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What if you're told you've been betrayed?

Shhh: Keep it confidential at work

In a world of increasingly available information, says ETICON's Ann Humphries, confidentiality becomes even more valuable in the corporate setting than before.


Ann Humphries

(CNN) -- It's an age in which information moves more freely and widely and cheaply than ever before.

And yet ironically, as ETICON's Ann Humphries points out, there may be more reason these days for confidentiality in the workplace than in the past, too.

Consider the middle-management member of the staff who knows which members of her division are about to be laid off, and who will keep their jobs. In the kind of major layoff action seen so many times this year, this sort of information is need-to-know material for a certain group of workers. They may have to hang onto it for days, even weeks, before the employees affected -- some of them traumatically -- are told.

CNN: What's the way to handle such "corporate secrets?"

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graphic Have you ever had your confidence betrayed by a co-worker?

Yes. It was devastating.
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I've thought I was betrayed but couldn't be sure.
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Ann Humphries: The reason we're talking confidentiality now is that in a growing number of jobs today, you have to be known for confidentiality. There are employment issues, mergers and acquisitions, general relationships at work -- the sort of thing you're describing in a layoff scenario.

And increasingly we see this conflict between information availability and the need to maintain confidentiality.

I think the key way to understand for yourself what's important about keeping the confidences entrusted to you is to consider how you feel when you need to speak privately with someone -- but first have to go through a secretary who's trained to try to find out what subject you're going to bring to her boss.

I recall a situation once in which we needed to speak privately with a manager about a problem we were having with a contractor. The secretary who makes appointments for the manager was smart enough to sense we didn't want to talk about the nature of the complaint.

That helped us go in and discuss the issue openly, without fearing repercussions against us or the outfit we were complaining about.

And there's an important lesson there: If you're setting up a meeting on something difficult, be judicious and ask first -- before revealing the problem -- that the nature of the complaint not be revealed.

This gets us into some dilemmas, some difficult aspects of business. Managers at times of layoffs and other uncomfortable personnel issues, can feel lonely, isolated and even duplicitous because they can't always tell something to the people who'll be most impacted by it. But if you can't keep such confidences when the time comes, then you have to question whether you're right for the career path you're on.

Now, many issues of confidence are less dramatic and have less reach than these. They can involve simple personal information about people that shouldn't be passed around.

Remember that a betrayal sometimes is made as an honest mistake, not a deliberate slight. This is why you have to get to the source. You do have to stand up for yourself, but get the whole story first.

One of the women who goes to the same hair salon I go to was talking the other day about a former stylist there who left to start her own salon. This stylist, I learned broke her back, then her foot, then got Rocky Mountain spotted fever. I'm sitting there hearing all this told to me and thinking, "Boy, leaving here and starting her own salon really wasn't a very good move for Gladys."

But then I'm thinking about how my next thought is that something must be wrong with Gladys. I'm starting to judge. I'm hearing an innocent set of circumstances detailed, and I'm making judgments in spite of myself. This is human. But what it tells you is that you may not want your information out there -- because people will make judgments about you based on what they hear.

Some things to think about:

•   Parties at private houses: Do you want everyone from your company at your home? Do you know all of them that well?

•   What's silly gossip and what's important information? Think about it before you engage in it. Think again about it before you put it into e-mail.

•   Be aware that some people actually hoard information for power. That may not always be the most benevolent intent -- you need to think about people you work with, decide who may be doing this and whether you want to give them anything they can use.

•   There may also be some workers who might, at first glance, appear to be hoarding information for power but who are actually using it as a kind of weather report -- to gauge where the minds of the staff are, what the office dynamics mean, where the company's going, what it has to look out for. This may, in fact, not be a negative use of information.

What if you're betrayed, though? What if you trust someone with some information about you and you hear from someone else that it's been told?

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Don't assume that you've been as badly or completely betrayed as it might seem. Try not to react until you track down the source, find out what's really out there. Save your resources -- if it turns out that there's not a much or as damaging a betrayal as you first thought, you may retain some valuable colleagues simply by not retaliating or accusing them falsely.

Remember that a betrayal sometimes is made as an honest mistake, too, not a deliberate slight. This again is why you have to get to the source. You do have to stand up for yourself, but get the whole story first.

And then, of course, as the old saying goes, once you do know the truth, you'll at least know where you stand. You may have learned a valuable lesson about someone who can't be trusted.

When you're on the other side -- when someone comes to you and tells you that he or she has been betrayed, make sure you take the time to realize how painful this can be and offer support. "We'll try to make sure this doesn't happen again," and so on. Show that you care.

Finally, if someone is about to confide in you -- and it's not something you have to know, not a function of your job to hold this information -- remember that you can say no. "I'd just as soon not hear this if it's a secret, thanks." You're within your right to say that.

A completely open-door policy is something we'd probably all like, both in management and in our relations with co-workers. But who can afford it, practically speaking?

So the next time somebody asks if you can keep a secret, the real question might be do you want to?

Next week: How much to tell them at work -- when something is badly wrong at home.

South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges has named Ann Humphries, founder and president of ETICON Inc., one of seven South Carolina Women of Achievement. Humphries, who's based in Columbia, is a Certified Professional Consultant to Management. Her clients have included several Fortune 500 companies. She's been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Fortune and Money, and on CNN, CBS and Lifetime TV. You can contact her at www.eticon.com.


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