“If I maintain my silence about my secret, it is my prisoner… if I let it slip from my tongue, I am it’s prisoner.”
– Arthur Schopenhauer
“Loose lips sink ships.”
During World War II American soldiers were trained to prevent inadvertent information being passed on to enemy forces. The Army used the slogan “loose lips sink ships” and they developed rules of conduct to protect confidential information. The rules were clear expectations for soldiers writing home to loved ones, conversations, and if you were captured. “Be sensible, use your head” was the message.
The term “loose lips sink ships” also applies to the workplace. We need to be sensible and think about the implications of sharing sensitive information. The principle of confidentiality is about privacy and respecting someone’s wishes. It means that professionals shouldn’t share personal details about someone with others, unless that person has said they can or it’s absolutely necessary.
There are three primary types of workplace confidential information:
- Customer Personal Information
- Employee Personal Information
- Proprietary Company Information
Customers, employees, and organizations expect their private information to be protected. They share these details with us so we can serve their needs. We have a duty to protect.
Our duty can be a challenge as we process information — share or not share? Many organizations encourage and expect collaboration, sharing information for the benefit of others. The objective is transparency, to enable others to know what is going on. When employees are informed, such as understanding financial results and company strategy, they are more productive and fulfilled. There is a benefit to the bottom line.
Sometimes collaboration is not the answer. When information is confidential, we need to put privacy first. Sharing sensitive information inappropriately can also affect the bottom line — legal costs, turnover, career derailment, and brand damage.
Let’s look at two examples where two individuals acted on their own and the results were costly:
Tom was visiting with his long-term client, Susan, and she confidentially shared that she was planning to retire soon. Susan’s company is about to launch a new business initiative, and Tom was sure she would stay to lead this forward. Unfortunately, Tom shared Susan’s plans with another client who happened to be an investor in her company. The investor promptly backed out of his investment, and Susan’s company now faced financial distress. Susan initiated legal action and Tom’s career was in free fall.
Sharon overheard a conversation between supervisors in the hallway about a co-worker who was having performance problems. She was very surprised to hear the story and could not resist sharing what she heard with a friend she thought she could trust. Sharon did not like this co-worker since she was promoted to a new position, a job Sharon desired. Her friend promised to keep the information confidential yet betrayed Sharon by spreading the story. The story quickly spread throughout the organization and Sharon was reprimanded by her supervisor.
Tom and Susan failed the sensibility test and should have anticipated the potential consequences. Their mistakes remind us of the cost of poor judgement — to the individual or organization whose information is leaked, and the violation of trust that adversely impacts our career.
Is there ever a situation to break confidentiality? Some would say never, yet the answer is not that easy. Two scenarios where confidentiality may need to be broken:
- If the other person may be an immediate danger to themself or another.
- As required by state or federal laws.
- Hostile Work Environment
We need to have the courage to act when our duty calls for intervention. The smart choice is to get advice if you are considering breaching confidentiality. This is not a do-it-yourself decision — your leadership and Human Resources are critical partners to assess these situations.
Three Keys to Effectively Managing Confidential Information:
- Clarity: When you are told something in confidence, confirm the expectation that this is not to be shared.
- Off the record: Don’t use the term and stay on the record by protecting confidentiality.
- Confidence: Resist the pressure to share. There are those who have “FOMO“ — fear of missing out. Your business is none of their business.
The importance of confidentiality is captured so well by author Robert Jordan —“a secret spoken finds wings.” Our legacy as leaders is defined by doing the right thing, and there is no greater example than protecting sensitive information. Understand your duty to protect, close your lips, and save the ships.
Leading Your Team
Our careers are a journey of pursuing professional goals. We celebrate when we achieve our goals, perhaps being selected for a coveted role. Yet sometimes our success can be underwhelming — not what we thought it was going to be. This article discusses the challenges of career accomplishments that may not be fulfilling, and how to positively move forward.
Read to Lead
Leaders benefit from being active readers, long reads not just social media posts and news feeds. A deep read builds concentration, strengthens your intellectual capacity, and offers wisdom you can share. As you refresh or build your reading habit, diversify your experience — old, new, fiction, non-fiction, audio, hard cover, and e-readers.
My March 2023 favorites:
The Invisible Kingdom by Meghan O’Rourke
“A silent epidemic of chronic illnesses afflicts tens of millions of Americans: these are diseases that are poorly understood, frequently marginalized, and can go undiagnosed and unrecognized altogether.” The author traces her experience living with a disease that cannot be diagnosed, encountering a health care system that is unable to serve her. A reminder how important our personal health is to our professional success, and our need to be personally accountable to our physical and mental welfare.
The Language of Leadership by Joel Schwartzberg
An excellent resource for effectively communicating regardless of your role. The author offers tactics and examples to help you lead your team, including virtual meetings. His focus is focusing on purpose and power in your messages, engaging and inspiring others. He also offers several scenarios to help leaders prepare for and conduct difficult conversations.