Confidentiality in the Workplace: Maintaining Integrity

How confidentiality is practiced in the workplace is becoming more critical than ever before. The risk of litigation is placing greater pressure on all industries to establish sound personal and company ethics. Establishing strong guidelines around confidentiality in the workplace should be more around the culture you want to cultivate as opposed to fearing litigation!

So what is meant by confidentiality?  “Privileged communication shared with only a few people for furthering certain purposes….. Receiver of confidential information is generally prohibited from using it to take advantage of the giver.” Integrity is the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles.

This implies then that confidentiality in the workplace is about establishing and maintaining professional and respectful conduct in the workplace. It demonstrates ethical leadership, active management and monitoring and ensures that sound processes are in place. In addition, it ensures that all reporting is done in a professional manner.

How a company uses information shows whether they are ethical or not. It is all about engendering trust between management and its employees. So each of us needs to think carefully: is our use of information strengthening relationships and our company’s reputation or not?

Let us become more practical now.

There are three types of information when we talk about confidentiality in the workplace: employee, management and business information. There is an overlap between employee and management information.

Employee Information

All levels of management and the HR department need to be extremely cautious of sharing any of the following information of any employee:  Age, gender, disability status, ID number, home address and telephone, salary history, benefits, medical claims, diagnosis, or injury reports, performance issues, pay deductions, termination reasons, etc.

One of the issues that always creates extreme unhappiness is employee salaries. Somehow this information leaks out. It leads to morale problems as someone always feel they earn less than they should or in comparison to their peers.

We need to be very aware of the possibility of others seeing confidential information by chance. I once worked for a Sales Executive who said he had learnt to read upside down.  He always scanned any documentation that was lying on a client’s desk during meetings to see what information he could glean!

In this regard make sure that your computer screen is positioned that only you can read it. This can be quite a challenge in open plan offices. However, if you happen to work with confidential information you have the right to request a more private space.

We also need to be very mindful of what conversations can be overheard. How often do managers chat during a smoke or lunch break and risk being heard by employees? Open plan offices are not conducive to confidentiality in the workplace.

I have on more than one occasion erroneously received an email or sms that was meant for someone else.  So take care to make sure that you have chosen the correct addressee where people have the same name. Not everyone will treat this information as confidential. In fact some personalities will purposefully share this information indiscriminately.

It is important for us to remember that email is far from confidential. If you need to share confidential information make sure that the person involved has given their approval. If we fail to do this we are breaking the rules around confidentiality in the workplace.

Shared printers or copy machines can also place us at risk.  Therefore, stay at the machine if you are printing or copying something confidential. Make sure that you have taken the original documents and left nothing behind. If the printer or copier has jammed remove the papers and shred them.

Management Information

Management information includes: performance management records, development plans, disciplinary hearings, salaries, any one on one discussions etc. This information needs to be stored in a confidential place that only the manager has access to. Think of the impact on the relevant employee before sharing any of this information.

Business Information

Business information refers to information on the products and services offered by the company. It includes: business processes and methods, strategic and business plans, financial data, budgets and forecasts, computer programs, client databases, ingredient or formulas and recipes, membership or employee lists, supplier lists, etc.

It is essential to ensure that you have trusted employees working with each of these. When an employee resigns make sure they no longer have access to any company information.

Finally, how confidentiality in the workplace is handled often determines whether we would like to remain with a company or not. Career coaching would benefit you if you feel you have been affected and need to decide on the future of your career.

Posted in Management, Values.