Leaving e-mail open leads to temptation
Q. At my former job, we shared computers. I worked the overnight shift. On several occasions, the person before me had not logged out of the system. If it was slow, I would peek at that person’s e-mails. What could be done to me? The employer did not have a policy against this, only that the e-mail system was for work related mail, not personal.
A. Colleagues share offices, desks, computers, refrigerators, and more hoping for honesty and professional courtesy from others. Organizations set policies to help people understand what they are accountable for and make good decisions. Policies don’t typically cover life lessons, so I wouldn’t expect to see a specific policy against accessing other people’s mail.
The person who used the computer before you made a mistake. This was careless and unprofessional. There are many situations like this that may tempt some people to peek. You might find yourself with the opportunity to look at what is on someone’s computer screen, or at papers left on a copier, or papers on a desk showing headlines that you can read upside down.
We are faced with these ethical dilemmas frequently. You had a choice to read on or protect your colleague from his or her forgetfulness. I would advise logging your colleague out and posting a reminder to log out so you can eliminate a repeat situation.
You asked what could be done to you. That suggests that you know reading e-mails meant for another person is not only unprofessional, it is wrong. What can happen ranges from termination, to a written warning, to an angry colleague. Your colleague may also face repercussions. If you choose to do something with the information you gained, the penalties can be more severe.
Many people have become immune to the concept of computer security in the office, as they are surrounded by trusted colleagues. Though we may complain about the scores of user names and passwords, it’s best not to become someone else’s ethical dilemma.
Elaine Varelas is managing partner at Keystone Partners, a career management firm in Boston.