a new starter inbox and you know that the info contained in said inbox is major. You absolutely cannot look and if you are found to be snooping you be fired. Do not snoop, no good will come from it.

    2. WellRed*

      I am not in IT but if someone logged in to read my emails I’d be able to tell (they are bold until clicked on, even remotely). You’ve left an electronic trail somewhere, somehow. best to hope your boss doesn’t notice or is a Luddite and that you have no IT department or one that doesn’t care about this sort of thing.

      1. LW*

        Oh well I never looked at emails that were unread! For that very reason.
        I’m sure there is a trail but now that I’ve stopped hopefully no one goes back to check.

  14. Hand Raised*

    I’ve been this person. Initially, it was because I was in a very bad work environment and felt that I was not being told the truth. So I checked my boss’s email and discovered my boss wanted to fire me and the complaints were largely about my personality. I thought perhaps I could fix what they didn’t like, so the compulsion to repeatedly check was pretty palpable. Unfortunately, this bad behavior transferred over at my next job. Because I had such a bad experience at my previous job, I was always overly suspicious and didn’t trust anyone. Ironic then that I was being suspicious and untrustworthy. I did finally get a grip on myself eventually, acknowledging not only my crappy behavior but the risks involved. I can now say the urge to look at anyone’s email hasn’t crossed my mind in years.

    None of this is a validation. What helped me move on was to acknowledge why I was doing it and why it wasn’t helpful. And I think it’s important for the OP to figure out the same. If they’re feeling powerless or insecure or out of the loop, those are things to address with your boss directly, rather than trying to DIY.

  15. Adlib*

    I get the impulse, but Alison’s last sentence is key, “But I’d also really think about your values here and figure out why your actions aren’t aligning with them.”

    Maybe you should ask IT or your boss to just shut off access to you if it really is an occasionally used thing like when he’s on vacation or something. Either way, find a way to stop doing it as Alison said. You would likely be fired.

  16. Augusta Sugarbean*

    This is an incredibly kind response to the situation. OP, sit down and really walk through the meeting with your boss after he finds out that you’ve been snooping. It will be truly terrible. And then walk through every interview after this when you are trying to find work. Visualize explaining that you violated your boss’ privacy *and* that of all of your coworkers. This isn’t just “my boss will be mad”; this is “I may not be able to find a job after I’m fired”. In general, you won’t get unemployment if you are fired for cause. This will have a huge and awful impact on you – money, healthcare, housing, well-being. Take Alison’s advice to heart.

    1. Future Homesteader*

      I got heart palpitations just *thinking* about doing those walk-throughs. I might use this in the future when I feel I need to change my habits. ::shudder::

    2. wittyrepartee*

      Yeah. I was just thinking- if boss found out… the shame and humiliation. It’s just shame right now. But that meeting will be like- the worst.

  17. Celeste*

    OP, how would you feel if it was happening to you? If you trusted a staff member with access so they could do some specific tasks, and they chose to snoop, how good would that feel to you?

    I think you’re hiding behind calling yourself a compulsive snooper, like you don’t have any control. You have all the control. You need to find something else to do when the urge hits you, and part of it is going to be focusing on why it’s wrong to do it. I don’t know if you need a therapist, but if you do, get busy on that. Whatever it takes to make a new habit, one where you only go into the email account for work purposes.

    Good luck.

    1. Amber T*

      This. I don’t want to be so hard on you, but it’s super easy to fall back on “that’s just who I am” as an excuse to not work on or change a bad habit.

      I’m an extremely nosy person. I want to know everything about everyone. In the past, it’s lead to me to ask some awkward questions, listen in on things I probably shouldn’t listen to. It was affecting how others viewed me, and it was affecting my happiness because “what if I didn’t know something.” So, every time I’m curious about something, I ask myself if I really need to know this, and why. Will this actually benefit me and my work? Do I need this information to get a job done? 90% of the time it’s no, I’m nosy and I want to know the gossip. The temptation is real especially when there’s gossipy stuff happening. But ultimately I’m much happier when I keep my head down and don’t engage, and people view me more positively when I’m not being nosy.

      So when you get that temptation to open your boss’s email (for not work purposes), pause, ask yourself why do you want to do this, and step away from your computer for a minute. Grab a drink, talk to a coworker, go to the bathroom. Get away from the situation for a second, let the temptation pass when you don’t have immediate access. When you do have to search for something legit, write down the phrases you need to look for, cross it off as you go, and walk away from your comp when you’re done.

    2. Data Analyst*

      Came to say the same thing. You are letting yourself off the hook with this language, LW – and I say this with love as someone who used to do similar things (the snooping and the rationalization). For me, it came from an impulse that developed in childhood, basically thinking “if I can ferret out all the information, I can protect myself from bad things happening, or at least prepare for them” I’m not saying it has to be something that Deep for you, but I would encourage you to reflect on whether there is some reason you so badly want to snoop, and consider therapy as Celeste said. You might also want to keep a log for yourself, just of when you feel the urge and what is going on at the time – were you bored? Feeling anxious like something might be Going On at work and you should try to find out what it is? Other thoughts or feelings? That will help you figure out a plan, like “okay, when I finish all my [task x], I get bored and then I reflexively check boss’s email” and from there you identify those times and figure out something else to do instead…etc. etc.

    3. Bostonian*

      I had a different read on why OP included being a compulsive snooper. I don’t see it as a way to cop out of those behaviors, but as a way to add context. The opposite would be “I’m not usually a nosy person, so I don’t know why I keep doing this!” Whereas the OP knows the motivation, but wants advice on how to not act on it.

  18. londonedit*

    You describe it as a ‘privilege’ and that’s exactly what it is – a privilege that your boss has given you because he trusts you. Imagine what would happen if he discovered that you’d completely abused that trust. Because that’s what it is – he’s granting you occasional access to his email account for legitimate work business, and in doing that the implication is that he’s trusting you behave responsibly and not to snoop around and pick up bits of gossip.

    Would it help to imagine how you’d feel if you discovered a co-worker was going through your emails when you weren’t around? You’d probably feel like your privacy had been violated, and that’s what you’re doing to your boss. It might not seem like a big deal at the moment, but it only takes one ‘But I thought Jane was going out on medical leave next week?’ slip when you weren’t supposed to know Jane was going out on medical leave, and it’s all going to come crashing down around your ears. Is it really worth it?

  19. Lepidoptera*

    As other commenters have said, this can get you fired.
    It might help to remind yourself of that consequence any time you’re tempted to snoop.
    You can also google all the stories of people being fired for accessing files they shouldn’t have, this is most common in healthcare so the news stories will be easier to search in that sector.
    There might even be laws in your area of work about this which you should look up.

    While I like to remind people that the second part of the well known curiosity adage is “satisfaction brought it back”, you don’t have nine lives.

    1. Syfygeek*

      Been there, done that, let something slip to someone who then told someone else…got fired.

      Stop it before you get caught.

  20. Janet*

    Is it possible for you to forfeit your access to your boss’s email? Could someone else on your team be given the task of sending his emails in some sort of shuffle of responsibilities? I would worry that “just try to have more willpower” won’t be an effective long term coping plan, and if you keep your access to his email, trouble will come eventually.

    1. Christmas*

      ^ Seconded.
      OP: Forfeit your access. If you struggle to control yourself, remove the option completely before you lose your job.

      There are a few ways you can frame it. You might say you want to preemptively avoid an awkward situation like accidentally confidential info, personnel details, or even personal emails that sometimes end up in work inboxes. You could even say it’s too confusing to switch back and forth between managing your own emails AND theirs.
      You might suggest having certain emails forwarded to you if needed, but that you will no longer handle things from within your boss’ account account.

      The only thing I worry about is that this request would necessitate your boss changing their password, and the fact that you’re suddenly forfeiting your access and asking Boss to lock you out might make them wonder what’s going on, promoting them to look more closely at the account and possibly discover what you’ve been doing.

      Be careful.

  21. Zap R.*

    OP, I’ll be brutally honest: you shouldn’t stop just because you could get fired. You should stop because it’s MEAN. It’s an extremely cruel thing to do to somebody who trusts you and you need to stop immediately.

  22. Annastasia von Beaverhausen*

    Ew, OP, this is gross.

    Heath care workers (admins, techs, nurses) seem to regularly get fired in my jurisdiction for accessing patient records out of idle curiosity and it’s reported publicly when it happens. Without fail, these people are reviled by the press, the public and everyone. You are behaving like them and you need to stop.

    1. Emma*

      Oh yeah! A friend knew someone at uni who got a job at an HIV clinic. The guy looked up his partner’s medical record to check whether the partner had HIV.

      He was literally fired before he finished training.

  23. robot*

    Try and make it harder for yourself to access this information, if you can, by making it so it’s harder to access. And try and reframe this in your mind and behave how you would if every time you accessed this information it were logged (and frankly, depending on how it’s set up, it might be accessible to IT.) If you can’t find a way to use this access responsibly, consider finding a job where you don’t have access like this. I recognize that sounds extreme. But fundamentally, you are behaving unethically by accessing this information without a valid business reason, and it will likely be discovered at some point, and your reputation will be severely damaged.

  24. LQ*

    I have access to a whole bunch of stuff. I have a rule, which isn’t enforced in anyway except for myself by myself, that I have to report immediately on anything that is of that set and why I needed to access it. This is often just a quick email, “Hey I have to check on X because of workflow stuff being busted.” Or a drop by conversation. But something like that might be useful to you. Even if you don’t actually tell your boss but just document it for yourself. “Accessed email on 7/31 to find file per boss’s phone call.” Having that document might be really helpful to cut that out.

