Note: This happened to me several years when working in another company, but a similar event reminded me about this (current workplace)

A colleague who I have been working with for more than a year told me that he wishes to leave the company and also asked to keep this information for myself, which I did. Of course, he discusses this issue with his manager.

A couple of days after this, my own manager asked me if I knew something about my colleague wanting to leave (this came out of the blue as our discussion was related to another project I was working on).

My colleague barely knew my manager, so most likely his manager discusses this issue with my manager.

Being forced into making a quick decision, I chose to deny knowing about this and nothing happened afterwards, but I am wondering what is the appropriate (professional) way to deal with such issues?

Extra context information: an Eastern European branch of a Western IT company.

Question: How to respond when being asked by my manager about a coworkers plans to leave the company?

closed as primarily opinion-based by gnat, 385703, Dukeling, Jim G., Michael Grubey Oct 24 at 2:02

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    "what is the appropriate (professional) way to deal with such issues?". What a strange question. Someone entrusted you with some information and asked you to keep it for yourself. You don't disclose it to other people unless you're ok with being and being seen as a jerk. It's not really about professionality, more about general ethics. – 385703 Oct 23 at 14:42
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    @385703 - basically, I lied to my direct manager, so I would say it is not that simple. Indeed this has an important ethical part, but since it happened at workplace, I thought this should be the most appropriate place to ask. – Alexei Oct 23 at 14:46
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    You actually didn't lie. You knew two days before he told his own manager, that's really not like it would have changed anything for the company if you reported immediately. – Arthur Havlicek Oct 23 at 14:51
  • @Alexei. Normally there are no perfect decisions, just better and worse decisions. In this case, it's betraying your coworker and sharing information that can have very negative consequences for them on the one hand, and using a "lie" that doesn't cause any harm on the other. Just as btw: some white lies belong to social convention and some are even treated as an expression of politeness. The decision should be easy. – 385703 Oct 23 at 14:57
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    @ 385703, this specific case aside, its not as cut an dried as you seem to portray it. A colleague could very well tell you something "in confidence" that absolutely should not be kept. – Michael J. Oct 23 at 19:34

How to respond when being asked by my manager about a coworkers plans to leave the company?

You were asked to keep things confidential.

I wouldn't betray that trust. I would respond to your manager with something along the lines of:

"Oh sorry, I don't know about that. I guess you'll have to ask [colleague's name]."

  • This can be a bit tough if the colleagues later mention you knew about him leaving. But I definitely agree about respecting someone's word. – Arthur Havlicek Oct 23 at 15:01
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    @ArthurHavlicek If the colleague mention also that they asked for it to be kept private I'd think "Ah, good, so Alexei knows how to keep things confidential". That's a plus in my eyes. – OnoSendai Oct 23 at 15:28
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    @OnoSendai That can be completely true depending on how the question is phrased, though if the manager directly asks "Do you know if Betty is planning to leave the company?" and you answer "Betty's asked me to keep that confidential," the boss is probably going to take that as a pretty solid yes. Feigning ignorance at least initially like Joe is recommending will often be the best bet. Later though if you're asked "Betty left the company, why didn't you say anything?" the confidentiality comment can be even a good thing. – Davy M Oct 23 at 16:53
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    My problem with this answer is that it's no true, and lying (besides ethical issues) isn't professional (with a few notable exceptions). Could you say "I don't feel comfortable discussing another employee's employment status."? That would not be a lie, but would still divert the subject, and would have the benefit of drawing clear boundaries, as this type of conversation is not appropriate in most contexts. – bob Oct 23 at 18:54
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    @bob, it's not a lie. You don't know what your colleague is going to do. Could be they changed their mind without telling you. Could be they are having trouble finding another job and can't leave. Could be you misheard them. The fact is, regardless of what they told (or you think they told you), you don't know, and saying so until the day your colleague turns in their resignation letter is not a lie. If your boss wants to know, they should ask the employee, as Joe suggested...oh, and I see now that is exactly what J Chris answered. – Seth R Oct 24 at 0:46

How to respond when being asked by my manager about a coworkers plans to leave the company?

