Confidential conversations at work aren’t always as private as you may think.

women shushing

Employees that you may not notice could be listening – administrative assistants, receptionists, maintenance workers, security guards. In fact, more than half of support staff workers in a recent survey say they have overheard confidential information – and 11 percent say the information they heard could get someone fired.

The biggest topic of overheard conversation? Complaints about the boss or other employees, according to a recent survey of more than 500 support workers by Harris Poll for CareerBuilder. Of those who have overheard private conversations, 62 percent involved complaints about the boss or other workers.

But of even more confidential importance, one-third have heard discussions about firings or layoffs, and nearly one quarter have overheard discussions about compensation.

Other private topics of conversation that are often overhead from cubicle to cubicle, or from inside open offices, include conversations about: romantic relationships between employees, 20 percent; lying to the boss, 18 percent; and setting up another employee to fail, 18 percent.

It isn’t just conversations that give away private information to others, the study found. Employees sometimes leave evidence of information they’d rather keep private lying on their desks, in the garbage can or at the copy machine.

Much of what is found tends to be non-work-related items, but confidential work documents are also sometimes visible. Here are some examples of what support workers in the survey have found out in the open at their workplace:

  • A list of employee salaries
  • Layoff and compensation paperwork
  • Upcoming reorganization diagram
  • Picture of a partially dressed co-worker
  • A pregnancy test
  • Employee’s tax return
  • A letter from the boss’s mistress
  • Stolen event tickets
  • A response to a personal dating site
  • A love letter from one employee to another
  • Employee’s resume on the copy machine

The support staff and other employees at your office may know more about you than you think. Consider taking steps in the future to ensure that confidential information remains confidential.