If one of your office mates suddenly quits, retires or stops coming to work, don't ask the boss for details unless you want to get your chief in a lot of trouble.

An Internal Revenue Service boss has learned the hard way that telling employes why a coworker left can be costly and embarrassing. The case involves an IRS worker who retired unexpectedly.Some of his colleagues and a tax practitioner he worked with asked why the man had left the federal service. The boss, who had seen the employe's records, said he had left on mental disability. One of the people he told was a member of the National Treasury Employes Union.

Although the employe had indeed retired on mental disability, the union sued IRS, asserting that it had invaded the individual's privacy. It also contended that the information could damage the former IRS aide in the future because he planned to open a tax-consultation business. IRS argued that the Privacy Act had not been violated since the information on the man's mental condition had not yet gone into official, protected records. IRS further argued that the boss told subordinates of the mental disability retirement to "quell rumors and gossip." But, it was argued, what gossip or rumor could be worse than an official's confirmation that the man was experiencing mental problems?

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia agreed, in part, with the union. It said that the fact that the data had not yet gone into official files did not lessen the invasion of privacy. Further, it said, while there is no way to determine what damage, if any, had been done to the ex-IRS man's future business potential, the government had acted improperly and ought to be taught a lesson. It awarded the retired employe $1,000 and reasonable legal fees.

Moral of the story: If somebody leaves unexpectedly, don't ask why unless you want to make it a federal case!