Sunday, April 14, 2024

Is it OK to snoop on a neighbor if the neighbor won’t know?

Should you look at something that you know wasn’t meant for you to see?

I regularly write recommendation letters for former colleagues, students and others whose work I know and with whose character I’m familiar. It takes time to write these letters well, but I gladly do it for most who ask.

A few weeks ago, I emailed off a recommendation to the emails provided me by the person I was recommending. A few hours later I received an email from one of the recipients telling me he may have the same name as the intended recipient and they may work at the same large institution, but he was not the person for whom the letter was intended. He wrote that he didn’t know the correct email address for the other guy and ended with: “But I can reassure you that I destroyed your recommendation without reading it.”

The incident reminded me of a recent report from a reader we’re calling Tom who wrote that a neighbor of his had asked if he could print something on the reader’s printer since he didn’t own his own. The neighbor emailed Tom the document, a job offer letter, so Tom could print it out and his neighbor could pick it up. Tom waited for his neighbor to arrive and then opened the attached document on his email, printed it out and let his neighbor grab it from the output tray on Tom’s printer.

Tom noted, however, that the document itself was still in his email and if he wanted to he could easily look at it without his neighbor ever knowing. He suspected that financial information and details about the neighbor’s job offer were in the letter. Even though he told Tom the nature of the letter, he never told him that it was confidential and never asked him not to read it.

Tom wondered: Would there be anything wrong with taking a peek out of curiosity, especially given that he didn’t plan to do anything with the information or to share it with anyone else?

A good rule of thumb to remember is that just because no one might discover we did something wrong, that doesn’t make that wrong action OK. This goes for reading someone’s email that they might leave open on their screen when you happen to be near their computer. Or to glance at their text message if they left their phone sitting near you when they weren’t around. Or to read the details of a document inadvertently left on a copier by a colleague. Or to read the hard copy of someone’s performance review if they left it on their desk and happened to notice it when no one was around.

In cases where a piece of information is clearly personal and likely meant to be confidential, the right thing is to treat it as such and either destroy it without reading it or fight the urge to read it if the opportunity to do so arises.

The only reason Tom should read his neighbor’s letter would be if his neighbor had told him it was OK to do so. That Tom knew it was unlikely his neighbor would do that should confirm for him that he should simply delete the email with the attachment and feel good about lending his printer when his neighbor was in need.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy, emeritus, at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need to have answered? Send them to

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin


No comments: