A major business challenge is the discipline of keeping secrets. That discipline is put to the test when a person joins an organization or business as an employee or volunteer and is given confidential information. Sadly, more and more people are proving that they are not very good at keeping secrets. Are you?
A natural question is: What is a secret anyway? The word secret can be defined as: something not widely known that is intentionally withheld from others. From a legal standpoint, a secret is information that can be advantageous to a company or an organization only to be shared until the right conditions are in place. Or it can be something that can harm a company’s competitiveness. A bit of shared information could also violate the privacy of an employee, whether the person is being hired or fired.
But where and when do we learn about secrets, and how do we keep them? Usually, when we are pre-school age, we begin to learn how other children or parents, can be harmed by the sharing of personal or private information. The error nearly always is unintentional, because young children have not yet learned about boundaries and trust.
Every child has a mentor of some kind, like a parent, and that person can be a positive or a negative influence. Mentors can teach the practice of keeping secrets and when it is important to break a secret when greater harm could be done. Mentors can also negatively teach people about using secrets to gain privilege and access or how to trade information for power or money.
Some mentors are highly moral, with strong principles of respect and for the importance of the good and the right. Some are immoral and, from an ethical standpoint, promote hedonism and personal gain. Some are amoral and do not care about ethics, they want to do whatever works in a given situation. So, ethical issues exist in the presence and use of secrets both in personal life and in business.
Confidentiality is the practice of keeping matters private—an extension of keeping secrets, protecting sensitive matters and maintaining personal and business boundaries. In my consulting work, I often have to sign confidentiality documents. I promise that I will not share competitive business data or organizational policies and practices. The ethics of secrecy and confidentiality are demonstrated in several ways in business and organizational practices:
Business secrets. Businesses and organizations have certain long-range plans, business developments, planned expansion or contraction of businesses or buying or selling businesses. Employees are expected to maintain secrecy and confidentiality so that the business or organization can maintain competitive strength and benefit the owners, shareholders or donors, as well as employees and volunteers.
Personnel secrets. Managers, supervisors and human resources professionals must maintain confidentiality surrounding employee privacy. While the employer can obtain records to verify legal, financial and work history information about a person, and while they can discuss matters with that person, they cannot share information with others. Employee evaluations also are confidential and cannot be shared in any way without employee consent. Yet it’s amazing how many managers start talking quietly but widely about a person’s history, doing damage to the person and to themselves.
Trade secrets. Confidentiality and secrecy surround the development of innovative products and processes. If they are successful, they can have a tremendous impact on the company or organization’s well-being and competitive edge. Sadly, employees sometimes are willing to sell the information to the highest bidder for personal gain, and for the competitive company to secure competitive advantage. Such practices are highly unethical—and it happens all the time.
Financial secrets. Finally, companies and organizations guard information about internal financial conditions—until it is time to share it. Financial information can be very sensitive—especially for shareholders and owners. So financial matters are confidential and secret until it is time for disclosure.
On that last point, there are times when secrets shouldn’t be kept and when information must be disclosed. And the information must be truthful and accurate. The conditions: when business activity has been criminal in nature, when executives, managers or other employees have “helped themselves” to company funds and when information has been shared or sold inappropriately.
In the end, there are strong ethical dimensions to secrecy in business, and clear moral boundaries. What does it take for you to keep a secret? Well, maybe you shouldn’t tell me… IBI