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CONFIDENTIALITY OR TRANSPARENCY?








During initial period of my career, my manager taught me an interesting lesson. He had a colleague by name John, who had to leave his company unexpectedly. Everyone wondered, but no one knew why. Before John left, he shared the actual reason why, and asked my manager to keep it a secret.

Though he was long gone, there were speculations about his sudden departure, where did John go, and why. Many also thought my manager would know the reason – However, he chose not to  reveal the reason to anyone, anytime, irrespective of how close someone was.

My manager shared this story with me during a similar situation. I asked him, why did you hide this from your colleagues, even if you revealed it, there’s no way John would know. He told me, “I didn’t hide it for John – I did it for me, as personal benchmark for my integrity – that I will do what I say, I say what i do, within ethical & corporate limits. Btw, that person name wasn’t John”, he had a smile on his face.  This taught me a unforgettable lessor about this value that we stand by, its relevance in corporate life and how this can help create solid reputation and trust among industry colleagues.

Below were the situations often put people at cross roads – Over years, I have come to learnt ethical way to deal. Below are few key scenarios.

Handling Confidential info from Top management: Being part of management community, you will get access to classified and confidential information, which is not for general consumption ever or not ready for consumption yet. The idea of sharing with managers is to make contingency plans to continue to run the business – And that the leadership trusts in management layer.

Now, there’s good possibility that you have someone pretty close to you on your team, whom you trust – and there’s a news that was shared to you by the management, which will be shared broadly widely the next day. Now, there’s a urge to reveal this to the subordinate or peer because I might look cool that you have access to info which is yet to happen, or would like to strike “transparency” chord with your trusted lieutenants.

Ideal response, I discovered, was not to share it despite all of above factors! – That’s mainly because, you were told not to share, its about integrity first, ethics next – when you share this with your subordinate saying, “I am sharing something that’s not supposed to be shared”, you have lost your posture and trust already. That person might not share a personal confidential matter with you in future. The second reason is, some of these half-baked organizational plans might be cancelled in last moment (and that’s exactly why they weren’t shared broadly yet), if that happens, you might run into credibility issues.

As you probably know, companies loose billions of $s due to breach of trust, that includes leaking confidential data by employees each year – So clearly, confidentiality not just an ethical & social virtue, but also a business & economic virtue.

Handling confidential information from peers or subordinates: Work place built with bricks of trust – depending upon extent of trust you have earned, people might share lots of information with you. It’s wise not to speak about it elsewhere, unless that person specifically asks you to do so. If there are things that you can’t be hiding, you can tell the person upfront, not to share confidential stuff, so that you don’t have to lie and make efforts to hide.

What if I must report/share the information?

Another story from my peer in a different company – His subordinate shared that he lied on his resume to get this job, now he was worried that someone might find out. That was an ethical question whether to report or not. Best option is to make him/her understand that this is a ethical issue, and needs to be vetted with respective departments so that we can control & minimize damage. In above case, employee could manage to save his job, with a modification in his role, since he brought that up by himself.

In this case, it was an informed disclosure to help the employee right his/her wrongs – When handled well, with help of some mentorship and HR, you can create positive influence in careers.

Summary: Don’t give into transparency trap & “I always get to know first” situation – Trust is a compounding value, every time you extend it, you get 200% back. Don’t share if you have promised not to. Let them know if you must share, before the fact. If you have leaked it somehow, be the first one to admit it, so that you can do damage control on credibility early on. At the same time, if you see an opportunity for the person to improve based on what you have heard, choose selective & informed disclosure to help, obviously on their consent.

Confidentiality is a habit, it stays with you if you practice it consistently.

Good luck!

Sree Gade

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