Flip A Coin

In the summer of 1996,  I was an intern.  And the woman who was managing my internship had an old personal computer, both in the sense that it was a PC, and it was her old, personal, computer.  Since this was 1996, it's the computer I used during my internship.  It didn't have internet, or much else - it did have Word Perfect, and that was perfect, because I was typing up the results of a long, long project where I had to make about 100 phone calls and record some basic information.  Should have been easy, but the first thing I had to do was get a phone number, then get the right person, then catch that person at their desk... 

This is about what I was working with, but maybe a little nicer than hers.

It was 1996.  What are you going to do?

Now, I had my own personal computer, and I had been working on it since the start of college, so I was literate, but one afternoon, I managed to "lose" the document I was working on somewhere in the archaic file structure.

So I started digging, and found mostly empty folders.  I finally found one that had documents in it, so I started opening them to find mine.  What I found instead was a personal letter that my boss had written to someone with details that, were someone to come across them, would have been uncomfortable.  Nothing illegal, nothing that caused physical damage to any person or thing - just, emotional, embarrassing stuff.  No names, but it was her computer, so... it would be easy to make the case that she had written it.

I struggled over what to do about it.  Should I tell her, "You should probably scrub your files before anyone else uses that computer"?  Should I be specific and tell her what I found?  Should I leave it and say nothing?  Should I delete the letter and never tell her?  What if this is a test?  What if she wants to see what I'll do and she planted this letter?  

I mulled it over for a day, then I deleted the letter and never told her what I had seen or done.  I won an award for excellence in that internship, so, if it was a test, I passed.  And moreover, that letter ended with me.  And now you, but it's been over twenty years, and I've been vague enough.

About 15 years later, a colleague of my left the company we were working for. Someone in a position of authority.  His files were moved to a shared drive so that those after him would have access to them.  And a guy went in there looking for something, and found not one, but two letters that were compromising.  He could have deleted them and kept going.  But he didn't.  He shared them with a few people, and they shared them with a few people... I never saw the documents, but I know the contents of them.  One was an apology to his parents about a relationship he had kept from them, the other was an ad to be placed on a dating website.  The worst part is - the guy who left, came back,  And we had all this intel on him and that was really weird and awkward.

So my advice to you is, be careful when you go looking for something.  You might find it.

And name your files, saving often.  Oh, and don't save personal documents on your company computer!  And don't let interns use your private property if there might be something damning on there.  

But, here's my real caveat.  You will, from time to time in life be privy to information that you really shouldn't have.  Friends will tell you secrets that will stun you. You'll find someone's offer letter on the printer.  You'll get the email meant for the other person with the same first name. Or someone will send out the wrong document, and you now know the salaries of everyone on your team.  All of those have happened to me, a close friend, or a family member.  Hell, one time I walked into the medical records department at my company to pull a file, and I came in as someone was getting laid off.  I got laid off later that afternoon, so in a way, I'm glad I had a little pre-shock to deal with the main shock.  

My point is - whatever information you have, use it wisely, share it even more wisely.  Would it have been better to not know my old colleague looking to hook up with a local hottie?  YES!  Or that my internship boss was just as flawed and human as the rest of us?  Probably.   Just know that if you are good at keeping things to yourself, you start collecting more things.  I've talked about strangers who have unburdened themselves on me on plane flights?  I don't think it's a coincidence.  I've talked with a few other people who I know to be like me - we all agree that we can tell within the first few minutes of a conversation that we're going to hear a lot.

Be as trustworthy as people assume you are.