“Can I speak to you in confidence?” is a dangerous question for managers to answer. How will you react?
Is this a dagger which I see before me The handle toward my hand?
Macbeth, William Shakespeare
A longer post than normal follows a manager seeking an answer to this question.
How do you feel when your direct report (I’ll use the term direct from now on) asks to speak to you “in confidence”? It’s gratifying to feel that your employees trust you enough to ask you and confident that you will not let them down. It’s good that they feel you are approachable. We all wish for those feelings from our directs. But, it should flag a cause for concern. The normal and appropriate channels have failed your direct, so they have to ask for your cover.
Why is asking to speak “in confidence” such a dangerous question for managers?
It is a dangerous question because it’s asking you to create a loyalty that conflicts with your loyalty to the organization. The old cliché is: be friendly at work but don’t have friends. Friendship is a bond of loyalty. When your loyalty to your friend competes with your loyalty to the organization, problems will surely follow. Best case, you will disappoint your friend. If you favor your friend over the organization, you may be perceived as lacking judgement, biased, unethical, taking sides or worse.
Being invited to share a confidence is effectively the same. You are being asked to create a new loyalty. The sharing may only take a few moments but accepting the responsibility of a confidence is permanent.
Only the organization can entrust you with confidential information that you do not share with any other party. If a third party (client, supplier, employer etc.) shares information with you, they are sharing it with you in your role as a manager in your organization, and they cannot expect a privilege above your employer. Your first loyalty as an employee is to use that information as appropriate for your work – for your employer. By the same token, we respect the confidences that our employer places in us:
If you are part of a project team at work that is making a confidential purchasing decision, the organization has placed trust in you. When your team finalizes your recommendation, you are holding sensitive commercial information. If you have a friend in the office whose spouse works for the firm that you know will lose the contract, would you tell your friend? There is an obvious professional, ethical answer, but still you will feel a conflict of loyalties. And what will be the result of doing the right thing? How will your friend react after the deal is made public?
You can only have one first loyalty. It’s to your employer. If one of your staff wants to confide in you, they cannot expect you to put them above your employer. So the answer to “Can I speak to you in confidence?” is “No”.
How can you deliver a “No” that will have the best outcome for your employee and the organization? Let’s look at three types of sharing that you can listen for on a spectrum from criminal activity to gossip:
1- Compliance, criminal or other unacceptable activity
When your direct asks to talk to you “in confidence”, you cannot know what they will say. If your team member confesses a matter of ethics, integrity, unacceptable behavior, criminality, compliance breech or other serious transgression, what will happen if you commit confidentiality to them? You have set yourself up to break your word to your employee, because you cannot keep a secret from your organization. If you do, you will join them in their transgression or in hiding someone else’s.
In this kind of case, it’s clear, you must “tell”. First, you should guide your employee to follow the appropriate procedures immediately, offer your support to do so, engage the appropriate colleagues and recognize them for their disclosure. Of course, you should be supportive through the whole process. If they do not follow your guidance, you should start the appropriate procedures immediately, despite the consequences there may be for your direct. Either way, your behavior in this case will influence how other directs come to you in the future, so encourage your directs to act appropriately by being a firm, reliable and compassionate manager.
2- Issues that are material to the business or team functioning
Sometimes they will want to talk about concerns that can impact your business: their failures, business risks, other colleagues’ behavior, or very personal, even private issues that impinge on their work for you. Your job as their manager is to have demonstrated by your past behavior that they can trust you in the work context to talk about such things. So the question of confiding should not be necessary, though you may have to make it clear. They should already be confident that you will show appropriate judgment on whether and how you escalate such matters… that includes challenging them.
Your responses in these cases will mostly be coaching your direct to follow professional practice: listening, coaching, feedback, conflicting resolution, clear language, clarifying expectations etc., but not overlooking that sometimes they may require some other support. You may need to coach on prioritizing loyalties and responsibility, if their concern is about being identified as the source of information.
Sometimes asking to speaking to you in confidence flags gossip. Gossip is a common feature of organizational life, but that does not mean that you, as a manager, should support it, let it happen unchecked or participate in it. If you do not challenge and stop gossip in your team, it can be corrosive and destroy all trust and teamwork.
So what do you do when you are being invited to join a discussion about third parties who are not in the room? The good manager will guide their direct to professional behavior. Instead of gossiping to you, they can give feedback directly to the person they are talking about. You may have to remind them about how to give feedback well.
Or you can accept the feedback as the third party’s manager, for you to pass on the feedback later – in full knowledge that you will reference your direct’s original feedback, when you give it to the person who needs to hear it. Such indirect feedback is best coming from the person’s direct manager. So introduce your direct to the appropriate manager and, if necessary, facilitate that feedback giving.
So gossip should either be turned into feedback to be helpful to the organization or if more serious be escalated through appropriate discipline, grievance, whistle-blowing or other processes. If neither, then it’s gossip. It’s time to call it out for what it is. Don’t join in. Give them feedback that they see how it is unhelpful behavior and the impact it can have.
When your direct report talks to you, they can only talk to you in the context of your reporting relationship and your role. So the answer to “Can I speak to you in confidence?” should be “No” framed by compassionate listening and clear guidance.