    (I strongly think everyone who has access to data like this should report out on it for an audit trail kind of thing which is why I’m demonstrating that it’s not that hard to do.)

  25. Lucia Pacciola*

    Find a different solution.

    Seriously. If I were the boss, I’d have to assume that anyone with access to my account would necessarily be reading all my emails. Then I’d have to seriously consider whether the person I was delegating this responsibility to should actually be trusted with it. Then I’d have to consider whether it was fair to burden them with it.

    Ultimately, I’d have to conclude that I’m the boss, and it’s my job – not my assistant’s job, not my employee’s job – to read those messages and handle that information. Your boss’s solution seems like an abdication of that responsibility, and an unfair burden placed on you. (Also, I’m in IT, and this story triggers my “lazy boss using ‘not good with computers’ excuse to avoid the hard work of being a boss” nerve. So take what I’m saying with a grain of salt.)

    So. Shed that burden! Go to your boss and say something like, “I couldn’t help noticing another email in your inbox that had to do with X. I don’t think I should know about X, and I’m really uncomfortable being put in the position of having to know about X and pretend I don’t. Can we find some other way to get our work done?”

    Unfortunately, I can’t think of another solution off the top of my head, besides “the boss should reply to their own emails, and search their own folders, and leave LW out of it.” (See IT trigger, above.)

    1. Emily*

      The two ways I’ve seen this handled when there’s someone whose admin legitimately needs access to their email are:

      1) Boss has a public and a private email. Public email account is for big communications that the admin actually needs to send and process responses from, private email is for actual private communications.
      2) Everyone just knows that the admin has access to the email account. If you need to get in touch really privately, send them a text, im, phone call, stop by in person.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Eh, it’s literally part of her job to handle confidential information with discretion and to respect her boss’s privacy; that’s what it means to be given access to his email.

      1. MommyMD*

        Yes. Giving access is not giving permission to snoop or obtain any information except what is needed to do business and perform the job.

    3. valentine*

      I’d have to assume that anyone with access to my account would necessarily be reading all my emails.
      But it’s certainly dull and a massive waste of time. I don’t know that OP even has to read random emails, versus “Carlisle’s going to email me about the delivery. Make the arrangements and send them a confirmation.”

      being put in the position of having to know about X and pretend I don’t.
      Sometimes that’s the gig. If you’re not up to it, you get a different one. We don’t do anything with most of the information we have in life. We overhear a lot and never remark on most of it; we don’t dig through other people’s shopping carts.

    4. Bree*

      It’s actually pretty common for a fairly high-ranking person to have one (or more) other people with access to their e-mail, though. These tend to be roles like EAs, where discretion is an important part of the job.

      In a previous role, when I reported to someone whose EA had full access to her inbox, my boss made a point of giving me her personal e-mail address, which I could use in the event I needed to send her something confidentially. But the EA was so trustworthy I didn’t need to use it.

    5. Observer*

      I’m also in IT, and this is the kind of thing that gives IT a bad reputation.

      Ultimately it is the job of a boss to be a boss and it is perfectly reasonable to hand off some of the housekeeping parts of their job to someone else. Telling a manager that they are a lazy boss for doing this is not is not in the least bit useful.

      Here is a reality. Regardless of the access to email, the OP – and anyone in that type of position – needs to be able to handle sensitive information appropriately. Same goes for the person in HR who needs to file forms with sensitive information, payroll person who sees “interesting” information about staff, office manager who needs to sort mail, etc.

  26. Falling Diphthong*

    Right now there just haven’t been consequences.

    This is only because no one has noticed yet, right? It’s not that your boss noticed, said “Drusilla, you’ve been poking through my emails! Cool! I will make sure to include more baby goat photos for you to find!!!”

    It’s kind of worrying that you feel you need some consequences NOW to make you pull back, because the only consequences I can think of are the sort that lead to firing, or demotion, or the smoking tendrils of your professional reputation. No gentle ramp up, no staying after school in work-detention Wednesday night for an hour and writing “I will not snoop” 100 times on notebook paper, after which your boss and grandboss let bygones be bygones.

    As for killing the habit… I’m going to pop over to Cap’n Awkward who I think had a recent post on habits, and how which method works for you depends on personality type. But you need something to interrupt the pathways your brain is laying down, because this isn’t like speeding and getting away with it–more like the 37th time you ran that stop sign there was a cop, and they seized your car and took away your license for 5 years even though nothing happened the 36 times you weren’t caught.

      1. Amber T*

        +1 for The Four Tendencies – helped me understand myself a lot better and how to develop better habits for myself (and helped me understand others).

        1. valentine*

          This is only because no one has noticed yet, right?
          As far as OP knows. Maybe the boss will fire them via email draft.

  27. Leah A Vaughn*

    Op, think about having to explain in interviews that you left your last job for this reason – try to justify this gross misconduct to them in your head. I would never hire this person & that means it needs to stop now.
    You must have values & want to work on displaying them at work.

  28. Old and Cranky*

    I fired an assistant for doing exactly what OP is doing. I work in a field with lots of confidential and classified information. One day my assistant let something slip, that she only could have learned by snooping in emails in my in-box that were labelled confidential. Seven years of trust and confidence were gone in that one slip. So was her job. OP learn now and stop before you make a similar slip.

  29. Goofy*

    Could OP get in legal trouble for abusing her right of access this way? Invasion of privacy is a common law tort. Just another angle to consider.

    1. Admin of Sys*

      IANAL, but probably not unless the OP acted on it in a way that damages the company or the email owner. There’s implied occasional permission re: having granted the OP access, and even though it would be pretty trivial to track that they’d misused that access, unless they actively caused harm with that information, it’d be hard to sue them.

  30. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

    In addition to the reasons Alison suggested, put yourself in their shoes. Imagine someone else had access to your boss’s email and they were snooping. You’ve sent your boss emails about things you want kept private. How would it make you feel knowing that another person knew something about you that you wanted kept confidential?

  31. Alex*

    It would be SO easy to accidentally out yourself about this or otherwise be found out. You could accidentally say something about something you saw, someone could walk by your computer while you were doing it, there could be a trail that IT could see, you could accidentally send a reply message from one of the emails….so easy.

    And you would be fired immediately, no question.

    So, next time you find yourself going to open it, think to yourself, “This will be the time I get caught and fired. Do I want that?”

    (And if the answer is yes to that….it may be time to start looking for another job!)

  32. Daphne*

    Something my dad said many years ago really resonated with me: “Is it worth it?”

    I remember a long time ago, I worked somewhere with a big craft closet. One day I came across some old disposable cameras – nobody was using them and they were clearly left over from an educational program many moons ago. I love disposable cameras and for a moment, I thought about taking one or two – who would notice? But then I remembered that phrase: “Is it worth it?” If someone found out and it turns out it WAS a big deal and I got fired, would those cheap disposable cameras (that I *absolutely* had the money to buy myself) been worth it? Obviously the answer was no.

    So if you need a simple prompt, any time you think about opening your boss’s email, think “is it worth it?” Is whatever piece of info, juicy gossip, or internal tidbit going to be worth your job and/or your self-worth? That phrase has stopped me many times from doing dumb, short-sighted things in my work and personal life.

    1. Granger*

      THIS!! It’s such simple advice, but it is SO helpful when trying to overcome a bad habit / bad behaviors / character flaws. I’ve asked myself this question in my mind so many times that now it isn’t even a question, but an automatic response of “NOT WORTH IT” to temptations (obviously I’m human and not at all perfect, but on the key character flaws that I have worked hard to overcome – it works on being sneaky, but I still haven’t conquered eating cookies).

  33. Gwen Soul*

    I feel you, I had this exact issue and honestly it was what told me being an Admin was not for me, I just didn’t have the self discipline to not look. Luckily i found a new role where i did not need access and the new admin did a great job of being a better person. I still look at my new managers calendar and snoop there but she has said she leaves it open so everyone can see and come to things they think they should be in.

  34. RR*

    Something else to consider, OP: even if your boss doesn’t find out or decides not to do anything about this, it is likely that you WILL let something slip, and your colleagues WILL notice. And they will draw their own conclusions. And there may come a time in the future, perhaps at a different organization, where you are perhaps applying for a job or a promotion, and one of those former colleagues will remember you for this and veto your application. I’ve seen this happen.

    1. Granger*

      Totally agree – this is the kind of situation that people will go out of their way to share far into the future – even if just unofficially outside of a formal reference.

  35. Snark*

    “Unfortunately, I’m a compulsive snooper”

    Ah, no. Not really. This makes it sound like some unfortunate thing that just happens to you, like the stars cross and you have the overwhelming compulsion to snoop.

    You choose to snoop. That is an active, conscious, and ongoing choice on your part. If you want to quit before you get fired for it – and if you were my admin, oh my god, I would fire you out of a cannon – then you need to be honest with yourself, even in your language, about what it is you’re choosing to do and why.

    1. MicroManagered*

      Came to say this. “Unfortunately, I’m a compulsive snooper” is a massive copout. It’s not the same as some letters we’ve seen where someone has an actual condition they either can’t help or have to monitor closely.

      OP, you have poor boundaries–that’s the issue. I would advise you to look into and possibly get help around why that is. Personally? I was raised by unstable parents who did not give me even the semblance of privacy, which led to poor boundaries around things like snooping for me in my younger adult years. I worked with a therapist and have a much better understanding that a) being a “snooper” is not normal or ok, and b) how to actively stop myself when that urge arises. It feels much better to be that way, so I’d encourage you to seek out some guidance in a way that works for you! Whether that’s with a therapist or a self-help book or whatever.

