Respecting Confidentiality In Workplace – ‘He That Keepth His Mouth’

For most organizations, confidentiality is a core aspect of its success and plays a key role in how much its customers value the protection of private information given in the course of the business transaction or relationship.

The National Genome Research Institute defines confidentiality as “the process of protecting an individual’s privacy. It pertains to treatment of information that an individual has disclosed in a relationship of trust, with the expectation that this information will not be divulged to others without permission.”

Payroll records, performance records, dates of birth, salary, medical records, bank accounts information, audit reports, school exams and scores, employment records, are all examples of information that are confidential which every employer should take steps to ensure are protected and safeguarded. Sadly In our country Liberia today, confidentiality isn’t always respected or adhered to, even when crucially necessary.

For example, most (not all) clinics and health care centers that I have visited in Monrovia, have tasked the security guards with the responsibility of logging the lab reports of patients. These are people who aren’t even in the employ of the institution and do not have direct link to the care of the patient, and yet, that security guard with just a glance at the lab results can tell what ailments the patient has, age, tests to be performed, etc. Or take the banks that have security guards “assisting” customers with photocopying of their banking transactions (thereby knowing how much money being deposited or withdrawn).

Our population is so small (3.5 million) compared to other countries, that we have a saying “everybody knows everybody”. Given this adage, if the confidentiality of customers or patients isn’t safeguarded, one can easily assume that one’s personal information could very easily and quickly become public knowledge. Once again, this attitude cuts across all divides of our society. In developed countries, organizations are sued for breach of confidentiality and people are actually held accountable for divulging privileged information.

A few years back I was charged with the responsibility of spearheading an awards  recognition  program for employees and our HR team had been instilled with the importance and need for confidentiality when it came to telling others who would be a recipient of an award, the kind of award and the monetary value for each award. A close friend of mine had been nominated for an award and I was quite happy and looking forward to seeing the look on her face when she would be called up during the program for the award. For several weeks she and I interacted and I never give her a clue as to who was on the list, much less that she would be a recipient. With only two days to the awards program I was elated that so far, there hadn’t been a “leak” and so one can only imagine my dismay when I got a phone call from my friend who asked “Why didn’t you tell me I was receiving a $200 award?” I responded “Because it was meant to be confidential and a surprise”.  She retorted “Well, apparently only you and the HR team respect confidentiality because the other sections involved in the planning have the news all around regarding who gets what”. I was incensed.

Many organizations have staff sign a confidentiality statement but I continue to ask how effective is management in enforcing breach of confidentiality? How committed are the top management in ensuring people do not misuse information they have been entrusted with? Awhile back, there was talk of encouraging whistle blowing in situations of corruption and misuse of public funds and I wondered how effectively the whistle blower’s identity will be protected. Because in as much as we all may want people to be bold and “blow the whistle” on corruption, misuse of public funds or ethical issues, I believe we are merely saying it to say we have said it. Especially taking into consideration that in actuality, nothing is really “confidential” in our country. Remember, “everybody knows everybody”.

Interestingly, things that should be public knowledge are actually closely guarded and kept highly confidential.  Ironic, isn’t it?

Management along with HR must develop policies that ensure confidentiality, and these policies must be communicated to all employees. Employees also need to be informed regarding punitive actions that will be taken against them for breach of confidentiality and made aware of the consequences of their actions. It is also advisable to limit the number of people who have access to crucial information and share information only on a “need-to-know” basis. Another measure to consider would be to design appropriate methods of disposing of sensitive information. These measures aimed at ensuring confidentiality must be “owned” by employees at all levels, from the cleaner to the CEO. Otherwise it would be a waste of energy and resources to enforce adherence at lower and mid-level employees when you have senior management who have no qualms at all in discussing sensitive information inappropriately and who may not even see the wrong in doing that.

As individual professionals at our various places of employment, we need to start embracing confidentiality and enforcing it in whatever way we can. Discourage open banter on matters that your organization or professional ethics tells you are confidential, even if it means not hearing that hot “geeze” or gossip as we call it in Liberia.

The process of rebuilding Liberia starts with us individually and we need to take a reflective look within and remind ourselves of the words of one of the “wisest” men who ever lived, King Solomon, who said “ He that keepth his mouth, keepth his life”.

Originally Published on FrontPageAfrica on September 18, 2012

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