transcript of “I saw  an email I wasn’t supposed to see”

This is a transcription of the Ask a Manager podcast episode “I saw  an email I wasn’t supposed to see.”

Alison: Hi, and welcome to the show! Today I’m going to answer a bunch of shorter questions from people. The first question today is from someone who found an email she wasn’t supposed to see.

Caller 1: Hi Alison, I have a very strange and awkward predicament at my job. I have recently been asked to be able to send emails on behalf of my boss, and what that means is I now have access to his email account.

Today I logged in to send an email correspondence and one of the first emails in his box was about me. It was correspondence with another higher up, very vague, indicating that maybe there’s a meeting that they need to have with me in the future but not sharing much detail. And that scared me because of this vague reference to a meeting and I just really wasn’t sure how to react. And I suddenly started to cry and had to make up an excuse why, because I was shocked.

Anyway, what would you suggest that I do about this? Should I mention it? Should I just wait for this meeting to happen? Again, I have full access to his email at his request, and so it was strange to see a chain about me knowing that I would possibly be logging in and seeing it. Any advice welcome. Thank you.

Alison: Oh gosh, there are so many things that could be about that aren’t bad at all! I mean, this could be “we have to talk with Jane about that project we want her to start” or “we have to talk to Jane to see if she wants to apply for Bob’s position when he leaves in a few months” or “we have to talk to Jane to see what her experience has been like with that new software” – or so many different, totally innocuous things. Or, yes, it’s also possible that it’s something more troubling – that it’s about your performance, which I assume is what you’re worried about and why it freaked you out, right? So I think the first thing to do here is, let’s take a step back and think, is there anything going on that would make you think that’s the most likely explanation? Like have you been struggling with your work or getting a lot of negative feedback? Or is there not anything like that and you’re someone who tends to jump to worst-case scenario, which I would completely understand – I tend to have that same trait myself. And I’d also think a little about what you know about your boss – is he one to talk to you pretty directly when there are problems, versus keeping it hidden and then springing it on you in a surprise meeting with a higher-up? And also, think about how your office works. Typically if this was about performance problems, your boss would just talk to you on his own – it wouldn’t be a meeting that he’d schedule with a higher-up. There are some offices that work that way, but they’re not typical.

Basically, what I’m saying here, is don’t just go straight to panic because there’s a message about setting up a meeting with you. Think about what you know about the full situation, all the aspects I just named. And really, if there’s nothing going on that would make you think there are problems with your work, I would really, really assume it’s not about that at all because there are so many other possibilities.

So to whatever extent you can, I’d recommend focusing on all the many possible other things that could be about, stuff that has nothing to do with you being in any sort of trouble. But if that doesn’t work and you can’t get it out of your mind, one thing you can do, if you’re comfortable with it, is to check in with your boss about how things are going in general. I don’t know how often the two of you talk about how things are going – some manager do that pretty regularly and other managers – less good managers – only do it once a year at performance reviews. But there’s no reason that you can’t say something to your boss like, “Hey, I wondered if we could talk about you feel things are going generally. Is there anything you want me to be doing differently, or things I could work on improving in?” And that will either open the door for him to say, “Yeah, actually, there are some concerns I have that we need to talk about” or he’ll tell you everything’s going fine, or somewhere in between … but it might give you some reassurance that he’s not plotting to hold some future meeting with you where you’re blindsided by criticism, or worse. Sometimes when you’re fearing something unknown like this, it’s better for your mental health to just check in and ask. And that doesn’t mean saying, “Hey, I saw this email, what’s that about?” Although frankly, depending on your relationship with your boss, you might be able to do that. But it might be enough to just check in generally about how he thinks things are going, and frankly that’s a good idea to do anyway, even if you hadn’t seen an email like that.

So hopefully that helps. But just remember, there are so many other reasons for what this meeting could be about.

Okay, here’s the next caller.

Caller 2: Hey Ask a Manager, I have a question about coworkers and boundaries. I have a few coworkers at my job that make me feel very uncomfortable with their lack of personal boundaries. I’ve been at this job for about six months and I feel very welcome and have been very happy with the position. But everyone is more touchy-feely than I. In particular there are two employees that cause me almost daily grief. One’s a male and he likes to touch everyone. When I see him in the hallway, he likes to grab my shoulder, my arm, shake it a little, or brush by me in some way. And I’ve told him politely, joking, in a happy tone, “I don’t really like that. Please don’t.” And that hasn’t caused him to stop at all.

