02/19/2014 09:46 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Can You Keep a Secret?


The icy tundra of Central Park * Photo by Bruce Weinstein

I was once in a hospital elevator and overheard two doctors talking about a patient. They mentioned the patient's full name as well as the fact that he'd just had a quadruple cardiac bypass. I knew the person they were talking about but didn't know that he'd had surgery. I didn't even know he had a health problem.

So I wondered, "Should I send the fellow a get-well card? What if he asks me how I knew that he was convalescing?" I couldn't very well tell him, "I heard your doctors were talking about you in an elevator at the hospital."

I'm not suggesting that the physicians were bad people. But at that moment they weren't acting with great ethical intelligence, because they were taking information that had been entrusted to them and treating it in a cavalier fashion.

The Praise Sandwich
What's the best way to respond when you observe violations of confidentiality in public? Suppose you're at a restaurant and overhear two colleagues, Bob and Ray, talking about a client. They reveal the client's full name and disclose confidential information about him or her. You might want to try a technique of giving criticism called the praise sandwich.

1. Begin with something sincere and pleasing. You could start by saying, "Hey, Bob and Ray! It's always good to see you." This will make it more likely that they will take to heart the next thing you're going to say.

2. Focus on what you observed. For example, you could say, "You know, I couldn't help but overhear you talking about a client, and if I could hear it, maybe other people in the restaurant could, too."

3. Expect the best from them. You might say something like this: "I'm sure you weren't aware of what you were doing, because I know both of you, and you're good guys."

How you give unpleasant news usually determines how it will be taken. The praise sandwich is respectful and all but guarantees your concerns will be taken seriously.

In the unlikely event that Bob or Ray, or both, tell you to get lost or promise to be careful but do the same thing again, you not only have a right to notify their supervisor but you have an ethical obligation to do so. But the ethically intelligent thing to do first is to muster the courage to have an open and honest talk with Bob and Ray and leave it at that.

Must You Report?
Note that this analysis assumes your organization does not require you to report confidentiality violations immediately. During a workshop I gave to members of the South Carolina National Guard, I presented this issue, and a guardsman said, "Sir, we have to tell our commanding officer what we witnessed. It's in our regulations, and we could be dismissed if we don't honor them." In such a case, the ethically intelligent course is different from the one described above, where there is no such policy in place.

In "Do You Want to Know a Secret?," the Beatles (George, to be specific) sang about revealing private information and made it sound downright romantic. Well, if the secret is, "I love you," who could argue with it? But if it's about something best kept within the confines of your organization, even George, Paul, John and Ringo would agree that such secrets are best kept, well, secret.

Thank you for reading my blog!