Confidentiality — Managing Expectations

January 20, 2007

Every supervisor has heard some version of these words: “I want to tell you something, but I want you to promise not to tell anyone….” These words should be somewhat flattering. It means that an employee trusts the supervisor enough to confide in them and wants the supervisor’s advice. Right? Maybe…and maybe not. In my supervisory training, I tell trainees to treat these words as though someone has just handed them a live bomb. Yes. A bomb. bomb

The instinct to respond to an employee request for confidentiality with assurances that the supervisor will maintain the employee’s secrets can be explosive and expensive. Why? Simply because if the employee reports certain kinds of violations, such as violations of Title VII, then the discussion of that issue with the supervisor is notice to the company, and a company becomes liable for harassment or discrimination when it “knew or should have known” of the conduct, but failed to take prompt, appropriate action.

It is not unusual for serious allegations agains a company to be accompanied by reports that “I told my supervisor and he/she did nothing to stop it.” It is also not unusal for the supervisor him or herself to protest, “but s/he told me s/he did not want anything done.” So what can be done to help supervisors with the dual obligations to create an environment of trust with their employees, while maintaining a primary obligation to act in the interest of the organization?

1. Supervisors should be very clear on the limits of confidentiality. In fact, it is not a bad idea to eliminate the term “confidentiality” from the workplace altogether. After all, what does “confidential” mean to most employees? Ask a few. You will hear that it means “whatever I tell you, you will not tell anyone else.” What they are describing is privileged communication available under the rarest of circumstances in the workplace. There are so few situations in which an employer can offer privilege, that merely suggesting it is an option simply inflates expectations. Rather, policies and statements should include the more verbose, but more precise language that “employees’ information will be kept private to the extent possible.” Thus, an employee asking a supervisor to keep something secret would be told “There are many things that can stay between you and me, and some things I will need to act on. If what you tell me involves possible violations of policy or law, I probably will need to act. Read the rest of this entry »

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