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Silent Guardians: Workplace Confidentiality Through Employee Discretion

Sanju Kumari
16 May 2024
18 min read
Silent Guardians: Workplace Confidentiality Through Employee Discretion

Employee discretion represents their free will related to handling sensitive information responsibly. It is closely connected to confidentiality, which is about keeping certain information private and not disclosing it to unauthorized individuals. By exercising discretion, employees can uphold confidentiality- a matter of grave concern. 

If we go into statistics, in 2022, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) in Singapore reported more than 9,000 workplace safety breaches in the first six months. The European Commission has even made it mandatory to notify the supervisory authority within 72 hours of becoming aware of a data breach. 

But why is workplace confidentiality even needed? Is it of any help to business organizations? 

The answer is a big “yes”. Through this article, let’s understand the meaning of employee discretion and workplace confidentiality in great detail. Also, learn what a breach of confidentiality is, its implications, and become aware of some related US laws. Lastly, we will study how businesses can promote workplace confidentiality using special documents and maintain it. 

What is employee discretion in the workplace?

Discretion in the workplace refers to the ability of employees to make thoughtful and careful decisions about what information to share and with whom. It often revolves around using good judgment and sensitivity when handling confidential or sensitive information. Further, employee discretion even applies to situations where explicit rules or guidelines are absent.

Discretion is also crucial in maintaining confidentiality in the workplace. Before going deep into this statement, let’s first understand the meaning of workplace confidentiality. 

What is workplace confidentiality?

Workplace confidentiality refers to the ethical and legal obligations of employees. These obligations require employees of an organisation to:

  • Keep certain information private 

and

  • Not to disclose it to unauthorized individuals 

Some common examples of such sensitive information include:

  • Trade secrets
  • Proprietary information
  • Customer data
  • Financial records
  • Strategic plans, and
  • Any other sensitive or confidential information related to the company's operations.

What are some benefits of maintaining confidentiality in the workplace?

Confidentiality safeguards sensitive business information from:

  • Competitors
  • Hackers, or
  • Other unauthorized parties

Usually, these outside entities exploit the sensitive information for personal gain or harm the company's interests. Additionally, workplace confidentiality helps in:

  • Building trust
  • Employees and clients trust that their personal and sensitive information will be kept confidential by the company and its employees. 
  • Breaches of confidentiality usually damage trust and reputation.
  • Compliance with laws and regulations
  • Many industries have specific regulations governing the protection of certain types of information
  • Some common examples include:
  • Health records (HIPAA) 

or 

  • Financial data (SOX)
  • Often, failure to maintain confidentiality results in legal consequences, fines, or other penalties.
  • Preserving competitive advantage
  • Confidentiality allows companies to protect their:
  • Intellectual property
  • Trade secrets
  • Other proprietary information
  • These items are often considered key assets
  • That’s because every company gains a competitive edge through them in the marketplace.

What does limited confidentiality mean?

It refers to a specific situation where confidentiality is not absolute. Instead, it is restricted or qualified in certain respects. The concept of limited confidentiality acknowledges that there are situations where sharing information may be necessary or permissible. While organizations make efforts to keep information private and secure, there are specific circumstances or exceptions where:

  • Confidentiality may be breached 

or

  • Information may be disclosed to certain individuals or entities.

Let’s have a look at some common reasons for limited confidentiality:

  • Professional Consultation
  • Healthcare providers need to consult with colleagues or specialists to provide the best possible care for a patient. 
  • In such cases, limited confidentiality allows for the sharing of relevant patient information
  • However, this usually happens only among healthcare professionals directly involved in the patient's care.
  • Legal Obligations
  • Healthcare providers are required by law to report certain information, such as:
  • Suspected child abuse
  • Elder abuse, or
  • Threats of harm to oneself
  • In these cases, there are legal obligations to disclose certain information that otherwise could have been kept confidential.
  • Patient Consent
  • Limited confidentiality also applies when patients provide informed consent for the release of their medical information to specific individuals or entities, such as:
  • Family members
  • Insurance companies, or
  • Other healthcare providers
  • Public Health Concerns
  • In situations where there is a risk of public health threats, limited confidentiality allows for the disclosure of certain information to public health authorities
  • This disclosure is usually made to:
  • Contain the spread of disease 

and

  • Protect public safety

What is medical confidentiality in the healthcare sector?

Medical confidentiality is also known as patient confidentiality. It refers to the obligation of healthcare professionals to protect the privacy of patient's personal and medical information. It covers several pieces of information shared by patients during the course of medical treatment, such as:

  • Their medical history
  • Diagnosis
  • Treatment plans, and
  • Other sensitive data

In the healthcare sector, confidentiality builds trust between:

  • Patients and
  • Healthcare providers

It is commonly believed that patients are more open and honest about their medical history and symptoms when they trust their information will be kept confidential. 

