Ethical Issues – Confidentiality

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Eth Lloyd’s real-life example explains confidentiality, discretion and judgement

One portion of the Business Administration qualifications in New Zealand focuses on demonstrating knowledge of management administrative services. An aspect of this asks for a discussion of the legal and ethical issues for the administrative professional in relation to confidentiality, discretion and judgement. What does this mean and how do we explain it?

First we need to ensure we know the meaning of these three words, then we need to consider the differences between them, and finally how we apply this knowledge.

Meaning

The Concise Oxford English Dictionary provides various meanings for these words and those that might apply specifically in the administrative environment are:

  • Confidentiality: spoken, written, in confidence; entrusted with secrets.
  • Discretion: liberty of deciding as one thinks fit, absolutely or within limits. Adjective – discernment, prudence, judgement.
  • Judgement: critical faculty, discernment, good sense (as in “In my judgement …”).

When you consider that the original meaning of the word “secretary” was “keeper of secrets”, and that the secretary in a country was second in importance only to the king or leader of a country, the importance of “keeping secrets” is made clear. These three words – confidentiality, discretion and judgement – therefore are an expected and vital skill for the administrative professional.

Differences

Administrative professionals are expected to have confidentiality as a core skill; you might say it “goes with the territory”. There is an inherent expectation in the role that we know how to keep things confidential and what to keep confidential. Most of us learn this through the normal process of gaining knowledge through experience “on the job”.

Confidentiality is simple – keep information to yourself. If in doubt, don’t pass anything on until you have checked whether it is OK to do so. We all need to recognise that the loss of an employers’ trust in our ability to keep things confidential may well cost our job. It is an essential tool.

Judgement and discretion are actually higher-level skills, which take a bit more time to learn. These two words within the dictionary definition have strong crossovers and could be seen as one and the same. Within the administrative professional environment, I provide a subtle but important difference – discretion is knowing when or where you may provide privileged information, and judgement is how much you can or should provide.

Application

To demonstrate I use an example from my own experience. My former manager’s wife had a very sudden serious health issue which meant he left the office without warning. I needed immediately to cancel and reschedule two weeks of his appointments.

Confidentiality meant that most of those cancellations were made with a simple explanation of, “He has had an unexpected change of plans and will be unavailable until… Can we reschedule then or can I make you an appointment with someone else?”

Using discretion meant that when rescheduling those appointments with staff I could, when appropriate, add in, “There has been a serious family issue, can we reschedule in…”

But I used specific judgement to ensure his Chief Executive, direct reports and two external people were told as much of the situation as I judged appropriate. The type of relationship they had professionally and personally meant I knew they deserved, and in fact required, further detail. They would have been upset had they not been informed and keep up to date with the situation. As soon as I had the opportunity I raised my decisions with my manager and he confirmed my judgement was accurate.

It is vital you work to develop the skills of discretion and judgement to add to your already held skills in confidentiality. You learn on the job and requirements vary from manager to manager. You learn by checking with your manager before passing out information and also trying and confirming your decision with your manager.

This approach will help you to develop your understanding of how he/she works or wants things done. It will help you to build your skill level as quickly as possible and help to build trust from your manager, which is vital to your working relationship.

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About Author

Eth Lloyd

Eth Lloyd, MNZM, worked for 30 years as a Personal Assistant. Her passion for administrative professionals and their value in the workplace is shown by her commitment to encouraging them to value themselves and their roles. In 2018 Eth was awarded the New Zealand Queen’s Birthday honour MNZM for her services to administrative professional development. Eth is the Chairman of the World Administrators Summit Advisory Council and author of The Executive Secretary Guide to Conference and Event Management, available now on Amazon.

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