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What is Workplace Confidentiality?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Workplace confidentiality is a framework of workplace procedures and policies designed to maintain the integrity of confidential or potentially compromising information handled in the workplace. For certain types of information, there are laws about how the information should be handled, designed to maintain privacy for people trusting companies with confidential information. For others, no specific laws dictate information handling practices, but the workplace develops best practices on the grounds that the information should be protected.

Confidential information handled in a workplace includes things like client records, business planning and forecasting, employee records, and information collected in the course of research and development. Workplace confidentiality requires that this information be identified and secured to prevent unauthorized access or release of the information and includes everything from policies on workplace Internet usage to nondisclosure agreements in employee contracts.

Breaches of workplace confidentiality can result in a range of problems. Customers tend not to work with companies they think are untrustworthy, and consumers may specifically warn people away from companies that have mishandled private information like addresses, purchasing records, and credit card numbers. Companies can also experience compromises in their long term business plans if information about products in development or ideas a company is considering are released prematurely.

Many companies need to gather information as part of their work, ranging from hospitals maintaining patient records to Internet service providers logging traffic for research purposes and to identify unauthorized activity. Customers recognize that this information must be collected, and in exchange, expect a certain degree of confidentiality. Developing policies like keeping information in locked storage areas and limiting access to people with authorization or a need to know is important for keeping information confidential.

Workplaces also have employee records that include identifying information about employees, documentation of immigration status, payroll records, performance records, and so forth. Human resources departments must also practice workplace confidentiality to safeguard this information and prevent it from being used in inappropriate ways. Unfair use of information about employees could result in a lawsuit on the grounds of privacy violations.

In workplaces where confidentiality laws dictate how information can be processed, stored, and handled, employees may take workplace confidentiality training to learn how to handle the information appropriately. This training is used to familiarize employees with relevant laws and the procedures used in a given company to comply with the law. Trained employees may also be involved in the training of new hires and in the development of policies, procedures, and employee manuals.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a MyLawQuestions researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By everetra — On Jun 12, 2011

@nony - I’ve heard about confidentiality in the work place, but the scenario you described beats anything I’ve ever heard in my life. You practically have to wrap your lives around that customer. I would suspect it’s a high-paying client to make those kinds of demands.

I think, however, that you might find a similar security setup with private defense contractors for example who do classified work for the federal government. To work on these high security assignments, they probably have to do everything short of requiring retinal eye scanners for their employees-although they probably do that as well.

By nony — On Jun 10, 2011

Our confidentiality in the workplace extends far beyond employee commitments to trade secrecy, although that is big part of it. It goes much further than that.

Our business develops software for electrical utilities. Some of these companies have very strict security standards in their offices, and in order for us to work with them, they insist that we follow those same standards. We even have to mimic their office security setup.

That means, for example, that if they have security badges for their employees, we do the same for our employees. The part of our company that handles their business data is partitioned off in another part of our office building, with its own security clearances.

Employees who work in that division also have severe restrictions on what they can do with their Internet usage, for fear that they could send some of that confidential information online.

By suntan12 — On Jun 10, 2011

@CaithnessCC - While I understand an employee’s rights in the workplace, a big part of confidentiality at the workplace involves not discussing your salary with anyone that works at the company whether it be on company property or not.

The reason is simple. Salaries are usually negotiated unless you receive a government job so not everyone’s salary is the same even though they may be doing the same job. This could lead to a lot of problems with employee morale if one employee finds out that another employee is earning more money and has the same job.

Disclosing your salary to a coworker is considered a huge breach of confidentiality in the workplace because it would cause a lot of turmoil. Everyone wants to earn the highest salary possible and the reasons why others earn more should not be anyone’s business.

By CaithnessCC — On Jun 10, 2011

How much privacy in the workplace are we entitled to? I can understand that certain things should not be posted all over social networking sites, that is just common sense, right? It just strikes me that the backlash that can come from revealing pretty much anything to anyone is a step too far for most jobs.

I have no problems signing a non disclosure confidentiality agreement that would cover things like not working for a competitor in the future. But I don't like the idea of not being able to discuss my salary with anyone. Do they really think you're not going to talk about that to your family and friends?

By Penzance356 — On Jun 10, 2011

I fully support the idea of confidentiality in the workplace, but have to wonder how many companies actively monitor their policies.

Most weeks I get at least one of those annoying forwarded email circular things, the type that people don't bother to clean up so you get to see everyone else's email address. It makes me chuckle to come across a message at the very end saying something like 'this email is confidential and all contents must remain so.'

I know that it just means someone is getting personal mail to their work address, but it could well be taken as a breach of any employee confidentiality agreement made.

By wander — On Jun 10, 2011

If you accidentally tell people about some of the things at your work that technically fall under your confidentiality agreement can you get fired if your work finds out? Can you get in trouble with the outside law?

I enjoy chatting a work and sometimes I let too many details slip about the details of our projects. This information means nothing to my friends, but worry that it could reach outside ears. I know it is best to not say anything at all, but when you live your job, it can be difficult to find things to discuss. I really want to make sure I don’t get in trouble from by my gossiping.

By manykitties2 — On Jun 10, 2011

If you are starting a new job there is a good chance you will have to sign a workplace confidentiality agreement. Often these cover things like release of information and keeping customer information private.

I found it interesting when I worked at a popular video store how lengthy their confidentiality agreement was. I was sworn to secrecy on my salary, working conditions, benefits, and pretty much anything about how the business functioned. They were very concerned about their structural information getting out.

Another big thing I was not allowed to reveal was the details of any training I received or any of the materials they had given me. I think that they were worried competitors would get the same ideas and become harder to beat.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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