Tory Johnson: Don't Snoop, Don't Tell

Gossip is embedded in the American workplace culture. While it can serve to build and nurture solid professional relationships, which is a good thing, gossip can also be problematic -- most of all for the people who possess the information.

When you learn anything new, it's often impossible to keep it to yourself. It's natural to want to share information instead of suppressing it.

Sometimes it's in an effort to protect someone; other times it's out of anger and outrage for what you've learned. But it can get you in trouble.

This isn't limited to playgrounds or childhood antics. The majority of us are guilty of gossiping. A recent study by ISR, a global employee research firm, found that more than 60 percent of American employees said rumors are usually how they first hear about important business matters.

Don't Be a Snoop

All of us are bound to face questions of ethics at some point or another, but it's important to remember that hearing something is one thing, snooping for it or acting on it is another.

Take a look at any of these common scenarios:

      Snooping through company pay stubs, you learn that a peer makes more money than you.

      Eavesdropping on a conversation leads you to discover that two colleagues are having an affair.

      The boss confides in you that someone's about to be fired.

      Your co-worker admits that he's interviewing for a new job.

Experts are divided on how to react to these situations. Some say if you obtained the information in confidence, you shouldn't act on it. In other words: keep your mouth shut.

Others say that once you've learned something -- no matter how it was obtained -- you have an obligation to do something.

I don't think it's so cut and dried.

Let's take the first scenario: If you rifled through check stubs that don't belong to you, you can only blame yourself for the discovery of information about other people's earnings. You can't ask for a raise by making known that you somehow "found" these numbers. (Going forward, it's just smarter to avoid such snooping since it's bound to cause you nothing but headaches and heartache.)

A former colleague was once offered a sneak peek at her company's salary roster and was shocked to learn that younger people she sat next to, with far fewer years of experience, were paid much better than she was.

And when she subsequently asked for a big salary increase, arguing that co-workers with far fewer years of service made more than she did, she was brusquely rejected as her boss cited budget constraints. She has been miserable in her job ever since.

As for the second scenario, learning that two colleagues are hot and heavy is hardly earth-shattering news since it has been going on since the beginning of time. My suggestion: ignore it, unless the relationship has crossed some legal or ethical boundary that could place you or your colleagues in jeopardy -- and even then I'd recommend long thought before action.

Leaking a Colleague's Bad News

Do you warn the person who is about to be axed in an effort to shield him or her from the shock and to enable him to prepare accordingly?

If your boss told you in confidence about a colleague's likely dismissal, it's not your place to share that information. Doing so puts your employment in jeopardy because you've clearly betrayed that confidence. Unless you can afford to risk your own position, it's best not to get involved.

If you feel strongly that the person doesn't deserve to be fired, tell it to the boss directly when you're informed of his impending action. Speak up at that time in defense of your colleague's work. This is surely a more constructive and honest approach than to secretly share the information with the person in question.

Similarly, if a colleague tells you he is interviewing for a new job, obviously it's meant to be kept secret and should be; doing otherwise betrays a confidence and is a major no-no. Telling even just one person risks the whole office finding out in no time, thereby risking your friendship and his employment.

Obviously, all of this requires a judicious use of common sense. And if you're having trouble deciding what to do, a simple way to decide is to think about what the person you most trust and admire would think about what you're planning to do. Then act accordingly.

For more information on career strategies, or to send your feedback to Tory Johnson, CEO of Women For Hire, visit