Years ago, I was making a presentation to an audience of health care professionals. To illustrate a point, I included a case example of an older deceased woman who had experienced a variety of issues. I had changed the name and some of the relevant identifying information to protect the women’s privacy, but my changes weren’t thorough enough.
After my presentation, a young woman, who appeared upset, approached me. She loudly accused me of using her grandmother as my case example, and she was correct. As a health care professional, that was an important lesson for me, and I have exhibited much more caution using case examples ever since.
A colleague, a sex therapist, had a similar situation. A national speaker in great demand, she used a couple in a case presentation that was given across the country from where the couple lived. As usual, she used no identifying information, and she was shocked when several persons in the audience said, “We know that man. He used to live here.”
Situations like these aren’t limited to health care. There are many other examples including colleagues discussing business strategies, teachers discussing educational approaches, or financial experts discussing investment opportunities. While instructive, they can have negative consequences and can create issues with confidentiality.
It’s important to know the formal (and informal) confidentiality guidelines for your place of employment. If you work in a health care organization, confidentiality about patient data is mandated by law (HIPPA, for example). We are all aware of client-attorney privilege, and many companies, particularly those with “trade secrets,” require employees to sign confidentiality agreements that are legally binding. Breaches of these formal guidelines have serious consequences, and can remain in effect long after leaving the company.
Smaller lapses of confidentiality also can have negative outcomes. Engaging in gossip about your boss or colleagues frequently involves disclosing personal, if not confidential, information that you know about them. Discussing the performance evaluation of one of your employees with unrelated managers is inappropriate. Detailing the fiscal issues or problems your organization or agency is experiencing during a dinner with friends can create a public relations problem if the information gets into the hands of competitors or the press. Disclosing the intent of a pending grant proposal or request for community funding may result in unexpected competition from someone who uses your information to further their own group’s efforts. Talking about union negotiation tactics that only members of the negotiating team should have may give the union or the administration an advantage if that information gets back to them.
Then there is social media. Stories about employees railing against their bosses or their workplace are common. While you may not be fired for posting such outrage, if it is uncovered (and it probably will be), it is the kind of thing that may be considered in your next evaluation, and it may preclude you from being promoted or hired by another organization.
You may be tempted to post negative information once you find a new position. You believe your former employer deserves your commentary, and it feels cathartic to speak out about your grievances. This rarely has the intended effect, and it can be equally damaging for you to disclose confidential information about your old employer even after leaving a position.
Confidentiality and integrity go hand-in-hand, not just in your personal life, but in your professional life as well. Think twice before you knowingly disclose something of a confidential nature. There may not always be written guidelines, but you still know what the guidelines for integrity are.