Shhhhhhh! It's top secret!

Holding on to vital company data while workmates try to prise it out of you can be exhausting! But it's worth the effort, as the consequences can be dire. Consultant Cathy Dugmore from talent management consultancy Hunter Roberts offers some tips

By Cathy Dugmore

With the increase in mergers, acquisitions, take-overs and re-structurings, dealing with confidential information is more of an issue for secretaries than ever before. The role of the secretary has changed radically, and more of you are now closer to sensitive issues than in the past. Quite often, you'll be asked to pull information together for reports and projects, and you're privy to a huge amount of restricted data. Here are some thoughts on keeping what you've seen under wraps:

  • Be aware that confidential information can come from any source. It's no longer just financial information, such as company performance forecasts or people's salaries, which are sensitive. The Data Protection Act means that we have to take great care with personal information of all types. Make sure you're aware of your responsibilities in this area.

  • A top secretary or PA will be expected to have and develop a range of behaviours to deal with this complex area. Ask any business leader, and they will say that what they want from a PA in this regard is discretion, honesty and judgement. Those with careless tongues will never reach the upper echelons.

  • Judgement should be applied to even the most basic task, such as distributing information. Ask yourself, who should be on the list, and perhaps more importantly, who shouldn't be on the list. It means being very organisationally aware. Think too, about who gets to see documents before your intended recipient does. If you post a confidential report to another firm's CEO, who will see it before it gets to them? How can you minimise that risk? Think too about where information is printed out, and double-check e-mail addresses. In very large organisations, it's possible that two people have the same name - which is the one you want to communicate with?

  • Assume nothing! Just because someone is a senior member of staff, does not necessarily mean that are in the loop about the upcoming redundancies, or restructuring. Unless specifically told that the Finance Director or the Office Manager knows, don't mention it to them.

  • Don't forget that keeping information confidential includes friends and family outside the workplace, and not only colleagues within the organisation. What if your uncle works for a competitive firm in the same town? What if your friend's Dad owns your major parts supplier? Don't risk it - rumours spread like wildfire.

  • When your boss gives you some confidential information, establish right away who else knows about it. That way you can avoid making unprofessional gaffes.

  • Good friends and professional colleagues should not put pressure on you to divulge information but others may. Never give in! Aside from releasing unauthorised information, your integrity and reputation are at stake. Resist the power pressure of senior staff, too. Point them to your manager, and don't yield to their requests.

  • Be careful what you say. Denying an issue in the wrong way fuels speculation. Imagine that someone asks you whether a factory site is closing. You answer by saying, "I'm not allowed to talk about it." And hey presto! You have neatly confirmed that the site is closing!

  • If you're travelling on business pay special attention to keeping confidential information under cover. We've all heard commuters on their mobiles gaily revealing snippets of company data - often at the top of their voices! Beware. You never know who's sitting behind you! If you must discuss work on the train, don't use the company name or colleagues' names. And if you're working on a laptop, make sure it's nothing secret. Better to read a book, than to display the firm's P&L account to your neighbours. Equally, meetings in hotel lobbies are risky places to discuss private business issues.

  • Being aware of sensitive scenarios is part of holding a responsible, senior position. And it's an ongoing issue in today's workplace. It's not something you do on Thursday afternoons between 3pm and 4pm! You don't need to be paranoid, but it's an issue you should be aware of at all times.
Cathy Dugmore is a Consultant with Hunter Roberts, talent development and training specialists. Hunter Roberts recognises that people are critical to organisational performance, and works with companies to create the right conditions to improve performance. For more information, visit or call + 44 01442 879 242.

Share this page with your friends


Share this page with your friends.