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:
The company I work for is significantly off budget, and I have known for about a week that a particular manager (who's basically a peer) is being considered for layoff as the company is looking to make major cuts. I was brought into the conversation because of the effect his separation will have on my responsibilities. My manager wants to be sure I am willing to take on some tasks that are very different from my normal position. Of course, I am okay with that because I would rather have my job. Still, having the information is agonizing! Not because it is considered juicy gossip, but because I feel like I should warn him.
This afternoon I accidentally viewed severance information that confirms it is going to happen. It wasn't shown to me intentionally, and I did not go looking for it but now I know ... and I feel even worse!
This same evening he came to my office and asked if I knew why his schedule was blank after Monday next week. It may have been an oversight or not finished yet, but the rumor mill has been turning lately (not fed by me), and he is making logical assumptions. I wanted so badly to tell him, but I managed to shrug and play stupid.
I know if I were in his position I would want somebody to warn me. Personally, I think he is an arrogant jerk but not at all the type to sabotage things or jeopardize his reference. Do I need to stay quiet or should I just tell him? How much damage could fair warning cause?
Well, it could cause some damage to you, so you need to weigh that against your desire to tell him.
Here's the thing: This is information you were given on a need-to-know basis with the expectation that you'd keep it confidential. It's not pleasant to be burdened with this kind of information, but it sounds like it was shared with you as part of necessary planning. Some people do need to be in on the discussion when layoffs are being discussed, and this case you were one of them.
Violating the confidentiality your company expects of you would be a significant breach. You'd be saying, "When I learn about confidential information through the course of my work, I might not keep it to myself." That's a big deal -- and even more so if you manage people currently or want to in the future, since managers have to deal with confidential information all the time.
So you need to weigh that against your desire to let him know. Are you willing to jeopardize your professional reputation and future advancement in order to give him a heads-up earlier than he'd otherwise hear about it?
In addition, consider:
* You say you'd want to be warned, but it sounds like he kind of has been warned, by the rumor mill. Not a "this is happening to you on Monday warning," but a "signs are pointing to a possible layoff, and it could be you" kind of warning. For most people, that's enough of a warning that they can get a head start on doing all the things people should do in this situation, like not making major purchases and starting to job search.
* If he's going to find out next week, that's only a few days away. It's unlikely that knowing a few days earlier will make this much easier on him. If you knew that he was planning to take on a new mortgage or buy a boat or something during that time, that might be different. Although even then, you'd still wouldn't be in a position to outright tell -- but you'd be in a position to urge him to wait until those layoff rumors finish shaking out before he takes on major new financial commitments.
The reality is, sometimes your job can mean that you have to know things you'd rather not know -- about people's performance problems or their spot on a layoff list, the possibility that a whole program will be cut, etc. It can be unpleasant and uncomfortable to know this stuff, but sometimes it does come with the territory. When it does, you can certainly use your position to push your employer to handle things as ethically as possible (for instance, not keeping someone's certain layoff a secret from them for months) -- but you can't generally share confidential information just because you'd feel better if you did, no matter how understandable that feeling might be (assuming we're not talking about ethical or legal violations, which raises different issues).
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