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If you happen to overhear your supervisor's conversation, should you tell?

Lily Garcia
Special to the Washington Post
Tuesday, August 17, 2010; 2:07 PM

At my place of employment, we have money set aside for professional development. I found two legitimate conferences that I would like to attend. One is in Hawaii and one is in Philadelphia. The former looks like it would better fit what I want and is more convenient for my schedule. This option is also a bit more expensive given the travel. The one in Philadelphia could work, but it's not exactly what I want. I approached my boss about it and she said she'd think about which one I could go to. I later heard her joking with someone that I was trying to get a free vacation. This is simply not the case and now I am afraid that she will deny my request. If she approves it, I still feel like I will be considered the mooch who stole a free vacation. Given that I wasn't supposed to hear her comment, what should I do?

If you overheard your boss's quip about your request to attend the Hawaii conference because you were deliberately eavesdropping, then you must let it go. If, however, you innocently stumbled upon the conversation, then you should talk to your boss about what she said.

Even assuming that you have ulterior motives for favoring the Hawaii conference, it was inappropriate and unprofessional of your boss to joke about it with another employee. If the person with whom she was speaking is not someone with a legitimate business need to know about your conference request ¿ such as the Chief Financial Officer or your boss' boss ¿ then her actions are more inappropriate still.

However, it is also possible that your boss was not ridiculing you, but rather making the joke in the context of supporting you request, disarmingly addressing the looming question anyone would have: Does the greater benefit of the Hawaii conference truly offset the difference in airfare? With respect, the charmingly narrow cobblestone streets of Philadelphia are hardly a match for the rainbow-festooned bluffs of Honolulu. As earnest as you might be in your belief that the Hawaii conference is far more beneficial than the Philadelphia one, you can hardly fault someone who raises an eyebrow to your request.

If you decide to talk to your boss about her joke, do so with an open mind. Tell your boss what you overheard and ask whether it means that she doubts the sincerity of your reasons for favoring the conference in Hawaii. She will most likely explain that she was kidding and that she has taken you at your word. Take the opportunity to reiterate the advantages to the organization ¿ not just to you -- of choosing Hawaii over Philadelphia. A robust professional development budget can have a positive impact on employee morale, but the primary purpose of such a line item is to better prepare employees to meet the objectives of the employer. If you can demonstrate that you are mindful of the bottom line implications of your conference attendance, then you will leave your boss far more comfortable granting your request.

Lily Garcia has offered employment law and human resources advice to companies of all sizes for more than 10 years. To submit a question, e-mail HRadvice@washingtonpost.com. We reserve the right to edit submitted questions for length and clarity and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered.

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