Keep It Confidential

By Cathleen Sullivan

As a professional, you understand the importance of securing anything marked "confidential." You're careful to remove sensitive documents from the copier or from the conference room after important meetings. You don't leave private information lying around on your desk where unauthorised people might read it, and you always lock it up at the end of the business day. Unfortunately, sensitive information isn't automatically stamped with a notice or a warning of its special status, nor is one printed on a sensitive piece of paper. Sometimes, it's up to you to decide where to draw the line about sharing or protecting information.

Confidential information includes material such as employee records, medical histories, business plans and proposals, client records, expense and financial reports and price lists. Many of these items are clearly marked as proprietary or confidential, which makes it easy to remember to secure them. But confidentiality extends beyond the printed page. In the course of your day, you have access to a great deal of key business information: knowledge of new business leads, pending deals, business meetings or relationships or discussions of company strategies. The way you handle these or any kind of sensitive information can have an enormous impact on your business.

Begin with the assumption that any information you acquire in the course of your job is confidential. Don't share or discuss it unless you are specifically asked to do so.

An Executive Assistant escorts a visiting software salesman into the conference room, making small talk to make him feel comfortable. "I bet you're seeing a lot of us software guys this week," the salesman comments. Without thinking, the assistant agrees and goes on to name the suppliers who have already met with the company.

This kind of information is confidential. Sharing it may give the salesman an unfair advantage or even damage your firm's chances to do business. Be careful when discussing business in public. You have no way of knowing who is listening or how much they understand about what you're saying.

Be just as cautious about discussing business with family and friends, or even with other employees who have no reason to know the information. You never know where the information will end up.

Suppose a friend's son lands a job with a company. Upon hearing this exciting news, you make a connection and mention to your friend that your boss recently met with the CEO of that company. This information doesn't mean much to your friend, so he thinks nothing of it when he repeats it to his son that weekend. However, this son happens to know that your boss works on mergers and acquisitions-and now he can guess something about his own firm that should be confidential.

Apply the same guidelines about confidentiality to any information or news that is shared with you about other companies. If you repeat this kind of information to someone who does not need to know it, you are violating the confidentiality of other firms, including competitors, suppliers, vendors, and previous employers. If we expect them to respect our information, we must hold the same respect for theirs.

Improper exchange or disclosure of confidential information might cost us business, impair our competitive edge, or even expose us to legal liabilities or to the loss of intellectual property rights. Never ask for information to which you are not entitled or disclose information that should remain private.

Cathleen Sullivan is president and Ethics Coach for RedHawk, a US consulting firm specialising in helping organisations build ethical cultures.

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