Considering Confidentiality in the Workplace

Can you keep a secret? For some people, keeping a secret is a nearly impossible while others can wear an impenetrable poker face with ease. Whichever kind of person you are, keeping company secrets is no game but serious business. You don’t have to work for the government in order to safeguard secret (or confidential) information. Virtually every employee in every company has control of some kind information that is not intended for the outside world.

You need to understand that information is power. The heart of a company’s financial success depends on its ability to keep its ideas, formulas, financial and other private information away from competitors. There are two types of information that must not venture outside the company: confidential information and proprietary information.

Confidential information includes facts, data, and knowledge about the company or employees that have not been disclosed to the public. This kind of information can be virtually anything about the company that outsiders do not know, from personnel information to how you produce your products. Some confidential information is easily identified as such while other kinds seem like the “normal company stuff” that doesn’t get a second thought. A good rule of thumb is to consider everything about your company to be confidential information unless it is known to the general public. Of course, you can always ask if you’re not sure. By taking the time and effort to ask about confidential information shows that you care about your job and company.

Another kind of information that must be kept confidential is called proprietary information or “trade secrets.” This is any information that gives your company a competitive edge in the marketplace or that would harm the company or any employee if it were disclosed inappropriately. Obvious examples might include the coveted Coca-Cola formula or KFC’s Original Recipe. But not-so-obvious examples include your manufacturing processes, strategic plans, costs, profit margins, customer or vendor information, and any other information that could damage your company in the wrong hands. The best way to judge whether or not something is a trade secret is to check your company’s website and other public sources to see if that information is available in the public sphere.

Both confidential information and proprietary information must be handled with the same high degree of confidence and sensitivity. As part of an ongoing working relationship, there needs to be a level of trust and confidence between you and your employer. This trust can be built or broken depending on how well you respect private information. When you accepted your job, you agreed to a bond of trust that supersedes your personal feelings or what happens in the course of your job. That trust even extends beyond your employment with your company.

Your company can’t monitor everything you say so it simply trusts you to keep its secrets wherever you are. This trust is not dependent on anything else. If you are mistreated, you keep that trust. If you feel underpaid or under-appreciated, you keep that trust. You must view company information the same way you view private information belonging to those you really care about. When a friend asks you to keep something secret, your ability to follow-through is a clear indicator of your dependability and friendship.

In the case of the employer/employee relationship, the stakes are higher than just keeping a surprise party a secret or a bit of personal gossip. Your inability to protect confidential information can cost you your job as well as the jobs of numerous other people. It’s serious business with very expensive consequences. Loss of even small (but critical) pieces of confidential or proprietary information can run a company out of business.

Your ability to keep secrets shines a bright light on your character. Can you be trusted? Are you dependable? Do you care? Are you weak or strong-willed? You need to understand that keeping confidentiality is a moral issue. The problem comes when we let our feelings water down our dependability and resolve to keep a secret. Anger or stress begs us to make exceptions. Self interest makes trust a mere priority issue. Or possibly, the circumstance itself urges us to make an exception. Whatever it may be, the feelings that urge you to break the trust your company has in you must be resisted.

You may not be guarding the vault containing the Coca-Cola secret recipe or The Colonel’s Original Recipe, but the confidential information you guard in the daily course of your job is just as important to your company and it should be important to you as well.