Are you planning for your next corporate interview? You cannot miss preparing the topic “workplace confidentiality”. Explore the top ten confidentiality interview questions and increase your selection chances. 

How does employee discretion maintain workplace confidentiality?

It is pertinent to note that employee discretion is instrumental in protecting sensitive information and data. Discretion ensures that only those with a legitimate need are given access to confidential information. This minimizes the risk of unauthorized disclosure or leaks. Let’s go deep and see how employee discretion promotes confidentiality and benefits business organizations: 

  • Preservation of trust
  • When employees demonstrate discretion in handling confidential information, it creates a sense of trust among:
  • Colleagues
  • Clients
  • Stakeholders
  • They feel confident that their information is in safe hands and will be treated with respect.
  • Adherence to ethical standards
  • Practicing discretion aligns with ethical principles of:
  • Honesty
  • Integrity, and
  • Respect for privacy
  • It demonstrates a commitment to upholding professional standards and values within the workplace
  • Minimization of risks
  • Discretion helps reduce the risk of potential harm or negative consequences
  • These situations usually arise from the improper disclosure of sensitive information. 
  • Consequently, these situations cause:
  • Financial losses
  • Damage to reputation
  • Legal liabilities, or
  • Breaches of confidentiality agreements
  • Maintenance of a positive work environment
  • Employees who exercise discretion contribute to creating a culture of:
  • Respect
  • Trust, and
  • Professionalism in the workplace
  • This enhances the morale and productivity of the team members 

What is a breach of confidentiality in the workplace?

A breach of confidentiality in the workplace occurs when sensitive or confidential information is disclosed to unauthorized individuals or entities. This breach can occur in various forms:

  • Unauthorized disclosure
  • Sharing confidential information with individuals who do not have a legitimate need to know, either within or outside the organization.
  • Accidental disclosure
  • Inadvertently sharing sensitive information through careless actions, such as:
  • Sending an email to the wrong recipient 

or

  • Discussing confidential matters in public areas
  • Data breaches
  • Data breaches represent the act of hacking into databases containing confidential information
  • This unauthorized access results in the theft of sensitive data
  • Violation of confidentiality agreements
  • Failure to adhere to the terms outlined in:
  • Non-disclosure agreements (NDAs)

or

  • Other confidentiality agreements
  • It is significant to note that these agreements are usually signed by employees, contractors, or third-party vendors.

What US laws govern the breach of confidentiality?

Several US laws govern workplace confidentiality. These laws usually provide legal frameworks to protect sensitive information and hold individuals accountable for breaches. Let's have a look at them:

Intellectual Property Laws

Defend Trade Secrets Act

  • This federal law provides legal remedies for the misappropriation of trade secrets.
  • Employers can take legal action against former employees or other parties who disclose trade secrets to competitors
  • They can seek damages and injunctive relief to protect their intellectual property rights.

Employment Laws

Implied Duty of Confidentiality

  • Employees have an implied duty of confidentiality under common law
  • This means that employees are expected to protect confidential information obtained in the course of their employment
  • Breaching this duty can lead to disciplinary action, including termination, by the employer.

Non-disclosure Agreements (NDAs)

  • Employers often use NDAs to contractually prohibit employees from disclosing:
  • Confidential information
  • Trade secrets, or
  • Proprietary data to third parties
  • Violating an NDA results in legal action by the employer
  • They are legally empowered to seek damages for breach of contract.

Criminal Laws

Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA)

  • In extreme cases, confidentiality breaches can violate the CFAA
  • It is a federal law that prohibits unauthorized access to protected computers
  • Penalties for CFAA violations usually include fines and imprisonment.

Some real-life examples of breaches of confidentiality 

Breaches are not rare. Several business organizations across the globe have suffered from breaches of confidentiality. Let’s explore some recent real-life examples:

  • Cambridge Analytica and Facebook (2018)
  • Cambridge Analytica is a political consulting firm
  • The company harvested the personal data of millions of Facebook users without their consent. 
  • The harvested data was used to create targeted political advertisements during the 2016 US presidential election campaign. 
  • This breach led to investigations and legal action against both Cambridge Analytica and Facebook.
  • Edward Snowden and the NSA (2013)
  • Edward Snowden, a former contractor for the National Security Agency (NSA), leaked classified documents to journalists
  • These documents revealed extensive surveillance programs conducted by the NSA, including:
  • The mass collection of telephone metadata

