Editor's note: Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

A reader writes:

If a person sends their resume to a company that is accepting applications, can the receiving HR department and/or the hiring manager tell one of their employees that "so-and-so sent us their resume, and your mother works where they currently work, do you know them?" Or can they even ask their employee if they knew that so-and-so was looking for a job elsewhere?

I ask because this happened to me. The mother who was told is in the administration at my current place of work, and she told my immediate supervisor that I was looking for another job. I would love to know if this is legal/proper.

It's legal, but it's really, really crappy to do. At a minimum, tipping off someone's employer to their job search before they're ready to do that can cause awkwardness with their manager, and at worst, it could even cause them to lose their job. Some employers, upon learning that an employee is job-searching, will push them out before they're ready to leave or even (in highly dysfunctional companies) outright fire them.

Because of that, smart employers are sensitive to the fact that people applying for jobs generally expect their applications to be treated confidentially. That said, it's not uncommon for a hiring manager to get an application from Jane Smith, realize that she knows someone who used to work with Jane Smith, and call that person for their informal take (i.e., not an official reference check) on Jane Smith. Anyone with half a brain will not contact someone who Jane Smith is currently working with, but sometimes people do it anyway because they don't think through the ramifications of that.

However, sometimes people are careful not to reach out to anyone at Jane Smith's current employer, but once they reach out to someone else about her, the information is out of their hands and could spread in ways they didn't anticipate.

And then of course, there are people like the employer you dealt with, who apparently have no consideration or regard for how their actions here might have affected you. This group is in the minority, but they do exist.

That said, what happened to you isn't common. It's more likely to happen in small, close-knit industries, or if you have the random bad luck of applying with someone who just happens to know one of your colleagues or managers (and again, even then smart employers will be discreet). You can't eliminate the risk, but it's worth knowing that it's not happening with the vast majority of applications.

Overall, though, employers should treat applications confidentially, or should stress the need to keep it confidential if they reach out to a contact about someone.

Want to submit a question of your own? Send it to alison@askamanager.org.

Published on: Sep 6, 2016