The other coworker is a female. And she likes to stand extremely close when she’s speaking. When she comes up to me, she is so close I can feel her breathing on me and all I can do is back away. She does this to everyone except for the boss so it makes me feel like it’s a power move. Regardless of why she’s doing it, it makes me extremely uncomfortable and I don’t like confrontation.

I don’t know how to tell these people to not touch me or get close to me without seeming rude or standoffish. How do I go about asking them to give me a little room? Thanks so much.

Alison: Ah, yes, the people with no concept of personal space. I’m especially irked by the guy who keeps touching your arm or your shoulder after you’ve told him to stop. And by the way, good for you for being so straightforward about it because a lot of people don’t. They just freeze up and feel uncomfortable or annoyed but they don’t know what to say, so it’s great that you came out and said it.. And the fact that he’s ignored a direct request to stop is pretty alarming, actually. Now, you did say that you said it in a joking tone, so that’s the piece of this that I’m going to suggest that you change. And doing it that way, making it kind of a joke, is a really common thing people do, especially women, especially in a situation where a dude is overstepping boundaries like this. The next time he goes to touch you, say this: “Hey, I told you I don’t like that. Please stop.” That’s the tone – not joking, stern. Firm. And you don’t smile when you say it, which is another thing we tend to be socialized to do in situations where we’re trying to get someone to stop doing something. You don’t need to glare at him, but don’t smile, because he’s apparently not taking you seriously, so we want to show him that you are serious. You shouldn’t have to, but he’s creating a situation where you do.

I think in situations like this one, people worry about looking like they’re overreacting or being a stick-in-mud. But you know, it’s actually very weird for someone to keep doing this when you’ve directly told him to stop. He’s the one who looks weird for ignoring that, not you for telling him to cut it out.

So, firm and direct: “Dude, I asked you to stop that.” Hell, you could even say, “It’s weird that you keep doing that after I asked you to stop. What’s up?” Make him feel the awkwardness of what he’s doing because it is awkward and weird on his side.

Now, with your other coworker, the one who stands too close to you when she’s talking. Some people do just have different personal space bubbles than other people, and sometimes it can be cultural. But it’s interesting that she does it to everyone but your boss, because that says she’s conscious of it to some degree. I mean, who knows, maybe she’s just intimidated by your boss and otherwise would. Who knows what’s going on. But we don’t have to know why she’s doing it in order for you to ask her to move a little ways back.

I think you can actually just quite straightforward! You can just say, ““You’re in my space here, a bit.”  Or, “I need more space when I’m talking to someone, sorry.” Or, “Whoa, we’re awfully close here, let me move back.”  Or, “Hey, can you give me just a little more room here?” Really, any of those are fine to say.

Sometimes there’s a trick that you can use with people when you want to ask them to stop doing something, and you want avoid weirdness or tension because they’re a colleague and you need to get along with them. The trick, and I have mixed feelings about this trick but it sometimes works so well, is to present it as an idiosyncratic preference of yours. Like, “I have a weird thing about personal space – can I ask you to give me a little more room here?” You probably don’t have a weird thing about personal space – you probably have a very normal desire for a normal amount of personal space, but sometimes presenting it this way – “I have a weird thing about X” – can help the other person save face and prevent there from being awkwardness.

You don’t have to do it that way! You’re entitled to personal space without having to pretend it’s some weird hang-up of your own. But sometimes that tactic can be an easy way to get it, if that sounds more comfortable to you. And ultimately, we just want to get you the outcome you want in the way that’s most comfortable.

So hopefully one of those options feels doable and will work.

Caller 3: I need advice on a job hunting situation I have been running into recently.  I have worked at my current company for almost 20 years but have found myself looking for a new opportunity due to the sudden death of the owner of the company. Because I have been with my current company for so long, I am highly compensated for my position and am having trouble getting past salary requirement questions in the pre-interview process. I have had several call-backs related to resumes I have submitted and felt like the phone call was going really great until I was asked about salary. When I give my current salary, I’m told that is out of the company’s budget and I can’t get past this point in the conversation without sounding desperate, which I’m starting to feel. I realize I will likely have to take a salary cut in moving to a new position but need some sample language for that type of discussion if at all possible. Any assistance would be greatly appreciated.

