I’ve written a few blogs recently on how to work with confidential documents particularity when your desk is in an open plan office. It is a subject that most assistants would have wrestled within their career and at times probably have found themselves in an awkward position so I thought it would be good to share my tips on avoiding gossip at work. Today I will look at the following issues we face – how do we keep the confidential information we have either overheard, read or been entrusted with a secret from our colleagues? Secondly, how do we have productive working relationships with our team when they know that we are privy to information that may concern them and lastly how do we maintain this trust when other members of staff are spreading office gossip?
Tips on avoiding gossip at work
The simple answer to all of these questions is that we do not say anything and keep our mouths firmly shut. However, this is sometimes easier said than done, especially for assistants that are new to this role. A few years ago I was working for a department that was going through a restructure and I was bombarded with questions from a member of staff that sat opposite me. It was continuous and sneaky, and I was quite taken aback at the number of times they would try to trick me into saying something I shouldn’t. This person also told the rest of my team that I knew what was going on and wasn’t telling anyone, therefore suggesting that I wasn’t a team player. As I said, for anyone new to the job it can be difficult to withstand the pressure that some colleagues will put you under.
As I’ve said before, being trustworthy and able to deal with sensitive information is key to our role so how do we maintain our manager’s confidence without alienating ourselves from the rest of the office?
It can be difficult not to get involved in gossip and general office banter, it is fun, and it makes the day go quickly. I think some gossip can be harmless and I wouldn’t for a moment suggest that you shy away from joining in. What I would suggest is that you identify harmless gossip, such as what happened in the pub after work or sharing in a joke about a member of the team. Once you have defined the general good-natured discussions, you can quickly see when the banter turns into gossip that you should well avoid. For example, this could be people discussing other members of staff that aren’t there to answer for themselves, or events that are taking place in the company that influence jobs and or pay. If you make a conscious choice not to get involved in these types of conversations, your colleagues will notice and probably avoid discussing it with you further. Another suggestion is not to start any of this type of gossip, no matter how harmless you think it might be. If you initiate anything, people will assume you are happy to part with other possibly more sensitive information at a later point.
Remember your role and use it to your advantage
Quite often assistants are referred to as the ‘eyes and ears’ of their manager. This means that the manager is too busy to know everything that is going on in the office, so they rely on their assistant to fill in the gaps, this could be anything from the general mood of the team to who is putting in extra hours and who is continually coming in late. When I first became a PA I struggled with this concept; I didn’t want to be seen as the person that ran back to the boss to tell tales on my colleagues. I had worked with people like that in the past and didn’t like the idea of not be trusted by the people around me. It then occurred to me that you don’t have to look at this part of the role as something negative, in fact, it can positively help you keep information confidential. Your colleagues know that you are privy to sensitive issues, but they also know that you see what goes on every day in the office and have the authority to relate this back to their boss if you choose to. If you can maintain the trust and respect of both your team and your manager, this balancing act will almost elevate you to a position where the pressure to divulge information is lifted.
Be honest to the point that you may have to spell it out to some of your colleagues, including those people who you consider to be friends. “I am an assistant… I can’t tell you.” I must admit I’ve lied in the past before and said I don’t know what is going on when of course I do, I also used to deflect a lot of questions and got very good at being as vague as possible. I found this took up so much time and energy that I now refuse to be anything but honest and I will say that I can’t discuss it. Honesty is the best and quickest policy!
Sometimes it is just not worth knowing
In some cases, assistants are exposed to confidential information because they have discussed it with their manager. However, most of the time we stumble across it, we may have been asked to print a report which contains everyone’s salary, we may have read an email that someone is about to be made redundant. Either way, it is information that we don’t need to know except that we have eyes and they have the annoying skill of automatically reading whatever is in front of them. It is human nature to be curious and look at sensitive documents, and we assistants are human, not robots – honestly! I have found over the years that sometimes it is best not to know the ins and outs of everything; it means when people ask I can honestly say that I don’t know because I really don’t know! How do I do this? Well, I try hard not to skim read emails when it becomes apparent they are confidential when I’m printing those sensitive reports I print them without reading the details. I think if you can become slightly detached from the information your colleagues would die to know, it makes it less important in your mind that they know. It is hard to stop yourself sometimes, but I think worthwhile attempting.
It can be challenging to maintain the confidence of your manager when you are close to your colleagues, and you may have information that will affect them personally, it is part of the job, and unfortunately, it does come down to keeping your mouth shut. However, you don’t want to appear aloof or unable to interact with your team. It is a delicate balancing act, but with the correct approach, most of us should be able to walk the tightrope.
Let me know if you have any instances where you’ve struggled with keeping confidential matters a secret, what did you do? Do you have any techniques that stop your colleagues asking you questions?