Although the workplace isn’t a social club by any means, it helps to make friendships and have a certain camaraderie to make work days more fun. It’s natural to form bonds with people who you are around constantly and who share the same challenges and routines. But what happens when, as an Executive Assistant, you find out confidential and sensitive information – such as one of your coworkers is going to be let go?
There are many schools of thought on what the appropriate way to handle this might be and it varies according the the situation – the cause, the motive behind the action, whether it is fair or will catch the coworker completely off guard…etc.
The fact of the matter is that you are in a position of privilege and with that comes privileged information. You are in your role because your Executive trusts you and can speak around you in confidence. On top of that, disclosing to your coworker may cause you to be unwittingly entangled in a legal battle between your coworker and your employer. It will also be remembered by not only your boss but other people in the workplace, leading to possible demotion and those around you not being able to open up with you as freely.
Whether or not your coworker ultimately understands the position you are in, not being able to divulge that information, you still have a duty to keep it tight-lipped. However, if you feel that your employer’s decision may be preventable based on unfairness, context, etc., you may be able to have a conversation about the situation to get a better idea and pose some questions that may help them see differently. However, remember it is not necessarily your job to weigh in unless you are being asked and you may end up crossing a line.
Whether you can have that candid conversation with your Executive or not depends on your relationship and that is a decision you have to gauge yourself. If you don’t feel comfortable having that conversation with your Executive, but you feel very strongly that the decision is unethical, consider speaking with HR candidly or with a legal consultant.
Keep in mind that every story has two sides and you may not always have all the details – and some decisions are best just to be left to happen. It may be in your best interest for your role or career just to allow your Executive to continue with the decision, although this is unique to each individual situation.
If you reach the conclusion that you must allow the Executive to continue with their decision, it could leave you feeling a bit uncomfortable or down. So what can you do? The most important thing you can do for a coworker who is also a friend or someone you care about, is to focus on post-firing. What can you do to help them through the decision?
You can have a list of jobs for them to start applying to, or you can prepare a letter of recommendation. You can provide them with a list of resources for networking opportunities, or connect them with people who could open some door for them. Maybe you just need to be there for them to listen and let them talk it out – but whatever you decide to do, focusing on being present for them after-the-fact is one of the most important things you can do.