How many times have you walked in the door and said to your partner, “You’re not going to believe what happened at work today...”?
A listener named Susan wonders if employees are breaking the confidentiality your employer expects when they do that, and she wrote to ask workplace expert Brandon Smith about it:
“Does telling your spouse about a critical situation at work constitute lack of confidentiality?” she asked. “If only generalities are spoken about, is that acceptable? My boss stated—after I had spoken with my spouse—that we must keep confidentiality. My spouse doesn’t work [at] or know anyone from my corporation. Should I tell my boss what I shared?”
Smith said most employees shouldn’t worry about such a situation.
“Generally speaking, it is unreasonable to expect you, as an employee, to keep all things confidential from your spouse,” said Smith, who teaches about workplace culture, communication and leadership at Emory University and Georgia State University. “Often work creates stress for us [and] anxiety. We come home and who do we vent to? We vent to our spouse.”
There are exceptions, Smith said. For instance, jobs that involve national security or security clearances have different rules. And any information that would compromise the security of other employees or customers should not be shared. The same would be true in industries where insider trading or insider information laws prevent certain disclosures.
Mostly, though, Smith said Susan’s use of the term “generalities” indicates she is likely on safe ground.
“Generalities allow us to talk about the general context and mostly communicate what we’re struggling with and the emotions and stress we’re dealing with,” he said. “That’s appropriate.”
Smith also said it’s not necessary for Susan to tell her boss about the conversation she had with her spouse.
“’Cause if you share that you’ve already done it, it may damage your credibility in his or her mind, and we don’t want that to happen,” Smith said.
He said it would be useful to go back to Susan’s partner, share what the boss said, and ask her spouse to keep the conversation quiet. But ultimately, Smith said Susan should not be concerned with her actions.
“This is gray stuff,” he said. “It’s not easy to figure out and know what to do. So we’ve got to trust our own judgment.”
Brandon Smith teaches about leadership, communication, and workplace culture at Emory University's Goizueta Business School. More of his advice is on his blog and at theworkplacetherapist.com. While you’re there, ask him your workplace or career question. We might answer you in a future radio segment.