One Person’s Trash, Another Person’s Secret

Layoff lists, tax returns, personal dating ads among things found lying around workplace

By Dana Wilkie Feb 25, 2015

Before you toss your mistress’s love letter or that pregnancy test in the workplace trash, remember that the garbage doesn’t empty itself.

Instead, custodians empty it, and it’s those employees—along with security guards, receptionists and maintenance workers—who are often the eyes and ears of workplace secrets, according to a new survey from CareerBuilder.

The confidential information that support staff come across at work includes a pretty strange list of items that employees leave behind. In fact, more than one in 10 such workers say they have information that could get someone fired, said CareerBuilder, a company thathelps organizations attract and retain talent.

“Over the years, we’ve heard enough stories around workers stumbling upon items or information that—for whatever reason—didn’t belong in the workplace that we wanted to see how prevalent these instances were across industries and companies of all sizes,” said Rosemary Haefner, chief human resources officer at CareerBuilder.

The survey, released Feb. 26, 2015, was conducted online by Harris Poll on behalf of CareerBuilder from Nov. 4 to Dec. 2, 2014. It included a representative sample of more than 500 employees who classified themselves as custodians, janitors, mailroom attendants, security guards, receptionists, housekeepers, administrative assistants or maintenance workers. The survey had a sampling error of +/- 4.35 percentage points.

More than half of respondents said they’d overheard confidential discussions at work, including conversations about job dissatisfaction and backstabbing remarks made by one employee about another.

• Sixty-two percent heard people complaining about the boss or other workers.

• More than one-third overheard conversations about pending layoffs or firing someone.

• More than one-fifth heard discussions about someone’s compensation.

• One-fifth heard people talking about romantic relationships between co-workers.

• Nearly one-fifth heard people talking about lying to their boss.

• More than one in 10 heard employees talking about setting up a co-worker to fail.

“These findings serve as a good reminder for managers to work toward creating an environment where employees feel comfortable coming to them with concerns or complaints, enabling them to address these issues head-on and find resolutions before they snowball into something larger,” Haefner said.

What’s In that Trash Can?

One in 10 support staff workers said they’d found something in the trash or lying around the workplace that could get a worker or the company in trouble. A similar amount said they had knowledge about an executive or co-worker that could be grounds for that person’s dismissal.

Among the curious workplace discoveries were:

• A list of employee salaries.

• A picture of a partially dressed co-worker.

• Layoff and compensation paperwork.

• A diagram of an upcoming reorganization.

• A love letter from one person in the office to another.

• A predetermination request for a breast augmentation.

• A short story about the boss and several co-workers cast in an unflattering light.

• A pregnancy test.

• An employee’s response to a personal dating ad.

• An employee’s resume on the copier.

• A letter from the boss’s mistress.

• The boss’s ex-wife’s bank account statement.

• An employee’s tax return.

• A full set of keys for the facility.

Despite having discovered such sensitive items, almost all respondents said they would never reveal the information to supervisors.

Organizations “likely put a great deal of trust into their support staff, and for good reason,” Haefner said. “The vast majority of support staff workers, 95 percent, who have found material that could get a person fired said they have no intention of revealing that information, with most saying it’s none of their business or that they do not want to get the person in trouble.”

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.


Choose from dozens of free webcasts on the most timely HR topics.

Register Today

Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You


Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 3,200 companies

Search & Connect