    2. atalanta0jess*

      Whether the OP is or is not a compulsive snooper, her job is to manage her own behavior in a way that is respectful of others. So maybe it’s a true compulsion, maybe it’s just a turn of phrase, maybe it’s a cop-out, but in any case, OP, your job is to deal with it. So try the strategies here, get thee a therapist, do whatever. It’s like Marsha Linehan says, we may not have caused all of our problems, but we have to solve them.

    3. LW*

      Well it’s not an ongoing choice in this case b/c I’m going to stop :)
      Now can someone help me stop reading over people’s shoulders on the train?

      1. Alexander Graham Yell*

        The point is that it’s been an ongoing choice – not a one time mistake, but a pattern of disregarding your boss’s privacy. It’s good that you’re stopping now, but there is a weird kind of…chipperness? to your responses that feels like you only really understand this is wrong because now you know there’s an actual risk to you and not because it’s wrong. Stopping now doesn’t mean you didn’t actively choose it for a long time and excused it by telling yourself you’re just a nosy person

        1. ThatGirl*

          There’s no need to be rude about it – LW understands it was a mistake, understands it’s serious, and is going to stop.

        2. Purt's Peas*

          I don’t know if that’s fair–LW neither needs to atone for their sins nor adopt an abject tone to illustrate regret in every comment. Both for their own job safety and for acting more morally in the future, they just need to say exactly what they have said: “yeah, I’ll stop.” (And then stop.)

          1. Alexander Graham Yell*

            It’s possible I’m reading too much into it, but it’s also possible that based on some of the comments LW has made that they’re not realizing this could potentially come out in other ways. It’s not just about email snooping, but also things like maybe listening to a conversation they can hear but shouldn’t – the temptation is there to listen, but it’s better to put headphones in, you know? I hope LW is seeing that the *underlying cause* needs to be considered, and not just this one specific action

        3. Dankar*

          Why does the LW need to do some kind of performative dance about how WRONG and IMMORAL they were, and castigate themselves? Isn’t enough that LW wrote in and is now going to make a more concerted effort to stop doing something they shouldn’t be?

          I mean, there are some behaviors I don’t engage in (gossiping, screaming at other people in traffic, etc.) because I know there’s a risk to my person and my reputation, not because I honestly care about the ethics.

        4. LW*

          I’m chipper because I feel overwhelming relief at the idea that I won’t be doing this anymore. I needed someone to lay out for me why it was wrong and I got that, and I can no longer justify it to myself as “not that bad.”
          So yeah I’m chipper, I no longer have any desire to do this and it feels grand.

          1. Alexander Graham Yell*

            Glad to hear that I was misreading it, and sorry that my exhaustion crept into how I responded. I’m sure it feels like a weight is off of your shoulders now that the urge to snoop is gone!

          2. Escapee from Corporate Management*

            LW, it’s great that you plan to stop. That being said, there’s a lesson for the future. I imagine little of what we are telling you is a surprise. It’s not the information itself that has given you the drive to stop; most likely, it’s that you’re hearing it from other people. Our external voices help you control your inner voice telling you to snoop. Bear this in mind for future challenges. Find someone you trust (and is wiling to help you) who can give you feedback when you hear that inner voice. It can help you prevent the behavior before it begins or stop it before it becomes a problem.

            1. Escapee from Corporate Management*

              Bearing in mind that if you do this, please don’t use this as your only coping mechanism. While it will be great to someone provide that external voice, I recommend you find ways to control that inner voice too.

          3. Avasarala*

            That’s great but… I’m still really concerned that you needed someone to lay out for you why it’s bad to do this. This is an issue of integrity and breaching trust and confidentiality. You should already know that this is not OK to do.

            And then when you “realize” that it’s actually bad, you say (in perhaps a joking tone?) that you still read over people’s shoulders on the train. It makes me think you still don’t get it. You say you do, but I don’t think you do. It feels like downthread I’ll read you say “Now can someone help me stop opening my neighbor’s mail?”

            I think you have a lot of work to do if the only thing that keeps you acting with integrity is strangers explaining the logical consequences of your actions. I hope I have drastically misread your situation because this is really concerning to me.

            1. Courageous cat*

              Come on, I think this is an overreaction. We all have these impulses and it’s not some deep psychological symptom of a grave personality disorder that someone would act on them. She said she understands now and won’t do it anymore, so why tediously continue picking at it (not just you but a group of people)? It’s not like she owes you an apology.

              1. Avasarala*

                I’m not owed anything, but I don’t think OP really understands and won’t do it. It’s like if someone wrote into an advice column that they can’t help going through their coworker’s purses, they never take anything but they’re just curious, can you explain why that’s bad? The fact that it is not self-apparent means their Right-or-Wrongometer is out of whack. And then to respond “Oh, ok! Now I guess I should stop going through my friends’ purses too?”… really??

                I don’t care whether it’s a disorder or psychological whatever, I think that this is such a lowball “Is this right or wrong” that a child could get right, and OP is failing it. OP shouldn’t need to write to an advice column to know not to do this.

                1. Kitty*

                  I don’t actually agree that we all have these impulses – it may not be part of a personality disorder, but it is still a big deal to act on them. LW made a big mistake and I’m glad he/she says it won’t happen again.

    4. Rusty Shackelford*

      I mean, it *is* unfortunate that you like to snoop. But that doesn’t mean it’s beyond your control. And it is fortunate that you’re aware you have this problem.

    5. Amber Rose*

      Overwhelming compulsions are a thing though, and they can be absolute hell to deal with. I can kind of understand it, having struggled with compulsions around other things. If I don’t give in I become irritable and aggressive and frustrated. When your choices are “thing that is problematic but hasn’t hurt anyone yet” and “overwhelming negative emotions” it’s easy to give in to the wrong thing.

      That said, the answer isn’t shrugging and going “oh well, that’s me!” it’s to address the problem, through coping strategies or therapy or something.

    6. JSPA*

      Yep. “I am snooping” names the practical problem to be tackled ASAP. “I have a compulsion to snoop” names the root problem to be discussed in therapy. “I am a compulsive snooper,” however, conflates compulsion with identity. Never a good thing.

      LW, even if “weak natural boundaries” and “intense curiosity” (for example) are essential parts of your being, that does not make “compulsive snooper” a part of who you are. They’re not just words; this is a case where modifying your language can become a step in taking ownership, and from there, taking control.

    7. Anon for this*

      I have to agree. I am nosy. I love to know all the details about everything. But I was in a long-term relationship and never once snooped through my partners phone, emails, etc. Even when they read my private journals. I was blindsided when they had an affair and left me for someone else. Only then did I snoop through their things and social media profiles to try to piece together how long it had been going on and how I missed it.

      Professionally I have worked somewhere that I had access to sensitive and confidential information. I did’t snoop because it’s not right. I also echo what was mentioned upthread in that sometimes you find out things you wish you hadn’t. As part of that job I knew a co-worker was going to be fired, I had to pull information for the lawyers. I disliked this co-worker but even so I felt very conflicted and sad about it. And that was in a situation where I had a legitimate reason to know.

      I have worked somewhere that the boss found out their secretary was reading emails. The secretary had been granted access to the email because they had to schedule meetings, respond to requests, etc but the boss found out they were reading emails that were about the secretary themself. The secretary wasn’t fired but they got their access revoked and the boss was angry.

      I don’t know what you can do to stop yourself, but if you don’t figure out how its only a matter of time before it catches up to you and the results will not be good.

  36. sheepla*

    At least two employees at my office have been fired for exactly what you describe so please take the advice here to heart.

  37. canamera*

    How is it wrong if their boss gave them access? It’s not the same as hiding in a closet (which the boss would not have authorized). If the boss doesn’t want anyone having access to his email account, he should manage it himself.

    1. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

      Really? OP has access for specific reasons, and reading all of their boss’s emails is not the reason. It’s the same as a healthcare worker having access to patient records. Unless they’re working with the patient, they’re not supposed to access records.

    2. MicroManagered*

      My best friend has a key to my apartment so she can let herself in and feed my cat if I go away for more than a night or two. I gave her access. If she came in and also noticed I left the bathroom light on, and turned it off, that’d be fine. However, the fact that I gave her access to my living space doesn’t give her permission to go through my underwear drawer, find my journal, and read it. She knows she has access to my home for a relatively narrow list of approved activities. She knows if she got in my undies to read my journal, that’s outside the scope of the permission I’ve given her.

      1. Amber Rose*

        Similarly outside the scope would be showing up in the middle of the night randomly, or stopping by while you’re at work to raid your fridge without permission.

    3. Dust Bunny*

      I have access to client’s credit card information but that doesn’t give me the right to use it for anything except the work we do for them, in the manner agreed upon between them and my employer.

    4. Falling Diphthong*

      Comes up in medical fields all the time; also taxes. And police work. You have access to 10,000 files, just in case a situation arises in which you need them for legitimate doing your job reasons. If you are instead poking around those files for your own curiosity, the thrill of knowing secret stuff you shouln’t–or to do a favor for your buddy–you will be fired.

    5. Ariaflame*

      And if someone didn’t want their entire medical history posted online they shouldn’t see a doctor.

