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 asks:

I just had a very strange phone call. An employee's father emailed me, asking me to call him. Since the employee (who I'll call George) is currently out of the country on business, I was worried that something had happened to him, so I called back right away. George's father was very cagey, but finally came out that he wanted to find out if George had been "properly briefed" about the dangers ... of his travel? of his job in general? I think he was focused on the travel, but he refused to be specific about his concern. For the record, our work not dangerous, nor is the place the employee is visiting dangerous.

I asked if George knew he was calling and he said no, and that he didn't want him to know. I told him that we are not in the habit of talking to employee's family members without that employee's consent, and that if he had a concern he should bring it up to his son himself. I am more than happy to talk to the employee if he is concerned, but I didn't feel comfortable talking to his dad. I ended up telling Dad that I would pass his contact information along to George's boss, but that he shouldn't necessarily expect a call back.

Was that the right thing to say? I plan to talk to George's boss, and we'll see what he wants to do, but I do not want to get into a conversation with Dad about what "briefing" his son has or has not had. Am I right to feel that way? If we don't want to get into it, should we call or email him again to express that, or just forget it ever happened? Do I tell George about the call?

Green responds:

You handled it perfectly! Sometimes the person on the receiving end of this kind of phone call is so flustered by the strangeness of the call that they end up entertaining the caller's questions/demands. Explaining that you don't speak to employees' family members about work issues is exactly the right thing to say. (The same thing is true when parents call demanding to know why their kid was fired, or to check on their kid's job application, or so forth.)

This is for a few reasons. One, your relationship is with the employee, and your professional obligations are to them, not their family. Two, you have no way of knowing if the employee has sanctioned the call and would be happy about you disclosing information to a relative (who, for all we know, could be estranged, or even not really a relative). And three, employee information is private -- it's not something you'd normally disclose to people without a need to know, and that doesn't change just because the caller is a parent.

Oh, and four, it does your employees a disservice to assist their parents in undermining them as capable adults.

I don't think you need to call George's dad back to explain any of this. You already explained it to him on the original call. I do think, though, that it would be kind to let George know that his dad called, since he may not know that happened and is entitled to know that his dad is mucking around in his professional life. When you tell him, approach it with the assumption he doesn't know, and say something like, "Your father called me wanting to know if we'd briefed you about the dangers of your job and your travel. I want to let you know that I explained that we don't talk to family members about employees unless it's an emergency."

It's only a very small minority of parents who think it's OK to do this kind of thing, but interfering with one's adult child's job is incredibly undermining. Parents: Talk to your kids, not their bosses.

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