By Alison Green / Ask A Manager
Updated: February 12, 2016 4:07 PM ET | Originally published: September 23, 2015

Q: Was it wrong for my boss to fire me after a stranger sent in photos of my private text messages?

I’m a part-time retail employee at a clothing store. I left work a couple of weeks ago, got on my bus to head home, and as always, spent the time on my phone.

At one point, my boyfriend texted me asking if I’d left work yet. I wrote back saying something to the effect of ‘Yes…and I can’t be home soon enough. I’m tired and the fat cow sitting next to me is taking up half my seat as well as hers AND hasn’t heard of deodorant.”

I was called into my boss’s office at the start of my next shift and told that someone complained about me. I couldn’t think of any way I could have upset a customer…until my boss showed me a series of photographs the person who must have been sitting behind me on the bus took of me and my phone screen, having recognized me from the store yesterday.

I got fired, but I think it’s ridiculous. I wasn’t wearing anything that identified me as a member of my company at the time. What I do in my own time is my own business.

I’m now struggling to find another job, because my store manager has refused to let any of the department managers give me a reference, presumably because she’s offended because, well, she’s also the type to pin the poor size 2 girl next to her against the wall!

Who was in the wrong here?

Everyone, to differing degrees.

Most of all, your employer. It’s no one’s business what you write in private text messages to other people in your personal time. You had a reasonable expectation of privacy in sending a private text message, and they’re wrong to fire you over this.

The woman behind you was out of line in reading over your shoulder, photographing your phone, and sending it to your employer. She shouldn’t have been looking at a stranger’s phone in the first place, and she must have had to make a point of trying to see what you were writing; it’s not like it was forced into her line of vision and she couldn’t help reading everything you were writing. (And even if she hadn’t been able to help it, the polite thing to do in that case is to pretend she didn’t see it — she doesn’t get to comment on, let alone photograph, someone else’s private messages just because she happened to be able to see them on public transportation.)

But your employer is worse. The woman who emailed them was a busybody, but they’re the ones who actually fired you over this. They’re totally in the wrong.

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But for what it’s worth, you yourself aren’t coming out smelling like a rose here — and not because of your actions in this story, but because of your commentary on it: You have a pretty gross attitude toward overweight people. Your comment about your store manager at the end of your letter is rude and out of line. That doesn’t change the fact that you didn’t deserve to be fired for what happened, but you’re going to lose a lot of sympathy in life for talking about other people that way, and rightly so. Your boyfriend might be fine with you calling people “fat cows” (although he shouldn’t be), but making a snarky and insulting comment to a stranger (me) about your boss’s weight says to me that you’re out of touch with how kind people talk to and about each other (or possibly that you’re young enough that you haven’t learned it yet). So: Be nicer.

But yes, your company was wrong here, and that text message should have been treated as private.

Q: How do I explain why I’m applying for a part-time job rather than full-time work?

Last year, I left my full-time admin job after suffering from stress and depression. I took a few months off to work on my health, and now I am back to looking for work.

Recently, I had a first stage interview and then a second stage interview with a company for an admin position, and in both interviews, with the same interviewers each time, they asked why I was applying for a part-time position.

I wasn’t sure how to respond, and I said something along the lines of part-time work being better suited to my personal circumstances. This got a follow-up question of, “What exactly are your circumstances?” Then, in the second interview, they asked me how exactly I would be spending my free time, since I would only be working part-time.

Are these sorts of questions common when looking for part-time work? If so, what sort of answer should I give? I don’t think it is sensible to discuss my mental health issues with employers, and it’s hard enough to explain the recent gap on my CV.

It’s normal for employers to want to understand why someone wants part-time work. It’s not normal for them to demand to know exactly how you’ll be spending the rest of your time.

The usual reason that employers want to know why you’re seeking part-time work is that they want to ensure that you genuinely want part-time work — and that you’re not just taking it until something full-time comes along, at which point you will promptly leave them. That’s a reasonable thing for them to want to understand.

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And it’s pretty easy to answer if the answer is something like “I’m going to school as well” or “I have young children so I’m looking for something that will let me be home in the afternoons with them.” It’s harder when the answer is about health issues or other topics you don’t want to get into with an interviewer.

In your case, I might instead focus on why you’re excited about the job itself, with the hours being a bonus. For example: “Primarily I’m excited about this job because of XYZ, but I also like that the hours would allow me to spend more time with my family / pursuing hobbies / doing volunteer work.”

I do think it’s helpful to be as specific as possible, whichever of these you choose, and I suspect that your answer about part-time work being “better suited to my personal circumstances” was vague enough that it seemed potentially red-flaggy to them. That’s the kind of answer people often give in interviews when they’re being deliberately cagey about something — and while it’s perfectly reasonable to be vague about something like a health issue, the wording is too similar to what someone also might use to mean “I’m out on work-release and have to return to jail in the afternoons” or “I’ve been banned from working in my field” or something else that might be a legitimate concern to the employer.

These questions are adapted from ones that originally appeared on Ask a Manager. Some have been edited for length.

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