Alison: Well, the most important thing here is – stop giving out your current salary! I know that’s not always possible – sometimes you get an online application that won’t let you proceed until you answer that question. But it sounds like you’re running into this on phone interviews too, and you have more control over how the conversation goes there, when it’s not just a computerized application that won’t let you proceed until you answer that question. In those conversations, don’t give your current salary! Frankly, it’s no one’s business anyway. I know some employers will ask about it – but they’re wrong to do that, because they should be paying you based on your worth to them, not on what some other company paid you. But they do it anyway. By the way, that’s starting to change, which is great. There are a handful of states that have made it illegal for employers to ask about your salary history – because doing that tends to reinforce salary inequality for women and people of color, who tend to be paid less, so tying people’s pay to their past pay just keeps that problem going. The states that have made it illegal to ask about salary history during a hiring process are California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, and Vermont. And I believe there are more considering doing it, so if it’s something you feel strongly about, call your states legislators and tell them you want to see that kind of legislation passed.

But let’s say you’re not in one of the those states and you’re asked about it. You still don’t need to volunteer your current salary. If you’re asked what you make now, you can answer the question they should be asking, which is what you’re looking for. If you ever watch the news, you’ll see this is a really common technique people do when they’ve clearly gone through media training. They don’t answer the question being asked if it’s not the one they want to answer. They answer the question they’d like to have been asked. And you can do that too.

So the relevant question here is what salary you’re currently looking for. So if they say, “What are you making currently?” you say, “I’m looking for something around $X.” Some interviewers will be just fine with that. But if you get someone who pushes and won’t move forward until you answer, then you have a couple of options. One is that you can say,“Well, that’s covered under my confidentiality agreement with my employer – we’re not allowed to share the company’s salary structure – but what I’m looking for is around $X.” Because that’s actually probably true – if you take a look at your company personnel manual, there’s a good chance you’ll find that in there, or that it’s an unofficial expectation in your company.

But if you get an employer who’s really pushing this and won’t drop it, at that point you need to decide if you’re willing to hold firm, and maybe risk losing the job opportunity over it, or if you’ll give in. If you’re in a situation where you have a lot of other options, you might decide that you’re not interested in working for an employer who would reject you for not disclosing your personal financial information – and who’s clearly planning on basing their salary offer to you on what you’ve earned in the past, rather than on what the job is worth to them. But if you don’t feel like you have many options, then you might decide that – as frustrating and unfair as this is, and it is – you’re going to play along. But with a lot interviewers, it won’t come to that point if you try these other tactics.

Also, if you do decide to share the number, you don’t need to just give the salary and then stop. You can give some context. In your case, where you think it’s going to seem way too high and it’s going to price you out, you can say, “Well, I want to be clear that the figure I’m earning now isn’t what I expect to earn at my next move. I’m unusually well compensated right now, and I don’t expect anywhere to match it. I’m looking for something around $X, which would actually be a pay cut for me.”  In that language, you’re still not giving them the number you’re making now. But you’re giving them a bunch of context. If they insist on knowing the number, you can say, “It’s $X. But again, what I’m looking for – and what I’d be happy with – is $Y.”

But really, if you can avoid talking about what you’re earning now, do!

Also, for people who are in this situation but from the other side of it – people who don’t want to give their salary because it’s lower than what they’re looking for now, and who don’t want their salary offer tied to their old, lower salary: You too can give context!  You can say something like, “Well, I’m currently making $X, but it would take $Y to get me to leave my current job.” And if that second is way over the current one, you can give some framing for it so it doesn’t sound unrealistic – like, “I’m currently making $X, but I know that’s really low for the market. And that’s one of the things driving me to leave – I want to be making something more in line with the market, so I’m looking for something around $Y.”

One big note here – the one thing you absolutely shouldn’t do in response to this question is lie. Sometimes people think, well, if they’re going to base the salary they offer me on what I’ve been earning, I’ll just give them a higher number. Don’t do that. The problem with that is that they may verify the number you give them later in the process by calling your employer, or even by asking you for tax paperwork. This is a thing – some employers will ask for your W2s. And if you lied, they’ll likely to yank the offer. So if you do decide to share the number, don’t lie.

Okay, here’s our next caller.

