Thursday, March 5, 2015

Shhhhh! Who’s Listening?

Or, knowing when to shut up!


Careerbuilder conducted an interesting survey recently. It seems that many of us are rather indiscriminate when having work-related conversations that should be kept confidential. Apparently, some of us are guilty of the "invisible person" syndrome. That’s where we disregard (whether intentionally or unintentionally) the presence of certain people when engaging in conversations about sensitive topics, as if they weren’t there. Not only is that rude to those people, it’s dangerous to our business.

The folks at Careerbuilder surveyed over 500 support staff employees (custodians, janitors, mailroom attendants, security guards, receptionists, facilities maintenance workers, housekeepers, administrative assistants or maintenance workers) and found that many of them have been privy to some pretty hot information – info no employee outside of management should be hearing in this way – and info I’m sure many of them never wanted to know!

What did they hear? Take a look:

Conversations around layoffs or firing someone: 35 percent
  • Conversations around someone’s compensation: 22 percent
  • Conversations around romantic relationships between co-workers: 20 percent
  • Conversations around setting up another co-worker to fail: 11 percent

Wow. And that’s just a few of the topics.

As the survey notes, sometimes it’s not what is heard, but what is found. I think protection of confidential information needs a little more thought for some of us. Here are just a few of the items:

  • A list of employee salaries
  • Layoff and compensation paperwork
  • Upcoming reorganization diagram
  • A predetermination request for a breast augmentation
  • A pregnancy test
  • A letter from the boss’s mistress
  • The boss’s ex-wife’s bank account statement
  • An employee’s tax return

Ten percent of the support staff workers found something lying around that could get another employee or the company in trouble. 11% say they have knowledge about an executive or co-worker that could be grounds for that individual’s dismissal.

In today’s highly competitive (and increasingly litigious) workplace, confidentiality is important for several reasons. Concerning employee information, many states have laws covering the confidentiality and disposal of "personal identifying information" (e.g., an employee’s Social Security number, date of birth, etc. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employee medical and disability information be kept confidential and limits access to those employees who have a "business need-to-know". The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) regulates healthcare providers’ and other covered entities’ use and disclosure of individually identifiable health information (known as Protected Health Information). The Immigration Form I-9s must also be protected from accidental disclosure. There are many laws, rules and regulations covering the inadvertent release of private information (data breaches) and the consequences of such breaches can be severe.

Confidential management information may include employee relations issues, disciplinary actions, impending layoffs/reductions-in-force, terminations, workplace investigations of employee misconduct, etc. While disclosure of this information isn’t necessarily "illegal," it is almost always sensitive and unintended disclosure can lead to loss of employee trust, confidence and loyalty. In turn, it will almost always lead to a loss of productivity – if for no other reason than the potential for rumors and gossip.

Finally, we have the importance of company proprietary information or trade secrets. This is information that’s not generally known to the public and wouldn’t normally be available to competitors. Leaving information related to manufacturing processes and methods, business plans, financial data, budgets, client/customer lists, employee lists and salaries, etc., lying around is like leaving the door to the kingdom open to your competitors.

So, is it time for your organization to review its policies and practices (especially practices) concerning how confidential information is handled?

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