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.
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.
2. Supervisors should understand the psychology of a request for confidentiality The request to share a problem “in confidence” is not so much a quest for advice as it is a coping mechanism. Think of workplace problems as cumulative. Things build up, as though filling an imaginary cup. As the cup gets fuller and fuller, the employee has to devote more and more resources to coping with the problem. A drop or two is easily managed. A half-full cup is far more burdensome, and if that cup is getting uncomfortably full, and the employee is not yet ready to complain about the behavior (generally the calculation is that complaining will make things worse than coping,) something must be done. By “venting” the problem to a supervisor, the employee essentially tips his or her cup, and lightens the load so he or she can continue to cope for a while longer. Here, however, is the problem. If the issue is not addressed, and the problem continues to accumulate, the employee will inevitably hit a point at which his or her cup will overflow. The consequence, as too many attorneys can tell you, is that he or she will say “I told my supervisor…and he, or she, did nothing.” The compassion of the misled supervisor now takes on a veneer of bumbling incompetence or worse, intentional disregard, neither of which is a desirable outcome, to say the least.
3. Employees should be given information and access to legitimately confidential resources I work with one university that lists all of the resources available to faculty, staff and students in a grid that explains the degree of confidentiality available. For instance, the counselling center is labelled as “confidential,” while the human resources office is labelled “will share information on a need to know basis,” and campus security is listed as “will act even against student wishes if life or property is at risk.” As a result, individuals seeking assistance can make a choice about how transparent they wish to be, and can be thoughtful about the resources they use. It is an excellent example of helping people be educated consumers of resources available to them, and avoids the upsetting prospect of having someone turn away because of erroneous expectations. Organizations can help identify those private places by telling employees of resources, from a company provided EAP to a local counselling center, or even to their family physician, where they can go and have real private communications. This can be done while clarifying the obligations of supervisors and human resources.
4. When an employee does come forward, supervisors should be adequately trained to respond appropriately. See an earlier article on the intake process. The better supervisors and managers are at receiving employee complaints, the greater the trust built with employees overall. Sepler & Associates’ research shows that employees who report a positive response to their problems often selected the person they reported to because someone else told them that the person was helpful and trustworthy.