Caller 4: Hi Alison, I have a question about a supervisee’s use of sick time. He doesn’t seem to use an excessive amount of days per year – maybe a little bit more than I do – but I would say somewhere about half his time, like 4-6 days a year. But I’ve noticed a trend where many of the days he’s calling in are when I’m on vacation or I’m working remotely. Now that that’s happened a few times, it’s starting to feel like he’s taking advantage of my not being present in the office when he’s calling in.

I am just wondering: when should I address it, or do I even need to? I don’t know if it’s really coincidence or not, but it’s just starting to bug me. Thanks so much!

Alison: I can see why it feels weird to you, because if there’s a pattern where if you’re out, he’s more likely to be too, but honestly, if he’s only using 4-6 sick days a year, and it’s only half the sick time he has available, I would leave this alone. That’s not a lot of sick time, and so it’s not something you should address. If he were using more sick time than his allotment, that’s something you would address. Or if the way he was doing it was causing problems – like if these were the exact days your team needed coverage since you were also out, it would look like an odd coincidence and I might ask if there were something going on. But 4-6 days a year, if the timing isn’t causing major problems? I would let that go.

For what it’s worth, there are some things that could explain why he’s out when you’re out too. Maybe he’s found that there’s less work for him to do on days you’re not there, and so he figures that the bar for using a sick day himself is lower on those days, because he knows it won’t have as much of an impact. Or who knows, maybe he’s drinking more when you’re on vacation because he feels like he doesn’t have to be so “on” at work, and then he’s calling in hungover the next day. I don’t know, that one’s a stretch. But my point is, there might be reasons for the pattern, who knows.

But if he’s only using up half his sick days per year, there’s no way to say he’s taking advantage in any way. I do hear you on thinking maybe it’s easy for him to call out when he doesn’t have to call and talk to you to tell you he’ll be out – but unless you’re truly terrifying, I doubt that’s what’s happening. I guess it is worth asking yourself if you make it hard for him to call in when you’re there! Do you quiz him on his symptoms or make him feel guilty for being out sick or pressure him to come in if he can? If you’re doing anything like that, then yeah, no wonder he’d rather save his sick days for when you’re out and that won’t happen! But if that’s the reason, that’s a flag for you to stop doing that, not for him to change anything.

And I know you might be thinking, “But if he can pick and choose his sick days, then he’s not really sick,” right? But again, we’re taking about half his allotment of sick days for the year. It’s just not over any line, so it’s not something to address with him. He gets those sick days as part of his compensation package. I would let it go.

Caller 5: I was up for a promotion a few months ago and did all the work required to meet it. However, I was denied because senior leadership in my department said I needed to change some things about my demeanor, such as being less high-energy and looking more engaged in department meetings. This feedback came as a surprise to me, as I hadn’t been given any indication in my past two years at this company that my behavior was a problem.

I showed the feedback to my doctor and then tested positive for ADHD. We identified that I struggle with impulsivity and variable attention (which explains the feedback). I am in the process of finding the right medication and developing habits to maximize my focus and minimize distraction so I can be more engaged at work. I have not shared this diagnosis with my boss and colleagues. However, since I’m actively trying to work on my attention issues, it would be helpful if my team knew what was going on so I could achieve targeted results faster.

Should I stay quiet or should I share this with my colleagues and my supervisor? I will be up again for the same promotion in a few months and really hope to get it this time.

Alison: You know, I would love to say yes, share it, but I actually wouldn’t in most cases because there’s still too much of a stigma around mental health diagnoses, even something as common as ADHD. And there are too many managers who hear that someone has ADHD and after that forever interpret anything that person does through that lens. You know, someone else is slightly unfocused one day and it’s just human nature, but then you seem unfocused and it must be your ADHD and why aren’t you controlling it better. You don’t want to deal with that. Or you get bosses who, once they know you have ADHD, just always see you as disorganized or bad at time management, even if you’re not.

So I would not share it. What you can do, though – and I should stop here and say this is ridiculous, with any diagnosis but especially with something as commonplace and manageable as ADHD. But people are weird. One thing you can do is say, “I took your feedback really seriously, and I want to let you know that I’m doing a lot of reflection on it and am committed to improving in the areas we talked about.” You can even say, if you want, “I’m talking with my doctor about whether there might be underlying medical reasons that I can address, and that’s something that’s a work in progress, but I wanted to let you know I’m working on it.”

