Have you ever had a colleague come up to you and say, “I’m going to tell you something, but you can’t tell a soul”? You can run into quite a problem if your immediate response is “my lips are sealed.”
So says best-selling author Harry Chambers, author of The Bad Attitude Survival Guide and No Fear Management.
Chambers says “Never get hooked into a predetermined level of confidentiality. Let the other person know that you cannot pledge confidentiality until you know what the topic is.” These are great words of wisdom for dealing with gossip.
Often times, however, confidentiality is necessary. It can be a touchy proposition, and much of it has to do with where one sits in an organization. Let’s say you’re a manager who has been told by your superiors about impending layoffs. These confidences may have to be kept until the flag is dropped to issue the actual termination papers. And that may be months!
But imagine your shock when a peer approaches you and whispers, “do you know they’re going to lay off Bill and Bonnie after this season?” Situations like this must be handled as professionally as possible while drawing clear boundaries.
James Bono, Associate Dean at the School of Pharmacy with the University of Illinois, says that gossip about layoffs is strictly taboo. Despite dealing with many budgetary cutbacks, Bono explains that if anyone approaches him inquiring about who might be getting laid off, his response is brief and to the point: “We don’t discuss confidential HR issues.” Bono says “People come to me and jockey for info all the time. I need to remind them that office gossip is truly harmful.”
During times of layoffs or other sensitive personnel issues, managers can feel alone, isolated, or even duplicitous because whatever the issue is can't always be conveyed to the people who'll be most impacted by it. Bono says this is the tough side of being a manager.
Still, everyday gossip and secrets occur—and can be dangerous—at all levels of an organization. Chambers says that if someone comes up to you and wants to “let you in” on a secret about some mischief or some other problem at work, your best response may be to inform this eager storyteller that “he or she has the opportunity to address this problem themselves.” You can also tell them that if stepping up to fix the problem is not something they’d like to do, and if you’re aware of the issue, then you may be obligated to take the matter up with someone in authority.
Then there’s the problem of dealing with others who have broken your confidences. Ann Humphries, president of ETICON, a management consulting group in South Carolina, says when you discover that something you shared in confidence is being passed around, “don't assume that you've been as badly or completely betrayed as it might seem. Try not to react until you track down the source and find out what's really out there. If it turns out that there's not a much or as damaging a betrayal as you first thought, you may retain some valuable colleagues simply by not retaliating or accusing them falsely.”
Another thing Humphries says about discovering a betrayer is “now you know who NOT to trust.”
Bottom line, pledging confidentiality can be dangerous. The main thing is to draw clear boundaries. And avoid getting caught up in an agreement of confidentiality that may compromise your integrity at best, and at worst make you party to something illegal.