Boss must be confronted about inappropriate request

Q: I was hired in human resources straight out of college by a very small company where I am essentially in control of all employee files. My boss advised me right off the bat about the etiquette of releasing employee information to people within the company. I was told that only immediate bosses of employees may review their file and only for a specified reason.

About two months later, my boss received a pay cut commensurate with reduced responsibility. Following this, she said she would need to see all subsequent raises for any employee in any department. Essentially, she completely contradicted herself. It is not appropriate for her to see these other employees' pay rates, but when she noticed I was not showing them to her, I was reprimanded. Without undermining her and losing her trust, what is the best course of action to preserve the privacy of the employees at this company?

-- J.S., Cincinnati

A: Unfortunately, the only way to preserve the privacy of the employees is for you to act in a way that she will perceive as undermining her. Nonetheless, her request is inappropriate, and you should not be reprimanded for acting properly. The next time it happens, you'll need to address the situation immediately. When she asks for the information, remind her of the company policy and tell her you cannot comply and will have to report her request to her manager if she persists or if she reprimands you.

When you talk with her, do so using a calm, reasoned tone of voice. Don't threaten; simply state what you must do if she persists. Then, be willing to act if necessary. She is putting you in an untenable ethical position, so, if the relationship is hurt, the responsibility is hers.

Q: How do I politely return a gift of money to a client?

-- T.R., Carmel, N.Y.

A: Money is no different from any other type of gift. It is really nice when a client wants to show his appreciation, but company rules often prohibit employees from accepting any gifts. The best course of action is to return the gift right when it is offered or send it back immediately.

Even as you're saying no to the gift, show your appreciation for the thoughtfulness of the giver by what you say as you return the gift, either in person or by a handwritten note. "Tom, thank you so much. I really appreciate the thoughtfulness of this gift, but my company has a strict policy and I'm not allowed to accept it. I hope you'll understand."

E-mail your questions about business etiquette to, or mail to Etiquette at Work, The Boston Globe, P.O. Box 55819,

Boston, MA 02205-5819. Peter Post is a director of the Emily Post Institute and the author of "The Etiquette Advantage in Business," published by HarperCollins. He is one of Emily Post's four great-grandchildren.