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. Part of the the essential tasks for new Assistants is keeping our Executive’s confidence.
Let’s think about the different types of confidential matters that we have to deal with regularly.
- Classified electronic documents (anything that is visible on your computer screen)
- Confidential paperwork (anything that is on your desk)
- Confidential information either overheard or trusted with
Dealing with confidential information
We have to keep our Executive’s confidence.
We must be trustworthy and as hard as it is, keep all confidential matters to ourselves.
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?
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 the 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 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 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. 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.
Dealing with confidential electronic documents
With cloud technology, the use of email and other electronic forms of communication (Slack, Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger, etc. etc.) we have to be even more aware of how we deal with confidential and information that is discussed and communicated through technological channels.
Here are my top twelve tips on dealing with confidential electronic documents.
- Think about how your desk is positioned. If you are in an open-plan office, is it easy for colleagues to walk up behind you and see what is on your screen? If so, perhaps you should change the position of your screen or move your desk entirely. A privacy screen is a good call if you handle a lot of confidential electronic documents.
- Always, always lock your screen when you leave your desk and when a colleague comes up to talk to you. Set up a timer on your computer so that it automatically locks after a brief period of inactivity.
- If you have been asked to email a confidential message to another member of staff – think to yourself, should I be emailing this? If the answer is yes, ensure you do everything you can to make them aware the details are sensitive. The following steps should make this clear:
- Mark the email as ‘confidential’, you can do this in the email options tab.
- Encrypt any attached files. Depending on the sensitivity of the document, I will often phone the individual and give the password to them personally.
- Move the emails from your sent file into a secure location.
- When a confidential email arrives, avoid opening it in a full-screen view. Scan it in a minimised window, and you can quickly click elsewhere to remove it.
- Every week or two have a good 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 regularly. Anything you open will automatically save there, so if someone does have access to your computer, they might be able to open sensitive information.
- If you have your work emails on your phone, and who doesn’t? Make sure your phone is pin protected and is timed to 1 minute or less.
- Change your computer password regularly and make sure it is difficult to guess. Use a website like Lastpass to secure all of your passwords.
- You may use Whatsapp or other apps to communicate with your Executive. You both must decide what exactly you will use this technology for. Whatsapp and the like are great for quick exchanges but do you want to WhatsApp details that are private and confidential? Probably not. Although Whatsapp is secure, it just doesn’t strike me as being particularly professional. Make sure you set boundaries with your Executive and your colleagues when using messaging services.
- When using collaborative tools such as Trello or Google Docs again make sure that only those authorised to see the documents can access them. You can undoubtedly add levels of security and password protection to these sites, so make sure you know exactly how to do that before you work share confidential 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 private information 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.
- 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.
- 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 regularly. Anything you open will automatically save there, so if someone does have access to your computer, they might be able to open sensitive information.
Dealing with confidential paperwork
As much as we all want to work in paperless offices, it still seems like something that is way into the future.
Yes, I think most of us have cut down a whole bunch on our paper consumption. However, we still have to print things off, get people to sign things and work with paper documents a lot. The reality is that paper is going to be around for a little while longer.
So, here are ten tips on dealing with confidential paperwork:
- Firstly, ask yourself ‘does this need to be printed?’ In a lot of cases, it is easier to deal with confidential 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 own printer, then again, I suggest you speak to your manager about this. You should have a personal printer that only you have access to. If your office doesn’t allow this, you can still print confidential 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 in a confidential paperwork bin. It isn’t worth holding on to the material just in case you need to use it again.
- Do not label your paperwork with a confidential stamp or watermark. I think if people see this word, it tends to make them want to look even more… it is human nature, so don’t encourage their curiosity.
- You should, however, add a cover note so that people can not read the document without picking it up and turning the first page.
- If you are printing confidential documents that need to be circulated to other members of staff make sure you number each copy (1 of 20, 2 of 20 etc.) and keep a note of who has which copy. This makes it much easier for you to track the documents and collect them after they have been read and discussed. You should also ask the recipient of the document to sign a register so that you have proof of receipt in case any documents go missing.
- If you are transporting highly confidential documents, make sure you use a trusted and reliable courier service. The last thing you want is for a confidential file left on the back seat of an Uber!
- Make sure you limit the access for your confidential documents. Think to yourself ‘who exactly needs to see this, and who doesn’t’. If you are not entirely sure, double-check with your Executive. The number one way to keep documents confidential is to limit access to the information.
- If the document is top secret, ask that all of those who need to read the documents, attend a meeting to read through and discuss the information. Again, you are limiting access, you know the documents will only be available in that location, and you can collect them after the meeting has finished and immediately shred the contents. This might be overkill for some confidential matters, but maybe not for others!
My final point would be to remain vigilant when it comes to dealing with confidential documents. That is part of the essential tasks for new Assistants. 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 incredible hard to do.