Professionals are expected to maintain confidentiality in their work. Being able to confide in a professional is often the hallmark of many professions and in fact confidentiality is a protected right in various legal systems. This is one area that is addressed not only in the ethics code of PMI but also is highlighted in most employment arrangements for project management practitioners. Our stakeholders have come to expect this of us, however, there is another side to the story that we need to keep in mind.
One the one hand, when we are talking with colleagues, it is important for them to discuss issues freely with a high degree of confidence that we will not breach that confidentiality. However, often to be able to achieve effectiveness in navigating change in the organization, certain issues and themes need to be shared with various stakeholders. For example, if there is a problem with a customer service process, management needs to hear about it. If there is an employment issue with an individual being harassed, the appropriate parties need to be made aware to address it. There are many ways that the professional can address this and I wanted to share a couple for consideration.
When I am brought in as an external consultant into an organization to assist with a certain initiative I often start the engagement with a series of interviews as part of assessing the organization. I start the process by highlighting to everyone I speak with that I will hold the conversation in confidence, however, issues and problems will be aggregated and discussed with the leadership. I also explain that no specific details will be shared to allow for me to protect individuals from potential retaliation. This approach works well when there is a big group of individuals, however, if I am speaking to 5 or 10 people it becomes more challenging to take their comments and feedback and make them generic.
In instances where it is difficult to integrate comments and hide the source, I explain during the initial discussions that individuals may opt to share anything they want with me and I will only share it if they give me permission to do so. I try to offer the team members a safe space to confide and get issues off their chest but at the same time try to work with them to identify issues that can be shared with others. To be clear however issues that involve breaking the law or breaching ethics are ones that need to be addressed very differently.
Ultimately however the only way we can be effective is when our stakeholders are able to trust us enough to share information that they are not comfortable sharing with others. That’s why it is important to respect confidentiality and balance it with appropriate disclosure of issues.