A few years ago, I taught some courses at a university. I shared an office with another part-time instructor, and that office was where we’d prep our lessons, guide students with their essay topics, mark exams, and hone our PowerPoint slides.
One day, as I was working away, nature called. Just as I sat on the porcelain throne in the tiny bathroom adjacent to the office, the office door opened and my colleague walked in with a student.
Before I could cough, or otherwise make known that I was within earshot, my colleague tactfully but forcefully started explaining to the student that his recent work constituted plagiarism, and that he’d be getting an F for the assignment, which would likely jeopardize his chance of passing the course.
Thinking that exiting the bathroom would make an already emotional and difficult situation absurdly awkward, I sat there quiet as a mouse for far too long. When the student, done wiping away tears and apologizing, left the office, I was finally free to leave. I’d been inadvertently privy to confidential information.
Many of us find ourselves in situations at work where we encounter information with privacy considerations.
Healthcare workers, more than most CLAC members, deal with private information on a daily basis. They are trained at record-keeping and information handling so as to do them well.
Forepersons on construction sites, or crew leads on a factory floor, may also need to know about personal personnel matters.
CLAC’s hundreds of stewards participate in discipline meetings alongside colleagues dealing with vulnerable, sometimes embarrassing, and often unpleasant matters.
Even when handling private info isn’t anywhere in our job description, we all hear rumblings or rumours of things in our work environment that we really ought not to share. There’s a human temptation to get some good gossip, find out someone’s juicy details, or be the keeper of knowledge nobody else has. And there’s an even stronger human tendency to be careless or thoughtless.
A first reason to make respecting private information and information handling protocol a priority is that not doing so is a disciplinary offense in many workplaces. In some cases, it can lead to termination. Recently, a hospital administrator was disciplined because of a high-profile breach of privacy regarding Toronto’s previous mayor and his health status.
So, of the many good reasons to handle private information well, keeping a clean job record is high on the list. But beyond that, there are good human reasons.
Two words are worth keeping in mind. The first is confidentiality. Notice the first two-thirds of the word: confident. Always act in such a way that your colleagues, clients, and employer can be confident in you.
The second word is dignity. Before opening a file or opening your mouth, remind yourself of the worth of all the people involved, and their status as human beings like you.
Whether you encounter private information inadvertently—like I did in my sitcom-ish situation on the office toilet—or whether it’s part of your daily work duties, give people reason to be confident that you’ll not lose sight of their dignity.