Now, if you did really trust your boss to handle this week – and you don’t, so this is moot for you, but if you did – in some cases you could tell her the situation and explain that you’re working with your doctor to find the medication that will work best, and that it’ll take some time but it’s in progress. But if you don’t have signs that will go very well, I would just let her know that you’ve heard the feedback, you take it seriously, and you’re working on it.

And I want to say for the record, I’m very frustrated to have to give that advice because it’s ridiculous that that’s the case. And it’s especially frustrating because you might have a manager and a team who would be perfectly fine about it. But if you don’t know that for sure, I’ve just had way too many letters and calls from people who did disclose a diagnosis thinking it would be fine and then it caused them problems, either subtly or not so subtly, so I’m really hesitant to recommend that unless you really do have evidence they’ll be great about it. I’m sorry that’s the answer. That sucks.

Let’s do one more question.

Caller 6: Hi Alison, thanks so much for taking my question. I’m just shy of four months into a new job and so far, things are going great. I get along with my team and feel validated and appreciated on a daily basis.

The one problem I am having is in regard to overtime. I work 5/8s, and my shift begins at 10:00am. I regularly will get calls from the first shift lead between 5:00am and 5:30am asking if I can come in early to help clear a heavy workload. Sometimes I will come in immediately at 6:00am or 6:30am, and sometimes I will choose the extra sleep and go in at 8:00am. These calls come at least every other week, and often for two, three, or even four days in a row.

Since I am not ready to commit to changing my sleep schedule and going to bed hours earlier in anticipation of a possible early morning call, I tend to lose quite a bit of sleep during these busy times. It’s been made clear to me by my manager that as much as he appreciates my help, the early arrivals are not required, and he doesn’t want me to put in too many hours and burn out. Still, I find it hard to say no, and always end up going in at least a couple of hours ahead of schedule.

I want to continue to be a strong and reliable part of the team without pushing myself into becoming an overworked weak link. Thus, my question: how can I go about setting some boundaries around how early and how often I prefer to be called, without coming across as unwilling or ungrateful for the opportunities and overtime?

Thanks again – I look forward to your guidance concerning my predicament. Signed, a new employee eager to please.

Alison: Oh my goodness, stop taking those calls. Seriously. Your boss has made it clear that you don’t need to come in early, and it’s okay take him at his word. Your schedule starts at 10 am. That means you really don’t need to come in until 10 am unless your manager is telling you something different. You’re coming in sometimes four hours early at 6 am. You’re losing a huge amount of sleep! Sleep is really important, for your health and just being generally on your game, and just for your quality of life. It’s one thing to very occasionally agree to come in early, but not as a regular thing, with no notice and you’re getting these early morning phone calls waking you up.

So please, turn your phone off at night. Or if you can’t do that, then at least mute the numbers that are most likely to call you from work. You should do that with no guilty conscience whatsoever. Seriously. Just because someone is asking you to do them a favor, and this is a favor, does not mean that you need to do it. And really, this is the kind of favor where the more often you do it, the more they’re going to think that you don’t mind, and so the more they’re going to ask you.

I know that you’re thinking that saying yes makes you look reliable and like a good employee. But you know, the way that you look reliable and like a good employee is by working the hours you agreed to, the ones you’re scheduled for, and doing good work. You absolutely do not need to come in at the crack of dawn just because someone is calling you, waking you up, and asking if you will. You don’t even need to take those calls. Turn your phone off and have no guilt.

If you feel weird about suddenly not answering those calls when you have been up until now, you can always say something to the person ahead of time, like, “Hey, I know I’ve often been able to come in early when you call, but it’s been really messing with my sleep schedule and so going forward I’m not going to be able to. If you’re really in a bind and you can check with me in advance – not the morning of – I might be able to. But I wanted to let you know that I’m not going to be able to do the last-minute early morning shifts anymore.” You could even leave out that piece about being in an advance bind.

But really, you don’t even need to say any of that. That’s just about giving you some peace of mind that they know the situation. But you don’t even need to do that part. Turn your phone off and get some sleep. You’re not to look ungrateful or unwilling.

That’s our show for today! If you’d like to hear your question answered on a future episode, you can record it on the show voicemail by calling(855) 426-WORK. That’s 855-426-9675. Or, if you have a longer question, a question where you’d want to actually come on the show and talk with me, email it to

That’s it for today! I’ll be back next time with more questions.

Transcript provided by MJ Brodie.

You can see past podcast transcripts here.