      I theoretically have access to a whole heap of information, but if I accessed it just for curiosity or with ulterior motives I would be behaving in an unethical manner. I do need the access for certain parts of my job, so not having the access is not an option. Or are you saying that nobody can be trusted, that you would do the same thing, and that basically being given access for certain specific tasks would give you carte blanche to do whatever you liked with that access?

    6. Admin of Sys*

      That’s not how information access works though. I’m in IT, I’ve had access to just about anything because I ran the servers that hosted the data. But having the ability to read my coworkers performance reviews doesn’t give me permission to do so. That’d be like saying the security guards have the right to read the confidential files in the locked file cabinet because they were granted the key to open it for folks when they were asked to do so. Access and permission are not the same thing.

    7. Psyche*

      I think it is very similar to hiding in a closet. They have to have access to the space to get into that closet. That doesn’t make it appropriate behavior.

    8. LadyByTheLake*

      OP also has access to the boss’s office — that doesn’t mean that that give her the right to snoop through the desk drawers or the bosses’ jacket pockets or briefcase or hide in the closet listening to conversations. Access is granted with the expectation that it will be used only as needed to do the work that needs to get done. In addition, it is really common for admins to have access to emails, but as stated by so many commenters, with that access comes the responsibility to only use it AS NEEDED.

    9. Arctic*

      People are entitled to a reasonable amount of respect and privacy. Yes, in the office nothing we put in email is really private. And an employer can always look. But that is for legitimate reasons. Not for fun.
      No, the idea of respect and privacy aren’t enshrined in any law (unless we are talking about government surveillance and even then not as an employer) but it is a basic principle of decency and professional (or personal) relationships.
      Don’t cook fish in the microwave.
      Don’t sleep with your co-worker’s husband or wife.
      Don’t spy.

      These are just basic rules to go by.

    10. Decima Dewey*

      I’m a librarian. I have access to patron’s checkouts so that I can help them when something goes wrong. If I spend a slow afternoon looking up records to see who’s checked out what? That’s a hard no and a reason for disciplinary action.

    11. Make a Comment*

      This is victim blaming. And to be clear, the boss is a victim here as his privacy is being violated by OP, as well as the privacy of those sending the emails.

      It’s not the boss’s fault that OP is snooping. It’s her fault. And she is the only one who has the power to stop it. Even if boss were to magically take the access away, that doesn’t stop OP from pushing other boundaries.

  38. Amber T*

    Oomph I get the temptation. I technically have access to everyone’s emails (regulatory purposes), and one time while searching for something legit, I came across an email between my old boss and a higher up discussing me (subject gave it away, I couldn’t see the body of the email). While it was SO TEMPTING, I didn’t read it – I was in the middle of a time crunch searching for something that was needed right now, and I haven’t brought myself to search for it again.

  39. burner22*

    While I think you should cut down way, way less on this, I’ll share this anecdote.

    I snooped in my boss’s email at my last job. Found out I was getting laid off. The official “lay off” meeting wasn’t scheduled for weeks.

    With that advance knowledge, I started covering my financial bases.

    I’m glad I did it.

          1. Courageous cat*

            There is no nevertheless here. I feel like some of these comments are marinating in a little self-righteousness on this one. They were already getting laid off for presumably other reasons. There’s nothing more to say.

    1. Anonymous Poster*

      That doesn’t make it ethical nor moral.

      You were granted access that others weren’t, and got a jump on others that may have been laid off. You abused the privilege, and should be ashamed, not proud.

      1. Avasarala*

        Agreed. Just because you got away with it and it worked to your advantage doesn’t make it right.

  40. Ptarmigan*

    I find that threatening myself, reminding myself of negative consequences, etc., is not always totally helpful. OP, it may help to focus on your image of yourself as an honorable person who doesn’t snoop or pry. Try to live up to something.

  41. Michelle*

    If I found out a coworker knew personal information about me or my job because they were snooping in the boss’s email, I would make a huge fuss about it. Boss, grandboss, HR they whole chain of management.

  42. HigherEd on Toast*

    OP, I’m not sure if the “addiction” framing is yours or the title Allison gave your letter, but if it’s yours- and I do notice you use “compulsive” later in your letter- try to stop framing it that way to yourself. I’ve seen people do themselves real harm, and sometimes others real harm, because they’ve framed snooping/gossiping/making comments on things they shouldn’t comment on/fighting with co-workers as an “addiction” and “something I can’t control,” therefore abdicating responsibility and basically saying that everyone else had to just put up with it (and in a few cases acting majorly surprised when they were disciplined or fired for it). If you’re in this headspace of, “I can’t stop, it’s an addiction,” try thinking about it differently: “It’s something I feel compelled to do but I can stop”, maybe? Also, I agree with the suggestions to put barriers in your way if right now it’s very easy for you to do.

    Thinking about the consequences, as other people have pointed out, is a good way to step away from the addiction/can’t help it framework. Because while it may feel like, “I can’t hold off” to you, I guarantee your boss is not going to see it as your inability to do so, just as your unwillingness to do so.

    1. Zap R.*

      Yeah, framing jerkish behaviour as a mental health issue is super-gross and I think that’s why this post and several of the replies are bothering me so much.

  43. No Longer Working*

    Instead of having the need to log in to your boss’s email account, I would suggest you & he start having you as a CC on all email topics you might have to get involved in. If you’re his admin or assistant I would think you were doing this already. He can start doing this and all recipients could just reply all. Or he could start when he is going to be away and send an announcement email (CCing you of course) advising them to make sure you are CCed because you will be the contact while he is out.

    1. valentine*

      The onus is OP to mind their own business, not on the boss to find a workaround for OP’s violations.

      1. Admin of Sys*

        Yeah, this. Especially because how would the OP phrase that to the boss? I mean, OP could say ‘I am concerned I will accidentally see privileged information from your email’ but that could actually trigger the audit that will show the OP’s snooping. And even if it didn’t, the boss’s likely reaction is ‘I trust you to not look at things not meant for you’ because that’s the implied subtext of being granted the access in the first place.

        1. No Longer Working*

          I think it’s just good practice. That’s what was done at my last employer and it just makes sense to me. How to get it started in her current job could be tricky. But if she is not the only person having to log in to other’s email, it could be be suggested as a security measure via IT – It can’t be good to give out one’s email password, period.

        2. MommyMD*

          Yep. If she says something now an audit may soon follow and it’s over. She just posted she’s doing it about every three weeks, and who knows for how long and how many mails she’s clicked on. I don’t understand how people this this is not discoverable. Probably best thing is stop cold turkey and say your prayers no one looks into it.

        3. Turquoisecow*

          And a lot of people won’t remember to hit “reply all” vs “reply” or will forget to copy OP, since they’ve never had to do that before. So there’s a greater chance of Boss missing emails he should see.

    2. Arctic*

      THere are a couple of issues with that. No everyone who emails the boss will CC OP and they may not all require a response (but may be something the OP has to follow-up on later.) Even if you tell people to CC her they often forget. (This is a struggle in my office.)

      The boss doesn’t necessarily know all of the things OP may need to get involved with in the future. Some thing may seem too sensitive to CC on and then it becomes necessary.

      I think the best solution is to just STOP.

      1. Anon for this*

        Or what if the boss gets invites that are from a mailing list, but they’re private/invite only events? Chances are the assistant’s email won’t make the guest list and the boss might not rsvp in time. I know at my job the EA manages the CEO’s event calendar and is responsible for rsvping to things as the CEO. They discuss in their weekly meeting which events CEO wants to attend and EA responds. They are not going to cc the EA in this type of situation.

        1. Administratrix*

          When a calendar request comes to Boss, the admin with delegate access automatically gets a notification to the the delegate’s own Inbox & can see the tentative time blocked on the owner’s cally. A delegate doesn’t have to see it from the email owner’s Inbox to act upon it.

          Having “the keys to the kingdom” is a huge trust to place in someone. “And with great power there must also come great responsibility.”

  44. Jimming*

    Even if the OP wasn’t purposely snooping, couldn’t they accidentally see something they shouldn’t know? Like email subjects and first lines in the inbox? There’s got to be a better way for them to support the boss with email as needed than to be able to login as him. Like the boss could add an auto-reply that says to contact OP for urgent issues. I definitely think OP should stop snooping. I also think it’s a bad idea to share email passwords.

    1. XAdministratrix*

      Yes, they can. This is the reason why competant, discreet, trustworthy admins are worth their weight in gold & exec’s go to fantastical lengths to keep them.

      There are other workarounds, but they are onerous & full of room for error. A prized admin/EA knows how to drink tea from an empty cup (erecting boundaries where none actually exist, compartmentalizing what needs to be compartmentalized, forgetting things they don’t need to remember, knowing how & when to keep their mouths shut, etc.)

  45. Semprini!*

    In terms of practical advice to break the habit, can you revoke your own access to the account? (e.g. log into the boss’s account, go to the thing that allows access to be shared, and unshare it?)

    This would force you to break the habit without actually requiring any self-discipline on your part, and then you’d have to ask your boss or IT or someone to restore access next time you have a genuine need. (“Weird, it must have somehow gotten disconnected.”)

    Also, can you arrange to be away next time your boss is away, so they have to share their email with someone else who’s not you? Then they might just keep having the other person be The Person Who Has Email Access, and you wouldn’t have the temptation any more.

  46. RUKiddingMe*

    Oh OP… Coming from someone who prefers to not terminate people without it clearly being the only option, and whose most recent staff member has been here like 10 years…

    If I were your boss and caught you doing this I’d fire you on the spot…no second chance, at all.

