The walls have ears: why confidentiality is essential

The importance of confidential documents
By Student Blog

15 December 2016

Nothing can ruin a business faster than a breach of privacy - companies like dating site Ashley Madison lost most of their customers after being hacked, while the UK's National Health System recently faced its own email scandal. Your data is important, whether you are a big company, a new employee, or a private citizen. 

This colourful infographic at Information Is Beautiful shows the firms involved in 2016's biggest data breaches, not counting personal and private breaches of confidentiality in the workplace. 

Information hygiene is increasingly important in our networked world - a sensible approach can ensure a good reputation for your business, strong relationships inside and outside the company, and consumer confidence.

Three men may keep a secret, if two of them are dead. 

Benjamin Franklin

Information hygiene 

While secrecy can be harmful and impede progress in business sometimes, confidentiality is nonetheless one of the most important qualities to cultivate in a business relationship. The American founding father Benjamin Franklin famously wrote: "Three men may keep a secret, if two of them are dead."

Unless you can guarantee confidentiality, your clients, colleagues and your company may find it hard to develop and build trust in you.

We've looked before at how to handle business information while in public, but why is confidentiality such an important cornerstone of professional culture? Besides allowing for trust to develop, it is also a contributing factor to business growth and success.

If you can keep important information secure for your clients and your staff, this will encourage clients to recommend you to others and attract the right sort of candidates to your interviews when it comes time to recruit. 

Sensitive information

Data can be operationally sensitive, or structurally sensitive - relating to how your company does business, or how it is formed. Any company you work for should have information which can easily be shared with anyone who enquires - details such as the company's mission statement, its core values, or its principles of incorporation.

Some information is publicly available - details of turnover, senior executives and employees can often be checked on Companies House in the UK, and specific details can be requested via a Freedom of Information (FOI) Request via the UK Government.

Everything else should be covered by a company's privacy policy. Specific trade secrets or insider information may also be subject to a Confidentiality Agreement, which all employees may have to sign.

These agreements are legally binding, but protecting your company's sensitive data and strategic information is often a duty left to the individual employee, rather than one legally enforced. Read your company's privacy policy so that you know exactly what your obligations and duties entail.

If you want to know what legal obligations your employer has towards you in the UK, have a look at your Employee Privacy Rights online.

Insider information

Often referred to as “proprietary information” or “trade secrets”, this can be anything from recipes to internal policy documents, to lists of client information, to potential leads in a sales environment.

Anything considered proprietary by your business or employer must be carefully protected. If it would be illegal or improper for this information to be obtained by a rival firm, it is your duty to safeguard it. While what is illegal is often clear, what is improper is less so - educate yourself on the customs and get to know the rules of the company you work for.

In industry, manufacturing processes and methods are viewed as proprietary. In financial services, items such as business plans, financial data or budgets might be the priority. In a tech company, computer programs, coding languages and specific hardware components may be viewed as intellectual property, and therefore subject to secrecy.

Remember - as the famous World War Two poster proclaimed, "Loose Lips Sink Ships!"

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