I originally wrote this post for Career Contessa.
Have you ever heard the phrase “loose lips sink ships?”
I used to see it every day when I worked at the Department of Defense. It was posted on the wall of the Pentagon as a not-so-subtle reminder to recognize and remember the importance of confidentiality. This was the common thread woven through every government agency I worked for; confidentiality and diplomacy were always of paramount importance.
Of course, it makes sense that these factors are critical to government organizations. But the WWII-originated “loose lips sink ships” idiom—which advises avoiding conflict and misunderstanding by being guarded with what you say—still holds true in many situations today, including some in the workplace.
When I left government work and started working in the private sector, I realized that this saying had taught me a very valuable lesson, one that brought me great success no matter where I worked.
Here are three workplace situations in which confidentiality and diplomacy are of utmost importance:
In most interviews, you’ll be asked to talk about a challenge you faced with a previous boss or questioned about why you chose to leave your last company.
While it is important to be honest—and you’re often encouraged to share smart, constructive insight regarding a difficult work experience—it’s also important to discern the situations in which it is and is not appropriate to share your candid thoughts.
You might discuss why you wanted to leave (perhaps to get experience in a new industry or for greater growth opportunities), but never insult your current or former colleagues or company. It might make the company you’re interviewing with think you’d say the same thing about them.
It’s likely that there will be conflicts, criticism and even gossip at work. And it can be difficult not to react by becoming defensive or perpetuating the problem by participating in the gossip. At one place I worked, we called this “backchanneling,” and it’s almost always a counterproductive way to communicate.
But communicating internally with your team grants you another opportunity to practice diplomacy: learning when to speak up publicly or privately, but always with tact.
Whether you have positive feedback or constructive criticism to share—or you’ve heard through the grapevine that someone has been talking about you or other office members—always discuss it directly with the other person. Allow the other party the opportunity to defend or explain their actions or clarify a misunderstanding. You can learn so much more about an issue and the individual involved by speaking confidentially with him or her.
And, of course, if there is a serious reason you feel uncomfortable confronting this person, discuss the circumstances with your manager or HR representative.
As an intern at the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, I learned early on that staff members must not discuss cases—or any work-related information, really—outside of the office.
Though your work documents or discussions might not be officially classified as confidential, it’s important to be cognizant of what you discuss outside of the office. You never know who might overhear you on the subway or sitting at the next table over during dinner. At the very least, it’s safe to assume that most strategies, financial reports, and organizational changes are to be discussed only internally. But as with most anything else, err on the side of discretion.
Trust is one of the most important tenets of any relationship, and it is also one of the hardest to develop and sustain. Maintaining confidentiality and discretion in the workplace will help you build and cultivate trusting relationships, which will in turn help your career!