The Art of Discretion in an Increasingly Transparent World

We live in an Internet-dominated world where our every action, emotion, and opinion has the potential to be broadcast to a vast and very public audience. In this new professional landscape, traditional ideas of discretion and transparency in the workplace are evolving and, in some cases, being questioned. Despite this increasingly connected and open environment, sensitive professional situations still arise where striking the right balance between discretion and transparency is key to a successful outcome.  Recruiters, for example, by their very profession, have to practice discretion at all times.  We are constantly given confidential information about very personal issues.  Whether it is compensation details, family issues related to jobs, promotions, relocations, illness….you name it, we hear it!  We also value the confidences we are given and never share confidential information without the express consent of our sources.


When I start a search, I typically go to my rolodex to find referrals.  In making that referral call there is always one question I ask:  can I use your name when I contact your referral?  This should apply not only to recruiters but to all professionals.  We are constantly asked to do things, whether to give a referral or divulge information about internal company changes. When requesting information or favors, we always ask if it is okay to attribute the source of the information by name.  This shows that we respect this person’s advice, privacy, and willingness to help you out.  If you don’t ask and assume you have the privilege, it could blow up in your face or inadvertently damage the person doing the favor.

For example, a candidate I work with was recently asked to be a job reference for a colleague of hers who wanted to leave their company. She gave the reference, assuming the colleague would keep her gesture confidential. When the colleague got the new job and went to her manager to resign, the manager asked the colleague who her reference had been. Thinking she was doing the right thing by being truthful, the colleague gave the name of her internal reference. This is a problematic response, because it could have inadvertently harmed the reference giver’s position at the company. In resignation circumstances, it’s important to remember that you never have to give confidential information about references or the new job because it can harm the very people who helped you land the new job in the first place. Show discretion and respect! Keep sensitive information confidential, and avoid all situations where you could be putting other people in an awkward position.

In the Workplace

Discretion is also needed when sharing personal information. In this all-too-transparent world, when to share, when not to share and with whom to share information has become blurred.  Just because it has become more socially acceptable to plaster snapshots of your personal life across Facebook, Twitter, and other social media outlets does not mean that same transparency applies at work. With two-thirds of workers spending more time at work today than they did before the Great Recession,  and with firms starting to provide “perks” like in-office happy hours, ping-pong, and even nap pods, the work place can start to feel a bit too much like home. This does not mean your life should become an open book to your coworkers. Keep the lines clear and don’t risk losing credibility because you show a lack of discretion either in comments you make, stories you share, or confidences you betray.  Giving too detailed a picture of your personal life might not only make your colleagues uncomfortable, but could drastically affect your career path upwards.

With Sensitive Situations

Another important strategy to keep in mind is that, during sensitive professional situations, it is important to maintain the suitable balance between discretion and transparency, not only so that your coworkers can support you appropriately, but also so you can continue to contribute to your employer effectively. During the course of one’s career, every professional will experience an illness, a death, a birth, a marriage, a divorce …you get the picture. It is better to be upfront with direct reports and the people you work closely with any time an event will impact your work.  Direct reports and peers are almost always understanding if you confide in them early in the process.  This way, you will also avoid speculation about your circumstances that usually is off the mark.

When I was diagnosed with cancer, I immediately sat down with my boss to explain the situation and highlight worst case scenarios.  I also indicated it was unlikely they would occur but I wanted to set expectations.  As it was, I never missed a day of work and, by the end of some pretty drastic treatment, my credibility at work had increased significantly.  I was not only a team player but also a straight shooter.  I was also able to diffuse any gossip or speculation.

Conversely, if you sense something is wrong with one of your coworkers, it is okay to offer to listen or help if they need it. It’s important to make the offer, be understanding and leave it at that.  Showing up at their desk everyday asking how they feel is intrusive and, shall I say, obnoxious.   It is also never a good idea to point out changes in appearances, especially when someone is going through any kind of treatment.  Telling someone who is going through chemotherapy how great their hair looks during a meeting is never a good idea!  I know from experience, the less attention that was brought to me was always appreciated.  That being said, once my treatment was over, it was a nice gesture when my boss congratulated me in a meeting on my success and perseverance.  It gave everyone a chance to acknowledge that this was in the past and that we could all move forward together.  These personal challenges are sometimes harder on your coworkers than you think and it is nice to let them celebrate your victory or success.

With Professional Transitions

Discretion is also key during times when you are unhappy with a situation or colleague at work. During these times of frustration, it is never a good idea to let your peers know.  Endless moaning, talking about job interviews, etc., shows a lack of discretion and respect for your peers and your current employer.  You may want one of them to be a reference and you take away from your successes by focusing on your frustrations.  If you are unhappy in your work situation, either speak with your direct report about possible alternatives and taking on more challenges, or make a concerted effort to explore external opportunities in a thoughtful and discreet way.  If you do the latter, be prudent when you go on interviews.  Try to schedule them during your typical break times or before or after work.  People are very observant and it is important not to broadcast your frustrations or intentions to the universe…doing so is only disruptive and detrimental to your coworkers and current employer.  If you are working in a challenging environment, chances are most people feel the same pressures and don’t need to be reminded constantly.

Maintaining the delicate balance between discretion and transparency is crucial to becoming a successful professional.  People will remember the gesture of asking permission, getting opinions and being thoughtful in a positive way.  You want to be thought of as a person who can be trusted with a confidence, not the person that made someone regret doing something nice only to have it blow up in his or her face.  Paying it forward is one of the best ways to advance your career!   Make sure you go about it in the right way.

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