  47. Vicky Austin*

    Generally speaking, if you have to write to an advice columnist to ask if something is wrong, the answer is usually yes.

  48. MommyMD*

    Really, you should be fired. You are abusing his trust and being nothing more than a voyeur to other people’s personal business. You can control it but choose not to. Also, sooner or later the jig is up. There is an electronic time stamp every time you do your snooping. Or you’ll simply be caught.

  49. IT Lady*

    This is very unethical behavior OP. Your actions are displaying a lack of discipline, as well as a lack of integrity. Not only could this get you fired, but it could prevent you from getting hired in the future, especially a job relating to sensitive information. If that alone does not stop you from wanting to snoop, then I would seek counselling if I were you.

  50. I edit everything*

    Decide what kind of person you want to be, and behave as if you already are that person. It’s the difference between “I’m trying to quit smoking,” and “I don’t smoke.”
    Assuming you want to be someone worthy of your boss’s trust, every time you’re tempted to snoop, ask yourself, “What would a trustworthy person do?” Then do that. Don’t wait for the urge to pass. Push pass the urge to be the type of person you want to be.

    1. MommyMD*

      Good advice. Except she’s already proven herself to be anything but trustworthy. I’m not sure if you don’t have this in your character already that it’s possible to really acquire it.

      1. TootsNYC*

        Oh, I don’t think that’s fair at all!!!!

        I think people absolutely CAN become trustworthy. Or neat, or organized, or kind, or whatever.

        It might be a little harder if they’re starting from a bit of a deficit. But absolutely, it can happen!

        1. TootsNYC*

          I should have said, “People can do it,” and not “it can happen.”

          Because people DO things in order to do/become things.
          It doesn’t just happen from the outside.

          People have agency, and their agency can be effective.

        2. MommyMD*

          She’s proven to be inherently untrustworthy. She will have to continually redirect herself. This is a repeat action not a one time slip. She’s confirmed it was multiple times with frequency.

          She could change her behavior and I wish her the best of luck in doing so. But this is egregious. At the core, if any employer knew, they cannot fully ever trust her.

          1. Courageous cat*

            You have literally commented so many times on this thread to talk about what a terrible person OP is – is it really necessary, especially after the first, second, or third time? She’s not plotting his murder, she’s reading his emails.

    2. TootsNYC*

      Interesting that you use smoking–I found this tactic to be pretty powerful as I went through adolescence and early adulthood.

      I never struggled with many temptations (experimenting w/ drugs, cigarettes, alcohol, sex) because I simply decided, “I am not a smoker.”

      I’ve tapped into this w/ the whole celiac/gluten thing, but I forget about it with some other stuff, like exercise or work procrastination.

      Thanks for the reminder.

  51. LW*

    Hi I’m the LW!
    Thanks Alison for answering; I definitely hadn’t realized this was a fireable offense (makes sense though!)
    I will stop! I think I maybe exaggerated how much I did this, I’ve worked here over a year and have done it maybe 15 times? It just tends to be in clusters so it feels more frequent when I’m doing it.
    Not to minimize/justify, but there are emails marked confidential and I don’t click on those.
    But regardless, I will for sure stop (I don’t have a way to make it harder to access as some suggested but honestly I hadn’t realized how serious this was and now that I know I don’t foresee any trouble stopping.

    1. MommyMD*

      Also there’s an electronic footprint. I hope you do stop because this is out there unacceptable, and every time you’ve done it is documented and can be uncovered. Easily found out if anyone cares to run a check. I think you must be very young. Please learn from this. It’s the same as if anyone can just access all your text messages.

      1. No Longer Working*

        Yes, even if she stops now, she could be fired if it ever get discovered she did it, period. Sorry, LW, you have to live with that risk. I don’t think “But I stopped!” will save you.

        1. Nervous Nellie*

          And the letter writer can also not assume that “I left that job a long time ago” would save him or her either, when it is time to move on to a new job. Depending on the industry, how regulated it is, what was improperly seen (even if not acted upon) could still come back to bite after departure. I can’t speak for all industries, but I work in a highly regulated financial business subject to IT monitoring and annual deep audits. A month ago there was buzz about a staffer whom I have never met, because he had left our company over a year ago. He is being investigated for their improper access to files (marked ‘private’) on a shared drive. The staffer will likely lose his license because of it. I don’t know how it came about so late in the game, or if any charges are involved. For his sake, I sure hope not. This is serious business!

    2. Wannabe Disney Princess*

      15 times in over a year is hovering around, on average, once a month. That’s a lot.

        1. JSPA*

          Hm…there was a bleak period where I had a serious “screw it all” attitude for about a half-day’s worth of PMS, pretty much every 27 days.

          OP, it doesn’t get more personal than this, so please do not report back to us [grin]…

          but if you happen to be able to determine an…um…periodicity to this, and if it ties in with any other cycles, you may have a bit of extra, useful knowledge to bring to bear, as far as when you need to not even get close to the source of temptation.

    3. Buttons*

      That’s good. I understand the temptation but think of this like any other privileged information you might have access to. For example, a nurse in a hospital has access to patient data and health records, but should only access what is required for their work, and not look to see what their neighbor has been treated for. In my job, I have access to all employee performance reviews, but I shouldn’t look up any review unless I need to for a specific purpose.
      You got this :) come here instead and read all trainwrecks people write in about :)

    4. ZeldaFitz*

      I do want to give you a lot of kudos for realizing something was wrong and taking steps to ask about it! I had similar issues with friends/romantic interests where I felt I couldn’t help but snoop, and I’m very lucky they were understanding and forgiving when I got caught.

      I’d encourage you to look at this with a therapist, even if you’re able to curb the behavior at work. For me, it ended up being a lot of boundary issues I didn’t know I had (similarly, I just didn’t think it was that big of a deal to snoop, it was very normalized in my family growing up.) Not necessarily your case, but if you’re engaging in behavior that could be VERY harmful and not fully realizing it, getting to the root of it proactively could be very useful. Good luck!

      1. Bears Beets Battlestar*

        I agree! Good for LW for realizing it’s a problem and asking for help.
        I think LW needs to start watching reality tv. Pick a show and really get in there. Talk about it on reddit, join the facebook group, have a watch party every week. If you need people to “snoop” on, that’s what these shows are for!

    5. fposte*

      It sounds like you picked a good point in your habits to write in; hopefully we have scared you straight :-).

    6. Akcipitrokulo*

      Oh, saw this after I’d posted! I am glad this looks like a positive outcome for you :)

    7. Doug Judy*

      It took a lot of courage to write in and I’m glad to see you decided to stop.

      However, if you are still finding the temptation too great, honestly I’d find another job before you get fired. It would be really hard to come back from being fired for something like this. Even if you do stop, it might be a good idea anyway to find a job where the temptation and access to confidential information isn’t part of your duties.

    8. ThursdaysGeek*

      Can you come back and give us an update in a year or so? We always like updates, and knowing that you’re going to send one will give you that little boost of accountability, too. I know you can do the right thing!

    9. Observer*

      15 times in a year? That actually IS a lot.

      How long are yo in the workforce? I’m pretty stunned that you genuinely didn’t realize that you could get fired over this.

      Also, do you still not realize that this behavior is not only an instant firing offense, but also just a REALLY awful way to behave?

      Saying that you are not trying to justify or minimize as a prelude to doing exactly that makes me wonder if you REALLY get the seriousness of what you are doing, both an a career / employment level and on a human level. You must know that just because an email is not MARKED confidential, that does not mean that it’s not confidential! If Jane Smith sends an email to the boss marked “ADA Accommodation Request”, it should not need to be marked confidential for you to respect it. If someone sends an email with some bland header, it could STILL be highly confidential, but the mailer didn’t think to mark it that way because they assume that you boss has the brains to understand that it’s confidential when they read it. Why would they even think about the possibility of some snoop going through his emails?

      I’m pushing back because you ARE minimizing this. And, that means that when the urge strikes again, you’re likely to do some more minimizing. Or some mental gymnastics about how this is “different”.

      So, stop minimizing. Not “not to minimize, BUT”. Full on accept that you did a really bad and dangerous thing. And let THAT be your baseline.

      1. MommyMD*

        It’s not minimal. It’s extremely serious. I think perhaps LW is very very young. I’m hoping they take these responses to heart.

    10. RUKiddingMe*

      15 times is more than once a month! You should have done it zero times. Glad you’re taking the advice to heart though.

    11. LGC*

      Yeah, you said “several times a week,” which made it sound like you did it a lot.

      It’s good that you’re able to stop because of the consequences, though! (Okay, it’s not great that you were doing it in the first place, but I figure enough people here have told you that you should be fired for digging through your boss’s emails already.) And I don’t think there really is a way to make it more difficult – you need to be able to access your boss’s inbox to do your job.

  52. Art3mis*

    I used to be someone’s Administrative Assistant. I had access to her email legitimately to do my job, and she knew this. I didn’t snoop, but one day I was looking through some emails to find something and I came across one about me. And it was not pleasant or complimentary at all. I wish I’d never found it. It changed how I saw her and how I viewed our relationship. Especially since I felt like the email was saying things that were incorrect about me. Anyway, my point is, you may eventually find something you don’t want to know and once that bell is rung there’s no unringing it.

  53. MommyMD*

    Think of life right now without your direct deposit paycheck and health insurance. Is that enough to give up your duplicitous ways? Think of the devastation you would feel if your boss came up to you today and said, “we need to see you in HR. Bring your personal items”. Then you are walked out of the building. You are headed there. Please stop.

