Sunday, February 25, 2007


You're working late in your office. You're the only one there. What with all the meetings and telephone calls, increasingly you find that this is the only time of day you can actually get any work done.

You walk to the copy machine shared by your department and lift the cover. Inside you see a sheet of paper that turns out to be a list of the salaries of everyone in your department, inadvertently left there by your boss.

What do you do? Do you make the copies you came to make and then return the boss's list to the machine as if you had never come across it? Make a copy of it for yourself? Shred it and say nothing to the boss? Call your boss at home and ask him what to do? Put it in an envelope and slide it under your boss's door -- and, if so, do you include a signed note explaining how you found it? Or do you do something else?

Send your thoughts to or post them here by clicking on "comments" or "post a comment" below. Please include your name and your hometown. Readers' comments may appear in an upcoming column.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business" (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to or to "The Right Thing," New York Times Syndicate, 609 Greenwich St., 6th floor, New York, N.Y. 10014-3610.


Anonymous said...

Put it in an envelope and slideit under the door. Everyone knows that salaries for the same job vary in coporations. It should not be a surprise. If your salary is lower than another employee, then figure out how you can get an increase, rather than start confusion.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that the right thing to do with the found list is to put it in a folder or envelope (without perusing it) and hand it to the boss the next morning. Tell him/her that you found it in the copier and doubt that anyone else has seen the list.

Phil Clutts
Harrisburg, N.C.

Anonymous said...

Put in an envelope, slide it under the door. No one will be accused of leaving possible confidential information out. IF the information is confidential, the person that left it behind will have to look for it. The boss need not know who found it, only that the right thing was done and it was returned. It gives the ownership of the mistake back to the person who did it. And, don't discuss the salaries; that just creates problems. You were not intended to see it anyway.



Anonymous said...

Not only have I found salaries lists, I have inadvertently found paycheck stubs in co-worker's and boss' offices left out in plain site. Even open checkbook rosters.

Protect yourself and other employees from potential unscrupulous co-workers and slip the item back into the boss's office in an envelope. That might ease the boss's mind as well, seeing that someone cared enough to take some discretion in returning the item. You could score some brownie points in the end.

Besides, what good could come of knowing or passing the list around the office? Ignorance is bliss. You will be much happier not reading the salary list and not letting anyone know what you found or anything you might have accidentally read. It can cause mistrust.

Not only is it none of anyone's business, depending on the findings, emotions can run the gauntlet on this. You may become angry, jealous, guilt ridden for knowing, and judgmental toward co-workers.

I handled payroll for a small company at one time, it ain't that fun knowing.

K. Savona
Costa Mesa, CA

Anonymous said...

This is the way I would handle to matter. I would place the sheet in an envelope and "hand-deliver" it to the boss. I would tell the boss where I found it and say as little as possible and quickly leave the boss' presence.

Bert Hoogendam,
Sarnia,Ontario ,Canada

Anonymous said...

Jeffrey -

This one a "no-brainer" basic "do-the-right-thing" ethics issue. Of course you return the copy to the originator (your boss). No copies, nothing cute, just return it to the original sender telling him/her where you found it.

This does remind me of a discussion I was privileged to have with nine other executives who visited (under a Brookings Institute program) CEO's and their staffs in ten different corporations in the mid-eighties. One of the most enlightening sessions was with John Young, the dynamic guy who had taken over the reins of Hewlett-Packard after David Packard and Bill Hewitt gave up day-to-day operations of H-P.

Mr. Young discussed with us his frustration about employees (and managers) always being concerned or trying to find out what their co-workers and bosses were earning (and, wasting a lot of time in the process). Mr. Young said he solved the problem overnight: he had his HR office post, on bulletin boards throughout the company, a complete list of every HP employee's salary. Result? No more carping, no more wasted time or gossip.

Straight-forward management, I always considered it . . .


Jan Bohren
Graduate Program for HR Management
Mercy College
Dobbs Ferry, NY