Did I Over-Step The Mark?

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about accessing coworker’s account:

I have access to everyone’s emails as the only IT person, but I got into trouble for going into a colleague’s account to get information I need, even though I repeatedly asked for the information. How do I avoid this in the future?

I have always been employed in workplaces where it’s just presumed that you are monitored and that your emails can be accessed if someone requires information.

At my new position (as a manager), I have access to everyone’s email accounts including other department managers. I had requested information, several times, from another manager so I could meet some important deadlines, imposed by the CEO. After asking for the information from the manager and being given the complete run around, I spoke to the CEO who said “work it out with them” (even tho I had tried). So I took it upon myself to pop in to the managers work emails and grab the information I needed (after all I need this to meet a deadline and keep my job).

When I returned the required information to my CEO (which landed quite an important contract and if I hadn’t I would have lost my job), and they asked how I got it I told her I jumped into the emails to grab it. The CEO then proceeded to “have a go” at me saying she doesn’t trust me not to snoop and told the manager what I had done which has crumbled our working relationship even further. I found this all a little too bizarre as we have a standard internet and email policy, and I’ve always worked in environments where it is expected to have someone be able to get to your emails if needed and all information inside the company is confidential as we all have confidentiality agreements.

Did I over step the mark? How do I avoid this in the future? It’s really frustrating as it was an innocent move to get the work I needed, and I would expect my colleagues and my staff to go into mine if they needed anything.

Signed Now Mistrusted

Dear Mistrusted:

You are asking three questions: 1. Did I over step the mark? 2. An unstated one–Can I repair this broken trust? And 3. How do I avoid this in the future? Obviously you have been thinking through answers to these questions. I hope to provide an outsider’s perspective for your consideration to each of these questions:

1. Did I over step the mark? Yes. Yes, accessing a colleague-manager’s account without her/his permission was overstepping unless company policy explicitly stated that was permissible. Did you assume that it was necessary and permitted after making a concerted attempt to get the needed information from this individual and after receiving the CEO’s “work it out” advice? Yes, you assumed there was no other way to obtain the needed information than to invade that manager’s account. You had tried to get the needed information and failed. You had sought your CEO’s permission. However, you did NOT get a clear okay to access that information. Questions 2 and 3 are interrelated.

2. Can I repair this broken trust? Likely, you defended yourself when, as you say, your CEO “proceeded to ‘have a go’ at me saying she doesn’t trust me not to snoop.” If you responded you had to get into the colleague’s account because he wouldn’t provide the information, you put the blame on that manager. Such a rationalization wasn’t convincing to your CEO and resulted in her mistrust. Your CEO’s advice to “”work it out with them” was like a parent telling two children to get along, “I shouldn’t have to tell you what to do.” Now that she learned you didn’t “work it out,” you are faced with accentuated difficulty of getting co-operation of your colleague manager.

So what might you do now? You have two options: A. bite your tongue and see yourself as victim. Then to simply do the best you can should the need for information again arise. B. request a meeting with your CEO to get the rules spelled out for future such situations.

The reality of your situation is that you in order for you to function well in this work organization you need answers.. So let’s look at these options. A. Simply biting your tongue and doing good work might eventually re-earn trust; however, unaddressed mistrust probably will remain until frankly confronted.
B. Therefore, within the next few days, fence mending is needed. How? By talking about talk. By that I mean, admit you overstepped and apologize. If you were defensive and rationalized you had to invade that manager’s account, say to the CEO, “I was wrong. I should have found a legitimate way to get the needed the information. I apologize to you and I will apologize to Kim (or whatever is the name of the manager whose account you accessed).” Also say, “I’m uncomfortable about you saying you don’t trust me not to snoop. This is not the kind of working relationship that I want. I promise to never access anyone’s account again. If you don’t trust me, what do you advise?” Such admission and apology should open the conversation, and leads to your third question.

3. How do I avoid this in the future? The you are adults work it out wasn’t sufficient, so one way or another the unspoken rules need to be made clear between you and your colleague manager and better still for how you function best with all those in your work organization. Apparently, your workgroup does not function as a team and consequently what’s needed in access to information is not articulated and agreed on for what, from who and when. Organizations develop rules, policies, and systems of communication because getting jobs done requires easy access to information. Your work area and colleagues obviously have no such rules, policies and systems. Ideally, if they had been in place, you wouldn’t have trespassed on your colleague’s account.

Organization is not really a noun. It is an action verb, on-going action. Mistakes and conflicts demand clarification of rules. They can be ordered from on high—such as by your CEO or mutually spelled out one-on-one as needed, or collaboratively made by a workgroup. You with your CEO need to come to an understanding about how they should be made as far as you are concerned.

Rather than framing this unhappy incident as antagonistic, can you re-frame it as an on-going part of your job? You say, “I have always been employed in workplaces where it’s just presumed that you are monitored and that your emails can be accessed if someone requires information.” In your current job, that presumption did not hold, so you need to learn what will work best about how you should and can best function in your IT Manager position now. That will require talk about talk and might also require that what’s agreed to in talk about communication should be formulated in policy and rules. Does this make sense?

The welfare of your workplace—how efficiently and well your internal and external customers are served—should be foremost in your talking. Working together with hands, head and heart takes and makes big WEGOS. This is to say making organizations work well requires learning from our mistakes and seeing together how we can best interact .

William Gorden