  54. ENFP in Texas*

    It.is a PRIVILEGE that was granted to you with the expectation that you were mature enough to handle it. And by nature I mean professionally, not chronologically.

    The fact that you acknowledge that it’s wrong and do it anyway, and that you say “I’m just hoping you can explain for me why this is such a bad idea” tells me that you are in the wrong job.

    If you can’t trust yourself to behave appropriately WHEN YOU KNOW WHAT YOU’RE DOING IS WRONG, I would highly recommend transferring to another job where you are not offered the temptation.

    Because if you don’t, and you continue to do this, you ARE going to be found out and you ARE going to be fired. But since you already know this and those consequences are not severe enough for you to stop, you need to remove the temptation altogether.

    1. RUKiddingMe*

      Exactly right about it being a privilege. In work or my personal life me being vulnerable to you* is a privilege and if you* violate it, there is no coming back from it.

      *The general ‘you’ of course.

  55. Lily in NYC*

    Let me tell you a cautionary tale! I remind myself of this every time I’m tempted to snoop in my boss’ inbox: Our CFO had an assistant who we all liked but a few people warned him that she was spreading inappropriate gossip she learned by looking at confidential documents. He set up a sting operation (I can’t remember the details; it was a long time ago, but I think he planted some juicy fake info to see what she did with it). She spread the info and got caught (our IT team was monitoring her email and phone) and got escorted out of the building. It was really embarrassing for her because both her mom and aunt worked here and got her the job.
    Now, whenever I’m tempted to gossip or snoop, I just remember what happened and warn myself that it could be a set-up. That’s always enough to get me to keep my big mouth shut.

  56. Holly*

    OP, I suggest trying a true crime podcast (currently I’m a fan of To Live and Die in LA) to listen to occasionally at work. This may satisfy the urge for voyeuristic tendencies. I suggest a podcast since that’s probably more allowable at work, but mystery novels or voyueristic reality shows (Love Island, Real Housewives, Vanderpump Rules) would also satisfy this urge to see into the private lives of someone you wouldn’t normally be able to, and that feeling of needing to know what happens next.

    1. EH*

      YES! True crime and complex-worldbuilding horror are my fav, both podcast and other media (I’m currently binging The Magnus Archives, how had I never heard this? It’s so good!), because there’s that hunt for information and I can apply past knowledge to try and figure things out before the people in the show. I loooove it.

  57. LGC*

    I like that with the addition of the phrase “Help!” at the front of the headline, this could EASILY be a Dear Prudence letter.

    Anyway. I know therapy is a cheap (for me) suggestion – to be honest, I feel like therapy gets suggested for every problem. But if this is something that you do in a lot of areas of your life, this is totally worth unpacking. Why DO you feel the need to go through your boss’s emails? Why DO you feel the need to snoop around in general?

    And, of course, even if you can’t afford therapy, can’t find a therapist, or you just don’t think getting a therapist is for you, you should still unpack this with someone you trust and do NOT work with. As all of the other comments have mentioned, this is serious and you can be fired for this. Obviously, what you’re currently doing isn’t working, so you might have to find out why it’s not working. (I suspect that the answer is not either that you’re a terrible person with no willpower whatsoever or that your boss’s emails are the digital equivalent of heroin.)

    Finally, one more thing: assume that your boss can know EVERYTHING you do at work. (To my bosses: yes, I listen to K-pop a disturbing amount on Spotify. Come at me.) So, just as you can spy on your boss, your boss can spy on you while you’re doing so.

    1. TootsNYC*

      unpack this with someone you trust and do NOT work with

      That “not” is so important–remember our earlier letter-writer who ‘fessed up to a colleague who sort of had to report her.

      Never show your flaws or vulnerabilities to people at work.

      1. LGC*

        It’s not that I think you should never show vulnerability at work (I personally disagree with that, but that’s me – although I might be reading this too literally). You’re right in that I’m very concerned about the LW getting themselves in trouble here if they mention this to a coworker, and I was actually thinking about that letter myself.

      2. Avasarala*

        I don’t think “Never show your flaws or vulnerabilities to people at work” is the takeaway from that–more importantly, if OP confesses to someone that she was snooping, they may be obligated to report her, and she could get in trouble as a natural consequence of her actions. It’s like getting caught vs. turning yourself in.

  58. Slartibartfast*

    My gut reaction is you need to find a new job, one where you DON’T have this kind of access, before you get caught snooping. Because you may get away with it 99.5% of the time, but it only takes getting caught ONCE to get fired. If you’re truly addicted it may be your best option to make a clean break.

  59. Arctic*

    OMG. No.
    I’m someone who has access to everyone’s email in my organization in case of investigations and future litigation. It’s a sacred trust that can only be used for legitimate business purposes. It isn’t just about getting fired or potential of getting caught common decency demands you stop doing this unless you have a legitimate reason.

    1. RUKiddingMe*

      I have access to everyone’s email, etc. I can check it at any time. People use their work email for personal email if they want…I’m ok with that, so I could read lots of stuff if I was inclined to do so. With the sole exception of my husband, who’s email I basically curate (otherwise he’d never, ever clear his inbox!), I have never, ever, not even once read anyone else’s email. “Sacred trust” is pretty accurate IMO.

    2. MommyMD*

      Yeah. It strikes at the very core of whether or not someone can be trusted. If someone is doing this, there is zero area they can be trusted. If I were LW I would look deep, find another job, leave on amicable basis, and be the most trustworthy human being employee on the planet. This could back to bite her in months or even years. I would not want that over my head.

      1. RUKiddingMe*

        Exactly. Full disclosure, I have all kinds of issues, insecurities, and weaknesses, however the one thing I hold on to like a chimpanzee with her own bushel of bananas is my integrity, even when it would be easier/simpler/more fun to not be honorable. Someone snooping for no valid reason has no integrity IMO and I wouldn’t rust them with anything.

    3. Kitty*

      “It’s a sacred trust that can only be used for legitimate business purposes.” Absolutely agree.

  60. Gymmie*

    I think it would be normal to come across confidential info in your job if you did have to go in there occasionally. It would kind of be like HR, where you probably are privy to things that come across the desk – changing someone’s payroll taxes because they had a divorce, etc. However, you shouldn’t go looking, and what you do see you need to keep under wraps.

  61. mark132*

    I know this is tangential to topic, but for me this is a good reminder that you always need to be professional in what you put in emails/IMs. Eventually that email could end up getting read by someone you never thought would read it, like HR or a Judge in a legal case, or just simply forwarded to someone else. Having confidential information in an email is inevitable, but always be professional.

    1. Alexander Graham Yell*

      “Love like you’ve never been hurt, dance like nobody’s watching, and email like it will one day be read aloud in a deposition.”

      1. RUKiddingMe*

        “…email like it will one day be read aloud in a deposition.”

        So true. Back in the dark ages of my youth the mantra was “never put anything in writing.”

        1. Alexander Graham Yell*

          My old company’s lawyer had a call with all of us after a particularly bad deposition that amounted to “Tone cannot be read over email. Sarcasm cannot be read over email. Without context, in a deposition, you jokingly saying, ‘Yeah, sure, we should pay them,’ reads EXACTLY THE SAME WAY as writing it down and meaning it. Please don’t cost us half a million dollars by putting something in email just because you want to be snarky. Pick up the phone if you want to be a sarcastic ***hole, we don’t record calls.”

  62. Akcipitrokulo*

    I really hope some of tips above work …. make it a chore to get in, have distractions, maybe in file where you keep passowrd have a message… maybe even change password to something like “AreYouSureYouShouldBeDoingThisItWillGetYouFIRED1!1!GoGetACoffeeInstead” so you have to type in a warning to yourself to open it?

    I’m generally nice and try to give the benefit of the doubt – and live somewhere with a fairly reasonable degree of employee protection… and I’d fire you and have you walked off premises. Maybe suspend and have walked off premises, do paperwork, then fired. You’re locked out of all IT systems within 5 minutes of my finding out.

    (And because also live somewhere with strong data protection laws, report the breach to authorities, have to take the company reputation hit – which is not something I want – and there is possibility that YOU could get fined.)

    There is absolutely no way back from this if it gets found out.

    Please find a way to fix it!

  63. Lilysparrow*

    You certainly shouldn’t be doing this, because your role is explicitly set up to limit your access/knowledge to certain things.

    I have been in roles, and within office cultures, where execs would explicitly assign their EA or PA to actively monitor and manage all aspects of their inbox, flag important or time-sensitive issues (including confidential or personnel issues), and sort or file all emails into topic folders or tags – which requires knowing what they’re about, and how it relates to the bosses’ other priorities.

    In situations like that, there are two sides of the arrangement that make it work: the boss assigns this as part of the job duties, and the assistant understands how to compartmentalize things that aren’t their business, and keep their mouth shut. (Which is how you get to be a trusted PA in the first place).

    There’s also the cultural awareness in offices like this that if you want something to be truly private, you don’t email it – you speak in person with the door shut.

    I absolutely know way more about some of my former bosses’ personal lives than I ever wanted to. And on occasion, I found it highly entertaining, in a quietly-watching-the-train-wreck sort of way.

    That’s on them. If they didn’t want me to see it, they shouldn’t have used their work email for it.

    1. mark132*

      That’s what wouldn’t be comfortable with. I do NOT use my work email for anything personal. With privacy being only one of the reasons.

  64. voyager1*

    Snooping electronically is just crazy. There is a trail.

