Many of us have had the experience of an employee or coworker entering our office and asking “Can I talk to you?” Often the next request is for an assurance of confidentiality. Though this seems like a simple and common interaction, what comes next has caused a dilemma for people at all levels of organizations. I have seen CEOs and front-line employees alike struggle to get out of this predicament. How you handle this situation will either enhance your credibility or damage it.
You can agree to give audience to your colleague and assure confidentiality. In doing so you not only show support to an employee facing a challenge, you validate your open-door policy. After all, open dialogue provides valuable information and directly affects the quality of decision making. Better decision making directly affects the quality of outcomes. Or so it would seem…
Complications occur when you receive information that you feel needs to be dealt with in a more open forum in order to solve a problem or avoid negative consequences. Keeping this information confidential may prove awkward if it involves others who trust you. For example, you find yourself in a situation where another colleague believes he is in an open honest conversation with you. Yet, you are holding back information that is important to this person. In essence you’ve allowed someone to place a burden on you that you feel honor-bound to carry and helpless to solve. If keeping what you’ve learned confidential creates sufficient risk, you may actually break your promise and share the information in order to alleviate the danger; a classic no-win situation.
On the other hand, you can tell the person you will not hear their concerns or will not promise confidentiality. Refusing to listen may keep you from being burdened by another’s problem. You are still likely, however, to be effected by the problem you’ve chosen not to hear. You’ve also failed to connect with a coworker when collaboration is a key to organizational success. You can assent to listen, but looking ahead, say that you can not assure confidentiality. In this case, your petitioner is unlikely to feel safe and will not know how to proceed.
In this situation, as with many others, what can become a violation of trust is caused by unclear purpose and the absence of simple ground rules.
Before you provide an answer, you need to increase your own understanding of this person’s request and intentions. Knowing the expectations will allow you to respond in a way that meets the needs of your associate. Adding a clear understanding of your own role and you responsibilities to the overall mission will allow you to act with confidence and integrity. You have the opportunity to provide assistance to a fellow employee and contribute to the success of the organization you serve.
You can fit your assistance to the expectations of your associate by asking two questions and establishing one basic ground rule.
1) Is he looking for a sounding board? or...
2) Is he expecting your help to solve a problem?
You can maintain a higher level of trust with your company and others by agreeing to a simple ground rule:
“If the information you are about to share puts our company or others at risk, I will not be able to assure confidentiality.”
Is he looking for a sounding board to let off steam or process his thoughts? If he needs a sounding board, you can provide a listening ear and possibly some feedback that helps him to deal with the problem he is facing. In this case, the concern may not require a specific solution, only to be more clearly understood or seen from a different perspective. If a significant problem remains, you may need to brainstorm solutions to help him feel prepared to confront the issue.
He may find the second question applies to his concern. Does he have an expectation that with your assistance the circumstances causing concern will be changed? If he says he is asking for help to solve a problem, you should inform him that others may need to be involved in order to get the outcome he is looking for. In this case help him to create a plan of action. Then identify who those others should be and include them in the problem-solving process.
Before any discussion occurs, make certain you have agreement on the ground rule. This assures your colleague that you not only have his best interest in mind, you also bear a responsibility to other stakeholders. In almost all cases this condition is understood and accepted. In the rare case when it is not, your associate can choose not to share information before you are put in a position to violate his trust or fail to live up to your stewardship in the organization.
Should this condition cause him to decide not to continue with the conversation, you may want to advise him to seek help from HR or even an EAP.
Finally, it is important to remember your own role. There should be no expectation that you serve as therapist, counselor or clergy. In this case, you are in a professional setting. You are not bound by regulations, license, or oath: all you have is your word. As I stated in the opening paragraph, your choice will enhance your credibility or damage it. If you establish clarity of purpose and consider the needs of all of your stakeholders, you will be able to bring value to a colleague seeking assistance as well as the organization you serve.