and

  • Internet communications
  • Snowden's actions sparked a global debate about:
  • Government surveillance
  • Privacy rights, and
  • Whistleblowing
  • Sony Pictures Entertainment (2014)
  • Sony Pictures suffered a significant data breach when hackers (allegedly linked to North Korea) infiltrated its computer systems
  • They leaked sensitive company information, including:
  • Unreleased films
  • Executive emails, and
  • Employee personal data
  • The attack was believed to be retaliation for the release of the film "The Interview," which depicted the fictional assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
  • Equifax (2017)
  • Equifax is one of the largest credit reporting agencies in the US
  • The company experienced a massive data breach that exposed the personal information of approximately 147 million consumers. 
  • Hackers exploited a vulnerability in Equifax's website to gain access to sensitive data, which included:
  • Social Security numbers
  • Birth dates, and
  • Credit card information
  • The breach led to widespread criticism of Equifax's security practices
  • Uber (2016)
  • In a major data breach, hackers gained access to the personal information of 57 million Uber users and drivers worldwide
  • Instead of notifying affected individuals and regulatory authorities immediately, Uber paid the hackers $100,000 to delete the stolen data and keep the breach secret. 

How do organizations promote workplace confidentiality using special documents?

Indeed, workplace confidentiality is a crucial aspect for many organizations. This relevance increases manifolds for companies dealing with:

  • Sensitive information
  • Proprietary technology, or
  • Customer data

To promote workplace confidentiality, companies usually prepare various documents. Let’s see some major ones:

Employment Contracts

  • When employees are hired, they sign employment contracts
  • These contracts outline the terms and conditions of their employment
  • Most of these contracts include clauses related to confidentiality
  • These clauses outline the employee's obligation to protect sensitive information 
  • They also specify the consequences of breaching confidentiality.

Company Policies

  • Employers establish internal policies and guidelines that govern how employees should handle confidential information.
  • These policies cover a wide range of topics, such as:
  • Data protection
  • Information security, and
  • The use of company resources
  • Employees are expected to familiarize themselves with these policies and comply with their provisions regarding confidentiality.

Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs)

  • Employees with access to sensitive information (such as trade secrets or proprietary technology) commonly sign non-disclosure agreements (NDAs). 
  • NDAs are legally binding contracts
  • These prohibit employees from disclosing confidential information to third parties without authorization.
  • Violating an NDA leads to legal consequences, including financial penalties and injunctions.

How can organizations maintain confidentiality in the workplace?

Organizations can maintain confidentiality in the workplace by establishing clear policies and procedures. Efforts must be made to develop comprehensive confidentiality policies that outline the following:

  • What types of information are considered confidential?
  • Who has access to confidential information?
  • How should confidential information be handled?
  • What are the consequences of breaching confidentiality?

Also, companies must restrict access to confidential information to only those employees who have a legitimate need to know for business purposes. This can be done by implementing access controls, such as:

  • Passwords
  • Encryption, and
  • Physical security measures

Conclusion

Employee discretion represents the employees' capacity to exercise free will in determining which information to disclose and to whom. It often involves using sound judgment and tactfulness when dealing with confidential or sensitive data.

Discretion is crucial in maintaining confidentiality in the workplace, which refers to the act of protecting sensitive information from unauthorized parties. Companies can safeguard their sensitive data by establishing clear policies, restricting access to confidential information, and implementing appropriate security measures. 

Additionally, an organisation's employees must understand their confidentiality responsibilities and comply with company policies and legal requirements. Failure to do so usually leads to “breaches of confidentiality,” which can have severe repercussions in terms of disciplinary actions, legal penalties, and termination from employment. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

1. What is the scope of employee discretion at the workplace?

The scope of employee discretion at the workplace includes:

  • Making thoughtful decisions about sharing information

and

  • Using good judgment and sensitivity when handling confidential data

2. Can employees be imprisoned for data breaches?

Yes, in certain cases of severe data breaches, employees can face imprisonment. This particularly happens if the breach involves criminal violations such as unauthorized access to protected computer systems under laws like the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA).

3. How can companies avoid breaches of confidentiality?

Companies can avoid breaches of confidentiality by implementing robust security measures such as:

  • Encryption
  • Access controls, and
  • Regular security audits

Further, companies must provide comprehensive employee training on confidentiality policies and enforce strict adherence to non-disclosure agreements.

4. Name some US laws protecting workplace confidentiality

Some US laws protecting workplace confidentiality include:

  • The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) for medical records
  • The Defend Trade Secrets Act for Intellectual Property
  • The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) for data breaches involving unauthorized access to computer systems.

5. Can an employee share sensitive information under “limited confidentiality”? 

Yes, under limited confidentiality, employees can share sensitive information. However, this holds only under specific circumstances where disclosure is necessary or permissible. Some common scenarios are professional consultation among healthcare providers or legal obligations to report certain information, like child abuse. 

Sanju Kumari

Sanju has a wealth of experience and expertise in instructional design, bringing innovative ideas and a fresh perspective to e-learning content development. She is passionate about merging technology and creativity for dynamic e-learning. Her passion for creating engaging and effective learning experiences aligns perfectly with Calibr's commitment to excellence. She also enjoys writing about e-learning trends in the corporate world.