As assistants we are dealing with confidential information on a regular basis, we see our boss’ emails, we open their post, and we often hear private details about other members of staff. A few weeks ago I wrote a blog on how to work effectively in an open plan office, and I did touch on this subject but considering we often get asked in interviews how we maintain confidentiality I felt it was well worth revisiting this crucial skill.  Let’s think about the different types of confidential matters that we have to deal with on a regular basis

  1. Classified electronic documents (anything that is visible on your computer screen)
  2. Confidential paperwork (anything that is on your desk)
  3. Confidential information either overheard or trusted with

In this blog I am going to look at the first two in more detail, I think the third area deserves its own blog as this confidential information can be so difficult to keep secret when you have close working relationships with your colleagues.

I feel safe to assume that most of my readers will have access to their manager’s emails and calendars, I also am guessing that like myself you check the emails every day and have pretty much free rein to read the messages and reply on behalf of your manager as and when you can. In addition to this, you also see all of the attachments that have been sent to your manager and all of the documents they are working on as well. How do you ensure that when you in the office you don’t let anyone see what you are doing? I would suggest the following.

Dealing with confidential information

Confidential electronic documents

  • If you do work in an open plan office try to have your desk in a position so that people can not walk up behind you or look over your shoulder. If this is a problem speak to your manager and see if you can move desks. If you mention, that staff can look at your screen and therefore information that is private I would think your manager would undoubtedly listen to your request. If this is impossible to ask that you have a privacy screen over your monitor, this device limits the view of the screen from certain angles.
  • Always lock your computer when you are away from your desk, always always! You are not being rude or distrusting of your peers (this has been suggested to me before), you are doing your job! Lock your computer even if you are only going to the photocopier, it is better to be safe than sorry.  On occasions, I have also locked my screen when a colleague comes over to talk to me. There have been plenty of times they stand by my desk asking me for something and then get distracted by what is on my computer, confidential or not I will lock my screen just in case. To get in the habit of doing this, you can change your settings so that after a certain period your computer will automatically enable a password-protected screensaver.
  • When reading a confidential email I never open it to the full size of my screen, I will most likely scan the email in the reading pane or open it into a minimised window. This means that if I need to close the email quickly, I can either click on another email or if it is a new window click onto the screen behind to make the window disappear.
  • If you have been asked to email a confidential message to another member of staff ensure you do everything you can to make them aware the details are sensitive. The following steps should make this clear: a) Mark the email as ‘confidential’, you can do this in the email options tab. b) Encrypt any attached files. Depending on the sensitivity of the document I will often phone the individual and give the password to them personally. c) Move the emails from your sent file to a secure location.
  • Every week or two have a sort through your online files (email and shared drive). Make sure you haven’t accidentally left anything visible to the prying eye! Also, it is good practice to delete your temporary files on a regular basis. Anything you open will automatically save there, so if someone does have access to your computer they might be able to open sensitive information.

Confidential Paperwork  

  • Firstly, ask yourself ‘does this need to be printed?’ In a lot of cases, it is easier to deal with classified work if it is kept in an electronic format rather than as a piece of paper on your desk that can be picked up and moved around.
  •  Sometimes you will have to make a hard copy of the information and in these circumstances make sure the paperwork is not left on your desk unless you are there. Like your computer screen lock the documents away even if you move from your desk for a few moments.
  • If you do not have your printer, then again, I suggest you speak to your manager about this. You should have a confidential printer that only you have access to. If your office doesn’t allow this, you can still print classified material to a shared printer by selecting the ‘secured printing’ method on your printer settings. This delays the printing until you physically go to the printer and enter a password.
  • When you are finished with the documents, shred everything or put it into a confidential paperwork bin. It isn’t worth holding on to the material just in case you need to use it again.
  • I do not label my paperwork with a confidential stamp, watermark or cover note. I think if people see this word it tends to make them want to look even more… it is human nature, so I don’t encourage their curiosity.

My final point would be to remain vigilant when it comes to dealing with confidential information. I’ve had a few instances in my career where I’ve been absent-minded, and colleagues have seen things on my desk that they shouldn’t see, luckily the information wasn’t particularly sensitive, but it made me realise people like to gossip and know things that their colleagues do not. You might think it is their fault for looking, and you are not to blame if they go out of their way to snoop, but it will also look like you can’t handle sensitive information and you might not be trusted again and as we know if we can’t be trusted it makes our jobs incredibly hard to do.

Next week I will write in more detail about how to maintain confidentiality when your colleagues want all the gossip!

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Dealing with confidential information

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