What do you do when someone you work for asks you to keep their secret? Attorney David C. Miller, Esq., from the firm of Bryant Miller Olive is a board-certified in Labor and Employment Law by The Florida Bar.
Miller answered some tricky questions about keeping the secrets of others in the workplace.
Use good judgment
“We all want others to feel they can trust us,” said Miller and “One part of earning trust is keeping others’ confidences. This is as true at work as it is in life generally.” The thing is though, “if we’re going to be trustworthy, we have to have the good judgment to know when something should be kept secret and when it is harmful or wrong to do so.”
There are gradations to secrets you can or should keep. Miller said “It’s obvious that we should respect someone’s personal secrets most of the time. If your work friend confides that he’s worried about his child’s troubling behavior at home, most of the time it’s nobody else’s business and it likely would hurt your friend’s feelings if you gossiped about it.
“On the other hand, if a coworker tells you that she thinks she’s being sexually harassed – but asks you not to tell – you may be doing her and others a disservice by not properly reporting it.”
When is a secret a secret?
“As a general proposition, merely being told someone’s secret doesn’t by itself impose a duty of confidentiality. However, there are lots of situations where information is legally confidential,” Miller said. “A company’s legally defined trade secrets can’t be divulged. Some state laws make the names of victims of certain crimes confidential. Often the home addresses of public safety employees and others are confidential. Medical information is often protected from disclosure.”
In those cases, and others “information is confidential and disclosing it can be improper.” When in doubt: “Seek guidance from an appropriate person.”
More serious situations
“If someone confesses wrongdoing or says that he’s planning something wrong, you should usually disclose it if you can’t talk him into confessing or not going through with it,” Miller said. As with most things, there’s a spectrum.”
If you catch a coworking stealing a few pens from the storage cabinet, Miller said “you might just express disapproval and not say anything – the first time. But if you find the security guard asleep at her post, you probably need to report it.”
An absolute rule? “Never agree to keep a secret that could harm someone or put you in a position of being (or even seeming) dishonest.”
Use your reputation
“It’s easy to say you never have to keep a secret, but it can be very hard in practice,” Miller said, “You can feel tremendous pressure to keep secrets – not to be a “rat.” This is where your reputation for integrity and honesty and trustworthiness go hand in hand and protect you.”
If you’ve made it clear through your actions over time that you will do the right thing, people will treat you accordingly.
What happens if you change your mind?
If you accept a secret and then, after consideration, decide you shouldn’t have, Miller said you really “need to follow your best judgment. It won’t hurt your integrity not to keep wrongful information secret, even if you rashly promised to do so.” But don’t randomly start to spill the beans.
“If at all possible, you can try to tell the person first and explain why it’s wrong to keep the secret,” Miller advised. And you never know “You could be pleasantly surprised, and he will decide to disclose it himself. Even if he doesn’t, you will have done everything you could to do the right thing.”
What if it blows up in some way?
Are you legally culpable if you know a tiny bit of someone’s secret that turns out to be damaging in some way to the firm or an individual? Miller said it depends on the circumstances.
“What did you know? How much? When did you know it? How clear or unclear was your knowledge? Again, when in doubt, get guidance from someone you trust.” Miller said, “It’d tempting to declare ‘I’m always totally transparent,’ or ‘I never betray anyone’s secrets.’ But absolutes, as good as they may sound, don’t work in the real world.
“Be thoughtful. Be careful. Be honest. Be all that and, pretty soon, you’ll be the person everyone trusts.”