Training Sealed Lips

Open-plan layouts in offices are gaining popularity, and presumably, so is the inability to keep a secret. When the need arises to keep quiet on a topic or issue in your office, do your employees know how—and understand why it is important to do so?

Social media has taught many of us to disclose minute details about our lives, such as the ham sandwich we had for lunch, along with ultra-personal information, such as health issues and even pictures of baby ultrasounds. So when the time comes to simply keep our mouths shut, are we able to? The openness of our society today makes me wonder whether a new form of training needs to be folded into your compliance training—the art of secret keeping in the age of Facebook, open-plan seating, and glass offices.

I have to brag here that I’m a great secret keeper! Whether it’s my sister’s pregnancy and the baby’s gender before she was ready to announce it, or the near-dream job I almost landed at my company, you can count on me to stay as silent as a sphinx. In fact, you’ll laugh, but I was hoping my near-success at getting the new job at my company would leak out to my current bosses so they would see my value. Funny enough, poor secret-keeping skills can be offset at a company with equally poor listening skills. The manager who almost hired me was excited, or torn enough, about the situation that he told more than a few people in our small office, but nothing leaked out. Oh, well.

A 2014 CareerBuilder survey conducted by Harris Poll suggests the need for good secret-keeping skills is at a premium, and your company’s executives should know their employees probably know more than they think they know:

  • About half (53 percent) of support staff workers have overheard confidential conversations at work. Of those folks:
  • 62 percent have heard conversations with people complaining about the boss or other workers.
  • 35 percent have heard conversations about layoffs or firing someone.
  • 22 percent have heard conversations about someone’s compensation.
  • 20 percent have heard conversations about romantic relationships between co-workers.

Reading those survey results, I feel deprived that I haven’t heard anything juicy lately. Some of the respondents’ offices sound as intriguing as the advertising office in which Mad Men is set.

Overhearing interesting gossip is entertaining, if we’re honest with ourselves, but there are also potential dangers to employee well-being. At my last company, I remember during one of many rounds of layoffs, a young woman who had gotten the ax was out of the office the day the announcements were made. By the time she got to the office the next day, everyone but her knew her fate. It’s a shame the masterminds of the layoffs couldn’t either hold off a day or give her a call at home. It’s better to be told hurtful information over the phone, and know your own fate at the same time as everyone else, than to come into the office with everyone hip to the news but you. Is training sometimes called for in not just keeping a secret, but then determining how it should best be disclosed?

How could secret-keeping be taught? You could try what my friends and I did to one of my unfortunate sorority sisters in college. It wasn’t my idea, but I went along with the plan. One of our sisters was suspected to be a terrible gossip. To test out our hypothesis, a few of us went into the room next door to hers and banged loudly on the wall with a hammer. Then, in very loud voices, we shared extremely intriguing news—a lie that one of us was expecting. We then sat back and waited to see if she spread the word. Obviously, you couldn’t do the same in your office, but what about an exercise (everyone knows it is an exercise) in which learners are given a piece of information and then tested to see how long they can go without telling anyone, and then how they go about disclosing the information once they are asked to do so. It may be hard to believe, but I bet many employees would fail this seemingly simple exercise.

Compliance training often teaches us what not to tell anyone but the approved parties, but what it doesn’t teach us is how not to tell, and then the proper and respectful way to make announcements when/if the information is ready to go public.

Is your office a veritable soap opera teeming with scandals and intrigue under the surface—or maybe just an upcoming layoff or two or a new product being developed? How do you ensure your employees will stay quiet, and that they will know how to best share the information if you decide to publicize the news?