I hate secrets. Well, not reeeeeally. I hate secrets that really, truly, honestly are secrets. Secrets that someone has specifically told you not to tell anyone else that you really want to. I especially hate them in the context of my professional life. Sure, I understand that lots of things in a person’s personal life would warrant being truly kept secret – but in business, it’s like secrets are just power tokens used to see how in the loop about what’s going on you really are. Its almost as if the more secrets you know, the more engaged you are in your work and the more actively engaged your network is. (Read: how popular you are)
There are ways to use secrets to your advantage the workplace and I believe they make a part of the reason, in all honesty, I’ve been very fortunate in my career and part of the problem I see with the younger women I have started to take on mentoring. So many people just don’t know what to do with information, and more importantly don’t know who to trust about them.
I learned this lesson a very long time ago when I heard something I was not supposed to hear about my boss at the time. I can’t even remember the specifics of what it was, but I told several other co-workers about it, only to have my boss walk into my office a few hours later, close the door and ask me about why I had said the things I did. She was patient in listening out my explanation (“Um… I don’t know”) and even more patient in taking the time to tell me that not only was the information wrong, but it was hurtful to her. She told me because I was young, I was lucky to be learning this lesson now and she was once in the same spot I was in. She forgave me and we moved on from that moment, but I will always remember the lesson.
The other day, I heard a terribly nasty rumour about someone at work from someone whom that person thought was a friend. Hurtful, mean things were being said out of jealousy and a desire to take that person’s job. It made me sad for the person saying the mean things, because they had probably never learned the lesson I had. And, they aren’t young enough to get away with it.
I recently had a case where I forgot part of this rule. When you work in an open office (and have a loud voice!) you would be surprised how much things you say can be overheard, shared and – worst of all – taken out of context. So I wrote down all the things I need to remember myself in hopes that they can help someone else, too, because somedays it seems like we’ve forgotten the basics you learn in preschool when it comes to secrets in the workplace. Here are the lessons I (most days) live by:
Professional Secrets Rule #1: Know Who You Can and Can Not Trust
I had told the story about my boss mentioned above to a bunch of random co-workers over lunch, many of whom I didn’t know very well. Let me tell you something now – people at work are, for the most part, not your friends. They are there to get ahead the same way you are and if taking you down a notch can help them get there a little faster, they may try and do it. This goes double if you’re an ambitious, smart woman (which I assume you are, since you’re reading this blog) I’m not saying everyone is like this, but sharing information with the wrong people puts you in a very sensitive position. Even if the people you tell it to don’t tell anyone else, they know that you are a gossip and will not tell you anything in confidence in the future. Worse still, if they do share where they heard it from, you will be forced to explain yourself and your actions.
Professional Secrets Rule #2: Know When to Shut Up
When it’s something about someone losing or potentially losing their job, difficulties in their home life or something along those lines – the best thing to do is to keep the information to yourself. If the person tells you in confidence, you should make sure they are not going to hurt themselves or someone else (then tell someone!) but otherwise, keep it to yourself. If you hear it from a third party, it’s best to try and extricate yourself from the conversation immediately. I don’t like the advice to tell the person to stop sharing – I’m not their mother. Also make note of the fact that you can never tell this person, or the person that told them, anything you don’t want to be made public.
Professional Secrets Rule #3: Don’t Lie if you get Caught
If you don’t abide by all the rules and do get called out, don’t lie about it. Confess, apologize and try and move on. Lying will only make it worse. I have seen the situation occur where something bad happens and people’s jobs are at stake. When HR calls people into a room to discuss, it’s the people who tell the truth and make acknowledgement of their wrongdoing who seem to always keep their jobs. There is a lot to be said about admitting fault, accepting blame and moving forward. If I had lied to my boss all those years ago and said I had not said anything, she’d have known I did and it would have severely damaged our working relationship.
Professional Secrets Rule #4: It’s OK to Use What You Know
So you heard your Department has a big job opening coming up. It is perfectly OK to use that information to your own advantage – polish up your resume, reach out to the hiring manager and casually mention that you’re interested in any jobs that may open up in the future and don’t feel bad about it. Just don’t tell everyone about it – you could inadvertently ruin someone’s big departure announcement if it’s happy (retirement! baby! promotion!) or sad (firing… layoffs…) or tell a co-worker who is also secretly interested in the job. A word of warning though. Often, you’ll hear a part of a puzzle from one source that makes no sense in and of itself, but coupled with another piece you hear somewhere else it could all come together. If you put the puzzle together, you could have an inside track… Or still be completely off base. Another reason to not spread what would turn out to be false information around.
Professional Secrets Rule #5: Test it Out and Share When You Can
When I recently started needing to tell people I was pregnant at the office, I told people individually and very slowly. I did this for two reasons – one, I wasn’t ready to tell people and two, I wanted to see who down the chain would be the one to start telling everyone they knew. It helped me confirm who was trustworthy, who could keep a secret and who I should avoid. It also went a long way in reinforcing the relationships with them. Sharing information helped me be able to tell them I trusted them, respected them and valued their workplace friendships.
And I’m sure there are lots of other tips you have – I’d love to hear them.