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Source: courant.com

Posted on September 17, 2007

      There's no magic formula for determining whether a person will keep confidences, although gossipers are clearly suspect. This column will cover suggestions from three perspectives - legal, marketing and business consulting - about how to assess confidentiality.

      Philip Gordon, chair of the Privacy and Data Protection Practice Group at the Littler Mendelson P.C., law firm in Denver, advises clients on information management, from HIPPA to trade secrets. His position is clear-cut: "Personal information that is just not necessary to release is best left out of the workplace. A cancer diagnosis, chemotherapy treatment and their impact upon the employee have no value to the business and the business has an obligation to maintain the privacy of that information," he states.

      Sociologist Emerson Smith of Metromark Market Research Inc., headquartered in Columbia, S.C., comes to the topic of confidentiality by handling market and company data. "We don't want that information fed to the competition or the media," he says. "We discuss with management and employees some of the necessary reasons for confidentiality."

'Major Problem'

      Francie Dalton, president of Dalton Alliances Inc., in Columbia, Md., finds the issue of confidentiality "a major problem, external and internal." Smith considers breaches "fairly common, because employees have private information that's very valuable and releasing it, for some people, makes them seem very powerful." He refers to people who are underperformers and others, such as those with family or job problems, seeking approval. Dalton adds that some employees "blur the lines between their reporting relationship and friendship, while others inappropriately confide upward, trashing people when they think they're implying loyalty to their own manager." She also observes that confidentiality may be broken in HR, when a staff member must listen to an employee complaint but also protect the company from litigation.

      Dalton details some circumstances under which confidences are at risk, such as when a person:
"Needs an objective third party to bounce an idea off.
"Has a severe problem involving non-collaborative behavior and needs advice.
"Is not emotionally mature and needs a place to vent.
"And has a problem with a direct report."

What To Do

      Diligent, thorough background checks are becoming the norm for dealing with this issue, Gordon maintains. Smith says, "We've found that one of the best ways to assess confidentiality among co-workers is to listen to them talk about other people in the company and, among vendors, to talk about their other customers. Those who talk about fellow employees or, for vendors, about other employees in the company or about their other customers are very likely to be confidentiality risks to individuals and to the company. In general, vendors should never volunteer information about other customers or respond to questions about what other customers - who may or may not be competitors - are doing or planning on doing."

      "We don't like to entrap employees or vendors by asking them to reveal personal or competitive information about employees or customers," Smith adds. "We sometimes ask employees, 'What do you think about the employees here at XYZ Company?' We ask vendors, 'What do you feel is the direction the market is going?'"

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