- A disgruntled employee who’s just been fired tells you he’s going to sabotage the company computer system before he leaves.
- Your married supervisor is having an affair with a subordinate.
- The brakes on the truck weren’t fixed properly because the mechanic had a hangover.
- A worker’s marriage is breaking up and he’s often on the phone shouting threats at his wife on company time.
Office secrets like these are common in many workplaces. Colleagues confide in each other, explicitly requesting that their secrets be kept from other colleagues or the boss.
Having a confidante at work can be helpful when workers need a sounding board or a shoulder to lean on. Being someone’s confidante can enhance a worker’s sense of belonging or increase feelings of worth as a trusted colleague.
However, there is a down side to office secrets. Being asked to keep some secrets can be a burden.
Keeping confidences may tax the confidante when the information could harm the company, another worker, customer or client, or violates company policy.
Sometimes, being the office confidante can be draining or downright unsafe when the secret-holder tries to deal with issues like a depressed colleague but lacks skills or resources.
Knowing which office secrets to keep confidential and which ones to reveal can be difficult. Breaking a confidence can be viewed as a betrayal of the worst kind and could result in being ostracized.
On the other hand, keeping some secrets can do more harm than good. We have identified four kinds of secrets that are best revealed for everyone’s sake:
1. Secrets that Could Harm Other People
When a worker asks a colleague to sit on information that could harm fellow workers, clients, customers or colleagues, the details should be revealed to the appropriate person.
Secrets that involve faulty machinery, shoddy work that could cause an accident or threats of violence must be dealt with.
For example, co-workers who know of harmful or potentially harmful practices, such as drunk or incapacitated truck operators, pilots or military personnel, unsafe machinery or even an angry colleague threatening to shoot the payroll clerk must absolutely come forward.
Be clear with a colleague who requests a confidential relationship that you are unable to keep quiet about issues that could harm others. Invite the colleague to report the matter themselves or together with you. Tell your colleague you will be consulting the appropriate authorities about the secret but you would prefer that they do it first.
In the case of threats of violence, tell a supervisor immediately. Company policy will dictate the next steps, such as having the supervisor notify the police.
2. Secrets that Could Harm the Secret-Sharer.
If a colleague threatens to harm himself or expresses suicidal thoughts, the office confidante’s best approach is to help the individual get the professional assistance he or she needs immediately. For instance, you could offer to accompany the colleague to a hospital and a psychologist.
Either way, revealing information about a colleague’s suicidal utterances is important. Do not keep this to yourself. Talk to the appropriate people in the company – a supervisor, manager or human resources personnel.
You may wish to tell your colleague that you will talk to someone who can help because it is important to you that they stay safe.
People who talk about killing themselves, feeling utterly hopeless, give away treasured possessions, or reveal an attempted suicide are asking for help.
While rare in most workplaces, having to help a suicidal co-worker requires a team approach. Keeping a secret like this can be fatal.
3. Secrets that Could Harm the Company
When an unhappy colleague threatens to hurt the company – sabotaging computer systems, taking valued clients or fellow workers when they leave, threatening to harm the firm’s reputation or undermining product, action needs to be taken.
Threats to company welfare can hurt the financial security of other workers.
It is important to notify a manager when these acts are threatened, implied or carried out, since people’s livelihoods may depend on it. Where appropriate, appeal to an angry worker’s empathy for fellow staff. You can tell the angry worker of your concerns about their activities harming other people at work and your worries about your own livelihood if the company is compromised.
Supervisors are sometimes asked by staff to keep secrets, especially when co-workers are having difficulty working together. It is important that managers refrain from keeping these secrets. Managers can choose to sit down with both parties, ask the staff person who has confided the issue to discuss the matter with the person involved or in cases of professional or sexual harassment, consult company policy. Most companies do not tolerate harassment and have guidelines to deal with it.
4. Secrets that Could Harm the Confidante
Many people who have an office confidante role are empathic, kind, and excellent listeners. However, over time, office confidantes may feel burdened by their colleague’s problems. Some may find themselves worrying about their co-worker’s husband who’s struggling with cancer or a work mate’s effort to save her marriage.
These types of office secrets do not necessarily need to be revealed. However, if you are starting to feel burned out talking to colleagues, a frank talk with the source of the secrets may help. If you feel you can’t really help, suggest that your colleague seek professional consultation about the issue.
Setting limits around how long you’ll listen and when is important. For example, if you need a break, ask to discuss the matter later because you have a deadline or another commitment.
If you feel comfortable, tell the secret-sharer that you regret not being able to be of more assistance with the problem. Tell them that you sometimes feel at a loss when he unburdens himself to you and that it is becoming difficult listen.
While it’s not easy or comfortable, letting the cat out of the bag at work can be a good policy. In the long run, “outing” harmful secrets can help create a healthy environment, build company success and safety. In the short term, it may save lives.
Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.