This is almost always accurate:

I don't know.

Because... often you don't really know.

  • Maybe they were just mad when they said it.
  • Maybe they were told by x that they would get a job offer.
  • Maybe they were just talking to a recruiter to see what kind of offer they would get.
  • Maybe they went to an interview for the same reason

I've heard a lot of people say that they are leaving and stay right where they are - still there years after I moved on.
I've seen a lot of people leave when they said they're staying.

I'm not trying to get you to lie, I'm focusing on the fact that often - no matter what the person told you - you really don't know what they are going to do.

Best example is from High School, a friend named Jon got really mad and wrote his resignation (two weeks notice) on scrap sheet of paper in orange crayon. He did this because it was the closest piece of paper and the first writing instrument he could find. We all knew he was mad and that he meant it. The manager, seeing the crayon, laughed it off as a joke. Two days later Jon's car broke down and he didn't have another job lined up so he kept working there.
If the manager had asked me if it was a real resignation, I hope I would have responded with something like, "He really is mad at you." (Manager already knew Jon was mad)

Don't betray a trust; it's not your place.
Note that I'm not telling you to lie either, "I don't know" is almost always accurate.

It isn't really your place to tell your boss about someone else who might be looking unless they report to you, and even then think carefully about it.


EDIT: In the comment someone took my post as "weasel words".
I assume they read my comment Note that I'm not telling you to lie either and their take-away was that I'm basically advising the person to lie.

I want to clarify why I disagree:

From the OP (original post) reworded a bit:

A colleague... told me that he wishes to leave the company and asked [me to keep it private]

[He discussed] this issue with his manager.

A couple of days after this, my own manager asked me if I knew something about my colleague wanting to leave.

Let give an opinion of mine which I didn't specifically address:
The person in the wrong in this situation is the boss for pressuring the OP to get personal information about something that isn't his business.

• "I don't know" works here because you don't know if he still wants to leave.
He talked to his boss a few days ago, right? If he talked with his boss I'm guessing he would like for something to change so that he can stay and be happy. (Again, that's a total guess on my part.)

• "I don't know" is a way to say: "Leave me out of this" without being rude.

So, if that isn't "weasel words", what would be ?
If a person gives you details like they said where they were going, or that they were turning in their notice 'as soon as the background check is complete' you can be reasonably certain that they are actually going to leave. In that case "I don't know" would be weaseling or maybe an outright lie.

  • The question is not if they will leave but if they plan to leave, and that's exactly what the coworker has disclosed to OP. – xehpuk Oct 23 at 16:52
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    @xehpuk While you have a good point, it doesn't change my answer. Whether they do leave is the most important point, and I am saying that that fact is unknown to OP. I think that is very relevant; others may disagree. – J. Chris Compton Oct 23 at 16:59
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    @xehpuk What I meant to convey is that even though they told you they plan to leave you don't really know if that is true or "bad day" / "heat of the moment" kind of talk. Don't risk torpedoing someone's career there by getting in the middle of something that doesn't involve you. (I only mean don't get into this situation... right a wrong if you see one, don't sit by and let something bad happen :-) – J. Chris Compton Oct 23 at 17:05
  • I fully agree that "I don't know" is a great response. It's just not completely honest. – xehpuk Oct 23 at 18:53
  • @DavidSchwartz You have a valid take on my point, as originally written. I added an edit that expands on why I disagree with your accusation. TL;DR is that "I don't know" can be a socially acceptable way of saying "I don't want to be involved." – J. Chris Compton Oct 24 at 16:59

Here is my proven method which until now never failed:

Anon i have one thing to tell you but be sure to keep it for yourself

my reply:

please understand that when you tell me to not tell it to anyone you are giving me an heavy responsibility which likely will lead me to lie.

from now i will use your case for instance but you can change the players and it will applies to almost every situation where there's a secret involved

i want to leave the company. don't tell to anyone.

