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Loose lips sink ships Marilyn Andrew
22 March 2016

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Talking is an important part of our everyday activity - particularly in the workplace. Morning greetings, general chit-chat with colleagues while getting a cuppa, video conferences, and discussing all manner of things to ensure a successful and quality productive day.  I certainly do a lot of talking in my role as enquiries officer.   

Sometimes, just sometimes, we need to be careful what we say and to whom. As we know, once words are spoken, they cannot be unspoken. By way of illustration, let me relate a story that I heard some time ago from the distressed wife of Bill (not his real name).

Bill worked for a medium-sized company in a country town. Personal difficulties were affecting his work performance. In order to get on top of these issues, he had a conversation with the company’s senior managers and agreed to take some leave to sort things out. He also agreed that the matters discussed, including the reason for his taking leave, would remain confidential. That way, Bill’s manager and team leader need only know that he was taking leave. Bill set off home that afternoon buoyed by the positive outcome of this meeting and secure in the knowledge that his personal and work difficulties would remain confidential.

Loose lips

Soon afterwards, the CEO inadvertently let slip to Bill’s manager what had happened, but told the manager to keep this information to himself. The manager agreed. A day or two later, the manager told Bill’s team leader, and remembered all too late that this information was to remain confidential. So he told the team leader to keep that information under wraps.  Naturally, the team leader agreed.  

The next day the team leader shared the story of Bill’s misfortune with Bill’s colleague while they were on a cigarette break. A courier driver bustling past overheard a juicy snippet of the conversation and asked what this was all about. The team leader told the courier driver the whole story. It so happened that the courier driver knew Bill socially.  

That Friday evening, the courier driver spotted Bill on the main street. He gave Bill a sympathetic slap on the back and commented how sad he and the blokes at the footie club were to hear about Bill’s predicament. Then he asked Bill how he was coping. Bill was surprised by this encounter and asked how he knew. When Bill learned that it was his own team leader who had spilled the beans, he was gobsmacked and gutted. After all, he and the managers had only days earlier agreed to keep everything confidential. He had trusted them! 

Seeking advice

Several days later, Bill’s wife phoned us. She was distraught and sought advice on what to do. 

I really felt for Bill - and for Bill’s wife, who had to cope with Bill’s despondency. “I can’t get him to shift from his chair; he’s sat there all day, just stroking the cat and looking at the photo of his parents - they died six years back. He now knows that the whole town knows his problem. I tell you, word gets out quick around here. I phoned CAB and the lady there recommended I phone you people.” Her sobs echoed down the phone. “I just want my old Bill back.  This is dreadful.”

Although I am unable to give legal advice, I was able to lend an empathetic ear.

I was able to explain to Bill’s wife that agencies should not disclose personal information without good reason, and no such reason appeared to exist here. I suggested that Bill might like to approach his organisation’s Privacy Officer (every agency must have one) and sort the matter out directly, but I assured Bill’s wife that he could complain to us if the matter wasn’t resolved that way.

From time to time I wonder how that matter panned out. It occurred to me that had the CEO stopped to think - for just a few seconds - before he opened his mouth, Bill (and his wife) need never have been put in this sorry situation.

Image credit: The illustrated book of canaries and cage-birds (1878) via Flickr.

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