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When an Employee Gives You Info in Confidence

When an Employee Gives You Info in Confidence

August 07, 2009

A reader writes:

An employee tells you they observed another employee talking on a cell phone while supervising children (which is against company policy). How can you effectively address the situation when an employee asks you to to keep it confidential that it came from them, yet no one else saw it happen? It’s not likely that it would happen in front of a supervisor, and waiting for it to happen again puts the children at risk. What’s the best approach to address this with the employee who was on the telephone?

You have a couple of options when an employee tells you something in confidence in a situation like this.

In general, I believe that your bias should be toward respecting requests for confidentiality if at all possible. Otherwise, your employees will be less likely to come to you with information that you want to hear about, and that’s not good. You want your employees to feel confident that they can speak to you without having their name attached to it, because otherwise you’ll never hear about some pretty important things.

Almost always, there’s a way to act on information without attaching the person’s name to it.

But not every time.

Here are your options in this situation:

First, I would start by explaining to the employee that what she observed is serious and puts children at risk. Ask her to reconsider and to allow you to relay what she told you. Sometimes, just pointing this out to people will get them to agree to it. (And people appreciate being asked, rather than having you plunge ahead without their permission.)

If the employee doesn’t agree, however, then your options are:

  • Try to witness the behavior yourself by coming by when you’re not expected and so forth. If you can spot it yourself, you can address it without violating the other employee’s confidence. I’ve had employees tip me off to a problem before, and once I know, I can easily look around and find evidence of it myself. This can be a good option in some situations.

  • Address the issue on a more widescale basis, such as reminding all the employees that talking on a cell phone while supervising children is unsafe and a fireable offense. Hope the perpetrator gets the message.

  • Tell the employee that you’re sorry but the situation is so important that you need to be able to use the information. Say you’ll keep her name out of it, but since she’s the only one who observed it, you can’t guarantee the other employee won’t draw conclusions. (I’d also point out that the cell-using employee has probably done this before, and so for all she knows, there have been multiple witnesses to it.) You can also tell her that if the other employee gives her any crap about it, you’ll intervene and make it known that that’s unacceptable.

  • I would only use this option if you consider the situation so dire that you have no other choice, because you may pay a price in how open employees are with you in the future. In other words, this option is only for really serious stuff.

    Anyone have a fourth option?

    Poll: How do you feel about crying at work?

    Poll: How do you feel about crying at work?