    Had a coworker who went through desks about 15 years ago. Apparently his thing was looking for reviews, work papers, ideas he could steal…. that kind of thing. He got caught because he made an off comment about medication someone had, that nobody knew about except the coworker and the manager (not sure what it was for, some kind of health thing that was documented with HR I imagine ).

    Dude was fired and gone within a hour.

    Lessons learned
    1. Always lock your desk.
    2. Leave nothing you don’t want read by a coworker (sometimes there are legit reasons someone needs in your desk)

  65. Hermione*

    I’ve read a few of the responses above (including LW’s) and a lot of them seem to be focusing on the “you will get fired” piece of this, which is completely fair. However, I’d ask the LW (and others) to consider the integrity aspect of giving into these sorts of impulses, even if they wouldn’t result in immediate termination.

    I grew up in a family of – frankly – nosy busybodies, and I totally understand (and often have given into) the urge to snoop. But I don’t know whether it’s just that I’m getting older, or perhaps that the 24-7 news cycle seems to put all of the bad news right in my face all day long, but in the last few years I’ve been trying to consider strongly what sort of values I want to have as a person, employee and friend.

    Lately, I’ve been making a point to strive for integrity, kindness, clarity, and timeliness in all of my interactions at work (not when I know someone is watching), and being dedicated to these values has honestly made me a calmer, more settled employee. I’m happier with myself at my job, my pride in my work is at an all-time high, and I’m making fewer mistakes than usual. The dedication to good behavior has even started to leak into my home life (for example, I’m much more likely to clean the kitchen immediately after cooking now, and I open my mail right away instead of twice a week, etc.).

    I realize now that this might be reading as preachy, but what I mean to say is that even if your job wouldn’t be in jeopardy, you’re doing something that you admit is wrong, LW, and I wonder if there isn’t a cost there for yourself in your self-perception and self-worth. I also wonder if giving into the impulse might eventually create a slippery slope to other poor behaviors? Just something to think about.

    1. TootsNYC*

      Love this!

      I also love the slippery slope warning–especially when couples with your “uphill momentum” reality of finding that your good work habits are “sliding” into your home life.

    2. Observer*

      So well put. I think that Alison put less emphasis on this (although she did address it) because the focus was on the immediate issue. But you are right that there is areal cost to the personal integrity of the OP in doing this kind of stuff.

  66. TootsNYC*

    OK, so Alison covered the why.

    What about the how?

    Maybe some affirmations or verbalizing the resolution will help?

    Maybe getting your email program to “forget” the connection, so you have to actually type the password, and that can be your trigger to stop?

    If all else fails, maybe talk to a “coach”/therapist for some tools and tactics? (I’m thinking cognitive behavioral therapy exercises or similar.) It’s not that you “need therapy” so much as that “mind-hacking tactics” can be really effective–it’s almost like going to a trainer to get your running form checked out and being taught some stretches and strengthening exercises to do at home.

  67. OG Karyn*

    One job required me to have access to both my boss’ personal and business email addresses and I HATED IT. There were only two employees including me so the business one I wasn’t concerned with but holy hell, I hated dealing with her personal email because I saw ALL KINDS of things I didn’t want to know about. Family drama, health problems, therapist communications… it was uncomfortable as hell.

    Just keep in mind that your boss is also a human being and that he has the right to a private life. Imagine if he could get into your personal email (even though he’s using his business email address I’m sure he’s got personal stuff in there too). You wouldn’t want him reading all about your family drama or complaining about him, so don’t do it yourself. You’re better than this, I know it! :)

  68. General von Klinkerhoffen*

    LW, I’m really glad that you’ve decided to stop, and that Alison’s answer and other comments have helped you with that decision.

    I find it interesting that some people have suggested restricting your access as a way to reduce your snooping, because I was left wondering whether it was the current limits on your access that made snooping so compelling.

    Files on open shelves are left alone; files in a cabinet marked “do not read” are fascinating. There’s something about the illicit nature of it that makes it compelling.

    In $OldJob I had full access to my boss’s mailbox, as in alias permissions and the mailbox sitting right there in my Outlook. I sent messages “from $Boss” daily, printed things out for her for meetings, etc etc.

    Anyway because it was RIGHT THERE all the time, I never felt any inclination to snoop, not for a second. Not even when my name was the subject line in an email from HR.

    1. LW*

      That’s actually the same level of access I have (alias rights etc) but I definitely don’t have to use it every day (and I almost never have to go into the inbox). So I do wonder if that’s part of it!

      1. General von Klinkerhoffen*

        In that case I wonder if other commenters’ suggestions for other ways to get that “going through the door marked NO ENTRY” buzz might satisfy whatever tendencies are pushing you, but in a more constructive way. Curiosity can be a very positive trait when properly directed.

  69. Different User Name for This*

    I work in Litigation Technology. Docs that come through our system can be spot-checked to verify that the branding is correct, docs that should be searchable are, that redactions are in place, and that the correct metadata appear when the clients need it.

    Some of that metadata might reveal that you opened an email and what time you opened it. If your company is ever sued for something, those emails are discoverable.

    I saw your message above this: I’m glad you’re stopping and any potential for a metadata trail ends today.

  70. CJM*

    One of my siblings behaved very much like LW over several years. (I’m hesitant to spell out details that might identify us.) There was an audit of electronic data, perhaps done at random (not sure), and my family member was fired — all because of giving in to the temptation to be nosy. A longtime job that paid well is gone forever, and it’ll be difficult or impossible to find anything else as good. My sibling regrets the poor choices and how much they cost, including the trust of colleagues and family who know the story. I hope LW will learn a lesson from my sibling and stop playing with fire.

    1. Observer*

      There was an audit of electronic data, perhaps done at random (not sure),

      This is a really important issue – OP, it’s been said before, but it bears repeating – you could get caught even if YOU never slip up and give anyone suspicion.

  71. Usedtobefoolish*

    Oh my goodness, this is giving me awful flashbacks. I did this 3 years ago when I was going through a rough time. I stopped after a month. After all this time could I still get caught? I’m still at the same organisation.

    1. Caddis*

      Yeah, I’d imagine IT could still find the evidence if they went looking, but after so long it’s unlikely they’ll have reason to, as long as your actions are scrupulously honest and above-board.

      I think it’ll always be a slight risk though. :/

    2. Observer*

      You probably could get caught. The best way to know is to see if your organization has document retention policies in place, and what they are.
      .

    3. mark132*

      You might be ok now. increasingly companies are purging old data like that when possible. Stuff like GDPR etc make holding onto more data a risk.

    4. JSPA*

      Probably depends on the circumstances, as well as the sort of documents. You’d know if you worked somewhere, where this was a REQUIRED firing offense, presumably. And depending how rough the time was–and how documented and how visible that difficulty was–you might have the equivalent of a diminished capacity (or “nervous tick”) excuse. But if you were going through a bad breakup and checking private documents on the ex and their new flame, or something along those lines, then yes, it could come back to haunt you.

      Still, someone who did something years ago and then stopped is in a much better position to get hired elsewhere than someone who gets caught and fired with no evidence that they’d have stopped on their own. It’s a lot easier to argue, “I briefly did something very out of character that I’d never done before and have never done since” if that’s the truth.

    5. Courageous cat*

      I mean… I don’t think I have ever once worked at a place (smaller companies I guess?) where this would ever come up, IMO. I would think you’re fine.

  72. Observer*

    OP – Please keep this in mind. Not only will you almost certainly lose your job if it gets found out, you are also almost certainly going to need to get into a totally different industry if anyone at your company tells why you were fired.

    Keep in mind that no matter how careful you are, you can’t control what other people do. And that means that your behavior could be uncovered when someone is looking into something totally different.

  73. canamera*

    I can see firing someone for sharing confidential information that they obtained this way. But firing them just for SEEING it after you gave them access? I think that’s a hard case to make.

    1. Observer*

      Not “seeing”- LOOKING at it. Not a hard case at all. This is an automatic firing, by and large.

    2. RUKiddingMe*

      Seeing is one thing. Specifically snooping, looking through, opening emails that they have no need for or business to get into…that’s something else completely.

  74. !*

    One of my coworkers (we work in IT) was fired for this exact thing. There are always logs of these types of things and if anyone wanted to look at them (especially if there is any suspicion of snooping), you will be found out. Stop doing this NOW.

  75. Really Meh*

    Folks can try to put all the positive spin on snooping that they want, but it is a massive vioation of privacy and demonstrates disrepsect for the rights of others. Noseyness is not a good trait, how would you feel about someone snooping on you?

  76. Veruca*

    Years ago I worked for a man who, at the end of every single day, would prop his feet up on his desk, open his door and loudly converse in Spanish with his business partner in Argentina for about half an hour. Mostly it was business stuff and moving money but it was also who was on his List of Grievances. We were in the northern midwest, and as far as I know I was the only person in the office who understood Spanish. My boss knew this at one time, but i never reminded him. So every day I heard the rundown of the office. He made no effort to conceal it–didn’t even close the door.

    Our boss was vindictive and mean. And immoral and unethical.

    I never admitted to anyone that I could understand him, but if anyone was watching closely they might have noticed that I did tend to check with people about things during those phone calls. Status of project? Need help? I just wanted to protect people in my office–including myself–since we all needed the job.

    I never heard employees confidential information, and I believe that I managed to keep it secret until the day I quit in a Blaze of Glory.

    1. RUKiddingMe*

      Ok now I need to know about the “blaze of glory.” If you care to share that is…

  77. Macedon*

    Let’s not infantilize and downplay this as snooping, OP. It’s an intense and purposeful violation of your boss’ privacy. It’s inconsiderate, disrespectful and profoundly unethical. You need to mentally acknowledge this offensive and then stop.

