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‘Can we talk?’: How to handle requests for secrecy

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in Centerpiece,Leaders & Managers,People Management,Workplace Communication,Workplace Conflict

Say one of your employees stops by your office with a troubled look on her face. She has a complaint, but wants to speak with you “off the record.”

Can you comply with her request for confidentiality? Should you?

It all depends on the content and context of the complaint. In certain cases, managers should—or must, by law—move certain information up the chain to human resources or other organization officials.

Mishandled confidential information can lead to lawsuits, hurt the morale of employees, damage their reputations in the workplace and threaten their jobs.

Action tips

First, never promise confidentiality. When an employee wants to reveal something confidential, set the ground rules by saying: “I can try to handle this privately, but if you tell me something that I have a duty to share with the ­appropriate people, then I must do so.”

Harassment-related complaints must be acted upon and moved up the chain, regardless of an employee’s wishes.

However, there may be times when an employee wants to discuss a co-worker’s behavior, but does not want a full-blown investigation conducted. It is not necessarily unreasonable to honor the employee’s wishes—up to a point.

If the behavior in question does not rise to the level of illegal harassment and it is reasonable to honor an employee’s request for confidentiality, take these three steps to protect both the employee and the company.

1. Document the circumstances and the basis for your decision. Also, spell out that you advised the employee to disclose any future problems to you, another member of management or HR. Ask the employee to sign the documentation so you’ll have evidence that you didn’t simply brush aside the allegation, but were abiding by the employee’s request.

2. Have a chat with the accused. Without naming names or revealing specific complaints, discuss appropriate and inappropriate workplace behavior.

3. Follow up with the employee in a timely manner to see if the behavior in question has stopped. If it has not, you must go to HR, regardless of the employee’s confidentiality request.

Note: Use the wording in the case study below as a model for handling requests for confidential discussions.

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