The Dangers of Pledging Confidentiality

By Dan Bobinski


Do you have any coworkers who ask if you can keep a secret? Or perhaps you’ve had someone come up to you and say, “I’m going to tell you something, but you can’t tell a soul”? If your immediate response is “my lips are sealed,” you might be creating quite a problem for yourself.

Dan-Bobinski

So says best-selling author Harry Chambers, author of “The Bad Attitude Survival Guide and No Fear Management.”

According to Chambers, we should never agree to a predetermined level of confidentiality. He says, “Let the other person know that you cannot pledge confidentiality until you know what the topic is.” In my opinion, these are great words of wisdom.

That said, sometimes confidentiality is necessary. For example, let’s say you’re a manager who has been notified that company-wide layoffs are on the horizon, and that five percent of the staff will be let go in six months. Or perhaps you’ve been told that a particular product line is going to change, and the workforce will be re-arranged.

James Bono, an acquaintance of mine who recently retired, was the Associate Dean at the School of Pharmacy with the University of Illinois. He agreed that situations like layoffs or re-organizations must be handled as professionally as possible, while simultaneously drawing clear boundaries. Despite dealing with many budgetary cutbacks, Bono told me that gossip about layoffs was always strictly taboo. If anyone approached him inquiring about who might be getting laid off, his response was always brief and to the point: “We don’t discuss confidential HR issues.” Bono says, “People came to me and jockeyed for info all the time. I needed to remind them that office gossip is truly harmful.”

As difficult as it might be, confidences about layoffs or other sensitive issues must be kept. Unfortunately, remaining silent about such things can cause managers to feel alone, isolated, or even duplicitous, because the people who will be most impacted by such decisions can’t be notified until the appropriate time. Bono says this is the tough side of being a manager.

OK, so what if you’re not a manager? Everyday gossip occurs and secrets get told at all levels of an organization. According to statistics recently published by Bill Gallagher of the consulting firm TeamWorks, 21 percent of workers regularly participate in gossip, and the average gossip session lasts 15 minutes. But is all gossip bad? Not according to Dr. Jack Levin, author of the book, “Gossip: The Inside Scoop.” Levin says gossip can actually be good for our emotional health. In fact, according to Levin, people sharing non-public information is an integral part of society that can be beneficial to career advancement. The key appears to be knowing the difference between productive workplace conversations and genuinely unhelpful “gossip.”

Many articles and books provide definitions of what constitutes unhelpful gossip, but these three bullet points give us a foundational understanding:

  • Talking about rumors or spreading false information
  • Ridiculing, humiliating or belittling others
  • Unethically sharing personal or confidential information

One flag that can alert you to the possibility of harmful gossip is when someone comes up to you and wants to let you in on a secret. When this happens, a great way to respond is, “Wait a minute. I can’t guarantee that I’m going to be able to keep this to myself.”

Some people won’t even care. They’ll just launch into whatever they were going to say. Others will ask you to clarify. In the latter, you can tell them that if the information has legal or ethical implications, you may be required by law to report it.

The idea is to be open to genuinely helpful dialogs on workplace problems, but also have your antennae up and wary of that 21 percent who tend to gossip.

In his book, Chambers offers plenty of useful suggestions for dealing with gossipers. For example, he says if someone starts telling you about some mischief or other problem at work, your best response may be to inform the eager storyteller that he or she has the opportunity to address this problem themselves. This would be especially appropriate if the problem is outside of your circle of influence. Chambers further suggests that if they’re not interested in stepping up to help fix the problem, you can tell them that because you are being made aware of an issue, you may be obligated to speak with someone higher up in the organizational chart.

Other dangers exist in pledging confidentiality, with workplace trust being one of them. Just think: If someone is sharing personal information with you about someone else, what are they sharing with someone else about you? You know the type – some people just seem to be wired for meddling and passing along personal information inappropriately. If you know someone like this, it’s probable that your trust level for them is not what it could be, and you don’t share as much with them as you might with others. A ripple effect of that can be reduced information flow, which, in turn, can hamper productivity.

Another problem with pledging confidences is that you have to work harder to mentally juggle what you can and cannot say to people. The stress, as most managers and leaders will acknowledge, can become a heavy mental and emotional burden.

The bottom line in all of this is that pledging confidentiality carries huge risks. Harmful gossip can go awry and destroy workplace trust, and added stress can become a distraction, all of which can impact our effectiveness. Granted, managers and leaders may be required to keep certain things to themselves, but the solution to that is to draw clear boundaries. We should avoid getting caught up in agreements of confidentiality that may compromise our integrity, and definitely avoid becoming party to something illegal or unethical.

Dan Bobinski is president of Workplace-Excellence.com and Everything-Training.com As a consultant, speaker, and trainer, he helps organizations of all shapes and sizes create excellent workplaces. He is also the author of numerous books, including the best-selling “Creating Passion-Driven Teams.” Reach him at dan@workplace-excellence.com or 208-375-7606.