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My friend is facing the following problem:

Her boss left his computer open and she then looked at his screen, where the salary of a coworker at her level (who since has left the company) was displayed. As his salary was quite a lot higher than hers, she was shocked and told a coworker about it, and also her boss. In a pre-emptive strike, he reported it to the management but says that she went through his email, essentially accessing his computer without consent.

Now human resources has written her an email, asking her to answer some questions until next week. Her answers would then lead to a decision whether disciplinary actions would follow.

The questions are:

  • How did you find out about the salary?
  • Who did you share the information with?
  • Why did you think it is ok to discuss this with the colleagues you discussed it with?
  • What did you expect to gain from discussing third-party salaries with colleagues

Was my friend in the wrong in what she did? And how should she respond to these questions from HR in order to best protect herself?

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    Edited the question now so it's correct. – Nickpick Sep 30 '18 at 11:36
  • It was an emotional reaction. But the question is, what's the best course of action from this point forward. – Nickpick Sep 30 '18 at 11:37
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    It seems improbable to me that if the boss had say a spreadsheet of names and salaries up, that this particular information could be gotten with just a momentary glance. I say this not to cast doubt but because it is something that your friend could expect to be quizzed on. – Gaius Sep 30 '18 at 13:40
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    While it's not illegal to discuss salary, your friend had no right to disclose someone else's salary, that is not her information to share. – cdkMoose Oct 1 '18 at 13:25
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    What sort of industry does your friend work in? Possibly relevant as, in the U.S., if your friend worked at a hospital or clinic looking at the screen longer than needed to discern that it's not related to her work could be a firing offense all by itself. – Upper_Case Oct 1 '18 at 19:01
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It is hardly illegal to look at somebody's screen. But is there an obligation not to disclose that information to colleagues?

It's not illegal to discuss your pay with others.

That said, many folks consider their salary to be personal information and would object to have their personal information shared without their permission. And many folks would consider sharing any information you saw on your boss's screen to be less than a smart thing to do.

Your friend decided to look at her boss's screen. When she did so, she saw personal information. She then decided to share that information without permission.

Your friend won't be arrested, since she didn't break any laws. Still, she had to know what she was doing wouldn't be received well. Depending on what the company handbook says, she may be in for a rebuke or for disciplinary action. If she is in a union, she should be talking with her union rep now.

She should just answer HR's questions honestly. Then deal with any consequences and learn what she should do going forward.

  • added a slight correction to the situation: The person who left the screen open was her boss. And the visible salary was of a co-worker at her level who has since left the company. – Nickpick Sep 30 '18 at 11:32
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    This is not about legality, but company policy, and she CAN be disciplined for not following company policy. Salary is almost always considered a competitive advantage for companies for a lot of reasons. Seeing the salary and keeping it to herself, or just realizing that she should be paid more would have been the right approach here. Sharing that 'bob' was making x and she wants x is never going to end well. There are a host of reasons someone might have been making more or less. She is largely in trouble here for sharing it – Bill Leeper Sep 30 '18 at 21:39
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    "It's not illegal to discuss pay with others" - shouldn't that read "It's not illegal to discuss your pay with others". Finding out someone else's pay (by whatever means) and disclosing that to others doesn't seem at all right. – brhans Oct 1 '18 at 18:00
  • "Your friend won't be arrested" - this clearly must be from the US where everybody gets potentially arrested for everything. It's clear that it's not an offence where police would get involved - my terminology 'illegal' was probably a poor choice of words. It's a company internal matter, and the question is only if it could justify an internal disciplinary procedure that could lead to dismissal - but I was wondering if it's permissible to deny that information to a worker at all. Anyway, thanks for all your support, the outcome was a happy ending and no disciplinary procedure was initiated. – Nickpick Oct 4 '18 at 12:40
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It is hardly illegal to look at somebody's screen.

Maybe (see below) not, however I think it is a serious breach of trust. If my co-worker or boss, leaves something unlocked (paper or computer) at his workplace, it should be his expectation that other employees do not see this as an invitation to read it. Locking away everything which is not meant for colleagues eyes, even if just leaving the desk for a few minutes makes working impossible. My professional advice her is: If you see something on a co-workers screen which is not meant for you, act like you did not see it unless there is need to report it (e.g. strictly illegal things).

OTOH, looking at the screen may very well be illegal (ask your lawyer for UK) in Germany, e.g. if you knew that your colleagues/bosses function implies that the terminal he/she works on may display personal data, and you know that you are not entitled to view this data, then it may put a legal liability to your employer, and potentially, depending on the level of presumed intent on your side could also end bad for you.

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