Workplace confidentiality matters. If you have access to confidential information relating to your company, you are obligated, legally and ethically, to protect it. A colleague’s confidences should be treated no differently. Think of the colleague as the owner of the information you have been given. If you share that information without the owner’s consent, you are breaching a confidence -- the only exception would be if withholding the information could jeopardize anyone’s safety or well-being.
Companies establish ethics codes and policies to build an environment founded on trust. Workplace trust allows teams to perform well and to innovate. In an ethical work environment, employees in customer-facing positions reflect well on the company, helping to establish the type of reputation that provides for sustainable corporate success. But if trust inside the company is tenuous, rumors and gossip can spread both inside and outside the company. Customers can begin to wonder if their own information is secure, and the company’s reputation can take a beating.
Companies must protect their intellectual property and other confidential information. In the business world, such information can include trade secrets and strategic plans that provide for a competitive advantage. In the medical industry, patient confidentiality is a critical, legal responsibility. No matter which industry you’re in, your human resources department must protect your employee records. Access to all types of confidential information should be limited. Those who do have access are often required to sign non-disclosure agreements. Even if you don’t sign such an agreement, you do have a responsibility to keep the information in confidence.
Managers are responsible to keep all confidences shared by employees. Divulging private information to other employees is a breach of trust that could negatively affect team performance, and it might have legal consequences as well. Information about performance reviews should only be made available to the employee, the manager and the human resources department. Information provided by the employee to the manager in private might also need to be shared with human resources, but it must be considered as confidential as performance reviews.
Training and Reporting
To help everyone at the company remember the importance of ethics in the workplace -- including the responsibility to protect all types of confidential information -- most companies implement ethics training programs. Reporting and investigation processes should also be put into place so violations can be handled quickly and decisively. It might not be necessary to report the breach of a private confidence, depending on the nature of the information and the extent of resulting damage, but you should always report breaches that put the security of company, employee or patient confidential data at risk.
A careers content writer, Debra Kraft is a former English teacher whose 25-plus year corporate career includes training and mentoring. She holds a senior management position with a global automotive supplier and is a senior member of the American Society for Quality. Her areas of expertise include quality auditing, corporate compliance, Lean, ERP and IT business analysis.