Privacy In The Workplace

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctor about confidentiality: When I asked how she knew she told me that she had stayed late last night and that the boss was complaining about my absence and told her why I was away.

I recently went to my boss with a personal issue that meant I would need to have a few days off work. I asked to speak to her in private and made it clear that it was a private matter and I had not discussed this with anyone else. A few days later another staff member approached me to let me know that she knew my situation and that she ‘was there for me’. This staff member was not someone I was particularly close to so was a bit taken aback.

When I asked how she knew she told me that she had stayed late last night and that the boss was complaining about my absence and told her why I was away. This was something extremely personal that I had difficulty even expressing to my boss. I feel completely disgusted and embarrassed. It’s not the first time she has gossiped, but this was something told in confidence in a private meeting. What do I do about this?

Signed, Disgusted With My Boss

Dear Disgusted With My Boss:

You learn from a broken confidence not to trust. Therefore you don’t disclose personal information to anyone. Right? Wrong. Once burned while cooking, you never cook again. Right? Wrong; but when burned we learn what and to whom we disclose personal and workplace information. In your case, you now are challenged by your desire to reproach your boss. Wanting to tell her how disappointed you are that she disclosed what was said to her in confidence is complicated in that you don’t want to say how you learned she had gossiped about why you were absent.

Before the next time you need to be off from work for a personal reason, learn that you aren’t required to be specific about why. You haven’t indicated if your personal reason was medical. If it was, undoubtedly Human Resources has a policy about what is required to acquire permission for an absence. Probably you don’t want to disclose this particular matter further with anyone or to HR, but you can learn what is the policy for requesting an absence. We don’t give legal advice, but your Human Resources knows that sickness absence data kept and the process by which it is handled has to comply with the Data Protection Act 1998 .

This is to say if an absence record contains specific medical information relating to an employee this is deemed sensitive data and should satisfy the legal conditions for processing such data. Should you confront your boss about this matter? Probably not. Now or sometime later as a way of getting this off your chest, you might want to inform her you were disappointed in her failure to hold a confidence, such as during a time of performance evaluation or when discussing your career goals with her.

The fact is bosses should learn the importance of keeping a confidence. They should know that a habit of gossip and bossing don’t fit well together. Habits of gossip are hard and almost impossible to break. Unless her gossip has broken your company’s or legal policy, it probably is best to put it behind you and not to share your displeasure with her or any of your coworkers. Guard against holding a grudge against your boss.Should you allow this incident to play like a broken record in your head? Definitely not. Should you get over being embarrassed about disclosing personal matters? Yes. To be sure, we all want to be in good standing.

Once we have done or not done something that affects how we are viewed, it is normal to want to save face; however, we also should realize that we can survive almost any loss of how we are viewed. You too will survive this embarrassment. You have or will learn that.

Talk about talk is too rarely a topic on a work group’s agenda. If you have scanned other of my responses to such questions as yours, likely you will see I recommend a work group schedules a skull session to talk about how it talks to and about each other and workplace matters. That can be spelled out in do and don’t rules about what is needed to be said, when, where, by and to whom. This entails such topics as assignments, proprietary information, making complaints, and gossip. Communication rule making can inform a work group about how to function more effectively and avoid conflict. This unhappy embarrassment might motivate you to propose that your work group talk about talk so that it could improve its efficiency and effectiveness. And it would serve as an indirect way that it could become more sensitive to personal disclosure and keeping a confidence.

Do these suggestions help you think through what happened and how you will respond? Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS, and that entails developing policies and practices regarding what we talk about, when and to whom and how we respond.

William Gorden