most of the times when they say don't tell to anyone they have in mind a specific person.

my reply if i was you:

if they will question me about it i will have to lie so telling it to me was unfair i now have this responsibility. Here's how we will do: i will keep your secret for the time being so you will have the time to talk with your manager. Do it right now. Let me know when you confronted him.

your manager walks in

were you aware about anon sentiment?

i was. He told me after he talked with his manager about it. I don't know much for more precise info you should ask to the other manager

Don't forget to smile :)

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    "Anon i have one thing to tell you but be sure to keep it for yourself" - If it is business-related, please don't. I'm terrible at keeping secrets that might lead me to lie. – Mindwin Oct 23 at 17:04

Being forced into making a quick decision, I chose to deny knowing about this and nothing happened afterwards, but I am wondering what is the appropriate (professional) way to deal with such issues?

You did the absolute right thing.

This is the canonical example of a white lie.

It was none of your business to be told, and none of your business to be asked. "*shrug* No idea you'd have to ask him" and swiftly move on.

How about "I don't feel comfortable discussing another employee's employment status.". It's honest and it draws clear boundaries: this is not your business to discuss, regardless of what it involves. It may also remind your boss that lines are being crossed, ones that could have legal implications.

My answer on being asked anything about that sort of thing is simple:

"I don't get involved in other people's personal business".

It's simple, non-committal and doesn't lie.

It doesn't matter if I knew or didn't know. If they are leaving or are not leaving. I'll give the same answer.

  • Trouble is this sounds like a "yes". – Lightness Races in Orbit Oct 23 at 17:33
  • Does it? I guess it's vague enough for people to read whatever they like into it but I'm quite a literal person so people generally know that I mean what I say and only what I say. – Tim B Oct 23 at 21:08
  • It tacitly confirms that the other person has some personal business relevant to the question, which is a tacit "yes". That is the strict, literal interpretation of your precise words. You'd have to interpret it in a wooly fashion to discount the possibility. Besides, communication is a two-way street. – Lightness Races in Orbit Oct 23 at 21:11
  • Hmm, I think we'll have to agree to disagree on this one. As I said above I'd give the same answer whatever I did or didn't know. – Tim B Oct 23 at 21:15

It's a difficult one - ideally your colleague shouldn't put you in this position in the first place by asking you to keep it secret but that's not the way the world works.

You have to make a call as to what is more important to you - your relationship with your employer or your relationship with the colleague.

I think if you feel unable to lie in such a scenario it's only fair to make that clear to the person at the time they ask you to keep your secret:

I'm not going to volunteer that information but if they ask me a direct question I can't lie about it.

Personally I'm inclined to keep people's confidences but ultimately it's a personal ethical decision.

When working with a group of people and keeping good relationships with them, you will frequently learn about them something their managers or other people shouldn't know.

You noticed a female colleague didn't drink alcohol during a Christmas party and she put on weight - she may be pregnant. Someone didn't see you're in the room and answered the call from, what became clear, was their psychiatrist. Someone didn't notice the door was open and you heard them telling a recruiter, he's open for "new opportunities".

Someone got so frustrated after a meeting with their boss that they bubbled out they were searching for a new job.

The correct way to behave in this situation is to focus on yourself and pretend you don't know anything. The alternative is much worse: it's being a gossiper and not a very nice person to be around.

The answer depends on the relationship between you and your boss.

If I was close with my boss, I would be apt for honesty and say something to the tune of, "My colleague mentioned it to me the other day, and asked me to keep it confidential." Given that my boss knows, I'm not obliged to continue keeping the secret. This approach opens up the opportunity to weigh in on changes that may be soon impacting the team, and ways to prepare.

If I was not close with my boss, was close with my colleague, or didn't want to get involved, I would most likely say I didn't know. If your boss finds out that I did know, sticking up for a colleague's request for confidentiality is certainly reasonable.

I feel that answers suggesting you should always deny the knowledge gloss over the nuance of workplace relationships.

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