advertisement
advertisement

Is It Fair Game To Share What I Overhear From A Speakerphone Conversation?

Does a speakerphone conversation still count as private? What about when the information is valuable to your boss?

Is It Fair Game To Share What I Overhear From A Speakerphone Conversation?
[Photo: Flickr user David Wall]

We all know one: The coworker who conducts most–if not all–of their conversations via speakerphone. And it can be difficult to tune out something you can clearly overhear.

advertisement

Career expert Alison Green (aka Ask A Manager) helps this reader figure out whether what she hears from the office next door is information she’s allowed to share with her boss.

I serve as an executive assistant in a very large educational organization. My office is located between my boss’s office and an executive director’s office. The executive director often takes calls via speakerphone and leaves her door open all the time, so I can hear her conversations. My boss supervises the executive director, who, at times, undermines our boss.

Today, the executive director received a [speakerphone] call from a clerk in another building that the building was being evacuated because fire alarms were activated. About 200 people were inside the building. I waited a minute or so for the executive director to call our boss, and she did nothing. So I discreetly stepped into our boss’s office and called her cell phone to let her know what was occurring.

For future reference, is any information overheard via speaker phone “fair game,” especially when the information would be valuable/helpful to my boss? Or should I pretend that I can’t hear many of the executive director’s conversations?

Interestingly, when another exec assistant and I have conversations about weekend plans, family, etc., the executive director sometimes joins the conversation with her thoughts, obviously having listened to the conversation for a while.


When it comes to overhearing colleagues in general, it’s good to preserve a polite illusion of privacy. That’s just good for everyone’s mental health at work. (Of course, speakerphones are very much not good for people’s mental health at work, so you could argue that she’s forfeiting some goodwill there.)

But you’re not required to pretend that you didn’t hear big, startling things that would obviously impact you and others. If you overhear a caller telling your coworker that the building is on fire, and then she continues to sit placidly in her office without taking any action, it’s fine to stick your head in her door and say, “Did I just hear that the building is on fire?” That’s a normal, understandable thing to react to.

Regarding discreetly passing information along to your boss . . . it depends. It’s true that part of being an executive assistant is making sure that your boss knows the things she’d want to know. And if you can easily hear the conversations from your desk (as opposed to, say, standing outside the door intentionally listening), and if the information is clearly something your boss needs to be/would want to be aware of, and if you have reason to think she’s not being informed on the schedule she’d want to be, then the answer to whether or not you should inform her is . . . sometimes.

The thing is, there’s still a judgment call to be made. You don’t want to undermine the executive director by constantly scooping her, or by removing her ability to exercise her own judgment. You also may not have all the information she has, and thus won’t always be as well equipped as she might be to judge exactly what should be passed along to your boss and when.

That said, if you hear something truly big and alarming that you think your boss would be upset not to be in the loop on (for example, you hear her talking about Bob’s resignation when your manager is actively working on a new role for Bob and has no idea he’s leaving), it’s reasonable to mention that. Even then, though, you should frame it in a way that acknowledges that you just overheard this, don’t have all the information, and might be getting it wrong. It’s the difference between “OMG! Bob is leaving and for some reason Jane hasn’t mentioned it to you,” and “I don’t have full context, but I thought I should mention to you that I overheard what sounded like Jane discussing Bob’s plans to resign.”

advertisement
advertisement

But aside from rare exceptions like that, I’d err on the side of assuming that the executive director is conducting herself capably and making the correct judgment calls about keeping your boss in the loop.

(And if you start to notice an alarming pattern that indicates that’s not the case, that would be something to discreetly mention to your boss.)

This article originally appeared on Ask A Manager and is reprinted with permission.

If you have a dilemma you’d like our panel of experts to answer, send your questions to AskFC@fastcompany.com or tweet us a question using #AskFC.

advertisement