    1. RUKiddingMe*

      IT’s also a violation of the privacy of all those other people involved in various emails.

    2. Kitty*

      Yeah…I haven’t read all the comments and I understand that this is not the place to pile on LW, but I’m surprised people haven’t been addressing the letter’s casual tone. I have access to all employee accounts at my not for profit, and I consider it a Big Deal. I think one of the worst things you can do professionally is to abuse that kind of trust. LW would be out on her butt if I was her boss and I found out about this.

  78. anon for this*

    I used to have access to my boss’s email at a job many years ago because I had to send emails as her sometimes. I never snooped until one day I opened an email that referred to me getting fired soon (which I inferred from the preview text). Then they fired me for opening that email. I don’t know what cause they were going to give otherwise! (They never came to me with any performance issues before then.). So, uh, cautionary tale I guess, but since I was going to get fired either way, guess it was fine.

    1. That Girl From Quinn's House*

      They probably set you up, and sent that email as cause to fire you.

      “OK, so I’ll email you about Anonforthis getting fired, and she’ll see it in the preview pane, and then we can fire her for opening an email that wasn’t related to her job.”

      1. anon for this*

        I assume so, but it’s not like you can’t just fire someone for no reason in the US, so they could have just…fired me. Oh well, it definitely completely derailed my career for a while, but it was like…9 years ago. And it was a terrible place to work.

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        For real, I’m rarely the “it’s a trap” person but that, that’s a trap, dude.

        1. anon for this*

          Oh absolutely. I sort of wish I had asked that they were actually firing me for, since clearly they knew I knew the situation was ridiculous, but they wouldn’t stop yelling at me so I just wanted to gather my stuff and leave.

    2. JM in England*

      Just curious, but what reason for firing did the email give? As in why were you getting fired in the first place…….

      1. anon for this*

        It did not give a reason, it referred to how I would be fired in passing! I have no idea why they wanted to fire me in the first place, though it was an absolutely terrible place to work.

      1. anon for this*

        That is what I assumed at the time, but it’s still nuts to me that they didn’t just…fire me. (Or you know, tell me they thought there were issues with my performance, but it was an incredibly toxic workplace.)

        1. XAdministratrix*

          If they had “just fired you” without cause, they would have been on the hook to pay for your unemployment. Since they were able to manufacture just cause for termination they could deny your UI claim.

  79. Sun Tzu*

    I have worked as a sysadmin. As such, I could easily have had access to *all* of other people’s email. But I never did. I never snooped on my coworkers, managers or bosses, not even once.

    With great power comes great responsibility — and great professionalism.

  80. OwlEditor*

    LW, if you want a good reason to stop doing this, let me share. Several years ago I was an admin for two departments. It was a temp job filling in for maternity leave and when the person decided not to come back, I applied and interviewed for the job. I thought I had it because both managers liked me. Neither had complained. Now, I had access to the email of one of the managers. It was a weird mix of his personal and work, but I had access to it for reasons I can’t remember. Anyway, one day I saw an email between the two managers about the position and I opened it. It was an email where one manager said that they were going to go with an outside applicant because I wasn’t a good fit for the position and the other manager saying that I would be better as a receptionist.
    I ran to the bathroom to cry. Not saying anything against receptionists, but the receptionist at this office basically did meet and greet, answered the phone, and organized the mail room. This stung.
    So keep in mind that if you keep snooping, you could find out something about yourself that you don’t want to know and that will still sting years later.

  81. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    Here’s another way you’ll get caught that I don’t know if it was mentioned above or not.

    You mention something that you should not have any knowledge of innocently and your boss goes “I never told you about that deal, what…the…fu… Oh you’ve been reading my emails? Fired.”

  82. Trish*

    My first job out of college was as an editorial assistant at a small publishing house in NYC. When I started, the former assistant’s inbox was merged into my own so I could have it for reference.

    Well, I was being snoopy and reading all the old emails and I came across one that had the name of an “intern” who’d been hired shortly after I was.

    Apparently the intern had applied for the assistant job and was not brought in for a 2nd interview. The editorial assistant had received an email from the person’s father, offering to pay the entire year’s salary UPFRONT if they gave him the job.

    This person proceeded to come into work hungover as FUCK most days, I often had to call him multiple times around 10 AM to see where he was and he was usually still passed out from the night before. He and his sister lived in a sweet apt in the Village that their parents funded for them.

    After I left that job, I always wanted to send him an email or something and just be like, Hey! Did you know that your dad did this shit? Are you aware that you haven’t succeeded in life on your own? But that would just be petty to do.

    This all happened 11 years and every now and then I still wonder what he’d say if he knew, or if he knew from the get-go.

  83. Marissa*

    One point I want to emphasize LW, if I were your boss I would view this as a betrayal of my trust, and it would erase any desire I had to go to bat for you or suggest you for positions internally or externally as you advance. If you have a good relationship with your boss they can open doors for you as your career advances, but only if they trust you and feel you deserve it.

    I’m certain that you don’t think of yourself as a person who abuses their power, so don’t be that person.

  84. SF Labor Secretary*

    Are you referring to looking at emails that the boss has already opened or ones that the person is opening before the boss does? One of my job duties is to review my boss’ emails as he gets so many of them so he can stay organized. Sometimes that means opening some of them before he can get to them, but the re: line gives me enough information to decide if it’s personal or not. If personal, they stay closed.

  85. Hiring Mgr*

    One of the advantages of being a self-centered narcissist is that you don’t care enough about other people to want to do this..

  86. Mellow*

    Idk…write down all you’d risk if you got caught and were fired, and read those words every time you’re tempted to snoop.

    Cognitive dissonance is not your friend.

  87. tamarack and fireweed*

    I’d really like to stress again the potential illegality of reading your boss’s (or potentially any other employee’s) electronic messages, especially if we place the question in the international context. And this is an area where US law can be vastly different from the situation elsewhere. IANAL, but I grew up in Germany where the postal secret is taken extremely seriously (and yes, that includes email and internet messaging). When Alison says “employers generally have the right to monitor employees’ email” this is explicitly not the case in many non-US jurisdictions, as confirmed by the European Court of Human Rights in 2017. (It’s jurisdiction goes far beyond the EU, though enforcement or even national bodies of law may differ. At the same time, privacy legislation is a huge topic right now, and in flux.)

    Sure, there are exceptions, and employment contracts may restrict the employee’s privacy, but in certain countries it’s exactly the opposite from the US principle as formulated by Alison: if the employer is not explicitly authorized to monitor some specific aspects of your communication (eg., if you work in customer service, your manager will be able to monitor your responses, of course) then it’s forbidden. And even more strongly, you just cannot monitor any co-worker’s correspondence, except to the extent explicitly authorized. (This is also relevant if you are in the US but have offices in Europe – don’t trust your US intuitions of what’s legal here, as you could get your company into hot water with privacy law suits.)

  88. staceyizme*

    Snooping isn’t quite the right word here. Stalking is more accurate. You’re creeping on your boss online. It’s not a compulsion that should be indulged. The fact that you “can’t stop” isn’t quite right, either. Most of us can manage to stop a behavior that jeopardizes us. This one qualifies, in my estimation.

  89. incompetemp's colleague*

    “[…] you should picture yourself hiding out in a closet in his office and spying on his conversations from in there … because this is basically that, and I bet you wouldn’t do that.”

    This mental image amused me greatly, thank you for that Alison.

  90. Jennifer Juniper*

    I thought that all employers routinely monitored employees’ e-mails to make sure employees stayed on task and stayed off of social media. I always assume I have no privacy at work except in the bathroom.

    1. Dust Bunny*

      But she’s not the employer here, she’s the underling. It’s not her job to invade her boss’ privacy.

  91. Potatoes*

    Another point to consider is how it could reflect on your boss in that interim period between something you should not know being mentioned and it being discovered that you are a snoop.

    If you mention something you should not know, the person might assume your boss has been gossiping (“Oh, hi Spud. I’m surprised to see you back so soon after [insert personal thing here Spud told the boss about to get the time off]”) Spud’s first thought wouldn’t necessarily be “OP has been reading boss’s emails”, but “Oh [deity], everyone knows and has been talking about me behind my back.”

    Whilst it would be discovered it was you snooping, that is still not a pleasant place for Spud to be.

    I will say, though, I am happy for you (and your boss and coworkers!) that you have managed to stop Snooping now.

  92. Courageous cat*

    Good lord. I’m not usually one to call something a pile-on but this feels like a bit of one. I don’t think OP needs extensive condemnations of her character for this but I am definitely seeing some.

    OP, you have stopped, and you understand why it’s wrong, and those are all good things. I hope nothing more ever comes of it and you have learned your lesson. It was a bad thing to do, but I personally think you might very well be fine moving forward.

    1. Kitty*

      Yeah, I was thinking about that over the last few days. I certainly had a strong negative reaction to the LW’s post, and I think it’s because I consider what they did a huge breach of trust. I also know several people struggling to find work who would never do something like this. Short story is it provoked strong feelings in me and perhaps in other people.

  93. charo*

    Are you TRYING to get fired? Your employer owns the email in their email system and can monitor it any time.

  94. Sue Nolff*

    Do you realize that all emails can be tracked as to who and when they were opened? If you boss suspects ANYTHING due to something coming out of your moth that you’re not supposed to know, he can easily go to your IT people and check if you’re checking his emails out.

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