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The importance of secret keeping

Keeping a secret, confidentiality, is a non-negotiable requirement for many positions in business today.

Confidentiality can refer to internal information that cannot be shared with co-workers within a business. Externally, the importance of not sharing trade secrets and other information from within a business with competitors, the press or anyone outside the company is crucial.

There are many reasons for the importance of confidentiality. Our world is highly competitive, and we live in an increasingly litigious society.  Failure to maintain confidentiality can result in the loss of a job for an employee who is a violator. It can also lead to loss of business and clients. Loss of employee trust, confidence and loyalty also leads to loss of productivity.

In the wrong hands, confidential information can be misused for illegal activity, fraud, discrimination and more. It can have disastrous results.

There are laws which protect and govern the confidentiality of employee data, including benefits, personal information and more. With the increase of identity theft and fraudulent activity, ensuring systems are secure that contain private information on employees is a serious responsibility for employers. A “need to know” policy within any organization is important. Also the monitoring and follow up on breaches of confidentiality by employees must be handled effectively and efficiently. The Americans With Disabilities Act and Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 regulate disclosure of disability, health status and protected health information of employees.  I-9’s, immigration forms, required for employment, must also be protected against disclosure.

In addition to employee information all companies have confidential business information. Proprietary information and trade secrets are the things not generally known to the public and unavailable to competitors. This could include manufacturing processes, operational processes and methods, business plans, financial data, plans for upcoming acquisitions, budgets, forecasts, customer lists, supplier lists, etc.

Management information that needs to be maintained in a confidential manner includes discussions with employees, employee relations issues, disciplinary actions including impending layoffs, reductions in force, workplace investigations, terminations, etc. All information sharing may not necessarily be deemed illegal but creates a counterproductive environment and cause issues with employees within the workplace.

Why do some people find it so hard to maintain confidentiality or keep a secret? The bigger the secret the harder it is to keep. Some research shows that keeping an emotionally charged secret can lead to physical ailments ranging from the common cold to chronic diseases. Keeping a secret tends to take up more brain space the more a person tries not to think about it. Sigmund Freud concluded in 1905: “No mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his fingertips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore.” Keeping a secret requires constant effort. In spite of Freud’s findings and opinions, more experience with people required to maintain confidentiality shows that it can be done. If you are one of those people who find being the center of attention when you reveal information that is supposed to be held in confidence you should not ever be employed in a position requiring confidentiality. That really narrows down the field of jobs that would be a good fit for you. Maintaining confidentiality requires mental multi-tasking. Psychologist Art Markman notes that there is temptation to divulging a secret in order to get a reaction about something you know that the other person doesn’t know anything about.

Cultivating the willpower to remain quiet will ensure you maintain confidentiality and keep your reputation as a trustworthy person. It may also prevent the loss of a friend in a personal relationship and could keep you from losing your job in the workplace. Following are some ideas to help.

1. Understand the seriousness of the subject to be kept confidential. Be aware of the consequences of violating the trust.

2. Ensure you know who is or can be privy to the information. Don’t assume anyone can be trusted unless specifically authorized to share.

3. Push the information out of your mind. Don’t think about it constantly.

4. Keep front of mind the value of remaining a person who can be trusted and keeps commitments.

Protecting confidential information is a journey during your employment. Your trustworthiness and reliability is a crucial asset to your employability. Not everyone possesses the quality. Understanding that this is a very important part of your job and one that if not managed can have drastic consequences should have top priority. It is of utmost importance and requires focus and commitment. You will be viewed as a valuable employee and can carve out a good future when you prove to your employer that they can have complete trust in you.

Just as an employee expects his or her information to be kept confidential the same expectations are prevalent in businesses the employee works in. Clients have similar expectations. Confidentiality is of paramount importance and information should be handled with care and caution. Think before talking, sharing with anyone in any format, in person, on the phone, by text or email, etc. Be aware of the discoverability of your communications. Ask about guidelines and restrictions. Know the policy governing sharing of information and the multiple consequences of breach of trust. Maintaining a professional attitude at work, understanding why confidentiality is so important and ensuring you adhere to all policies and rules is crucial for future continued employment and a reputation of trustworthiness. The Bible addresses keeping secrets in Matthew 6:18. “… and thy Father which sees in secret shall reward you openly.” The more you practice confidentiality the easier it becomes to maintain the trust placed in you going forward. You will feel good about yourself and receive self-gratification and fulfillment from being trusted by others.

Becky Vaughn-Furlow retired from Trustmark Bank as executive vice president and human resources director. She can be contacted by emailing bvaughnfurlow@gmail.com.