Accidentally overheard some sensitive information at work? Elaine Varelas says to move on

Some roles put you in a position that make it easier than the others to gleam what could be considered “insider information” – but that doesn’t make it your information to share. If you ever find yourself learning something that you think is sensitive, Elaine Varelas suggests that you may want to keep it to yourself and move on.

Ask the Job Doc.
Ask the Job Doc. –Boston.com

Q: I overheard management talking about one of my colleagues through an open door and I think he’s in trouble. Should I tell him? We’re not friends, but we work well together and I don’t know what he did or why they’re unhappy with him. It feels wrong not to say something, but I also know I wasn’t supposed to overhear it. Is this a case of needing to stay in my own lane?

A: So much for an open door policy. Why were you lurking? You should not tell him what you heard, especially when you don’t know anything about the situation. You say you think he’s in trouble, but that’s not valid information and it’s not up to you to know what he did or why management is unhappy.

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Unfortunately, employees can overhear a lot of information about their organization, about colleagues, and about plenty of other interesting tidbits regarding company actions and plenty of gossip. It’s unfortunate that you’ve heard this particular piece of information, and managers discussing sensitive information need to be encouraged to take more caution.

It’s up to the managers to talk to him about his situation, not you. This conversation you’re considering is not designed to help him, so take a look at why you think it feels wrong, other than it is. Will it provide him with any kind of benefit, or does it make you feel powerful to have a piece of information you’re eager to share? You weren’t supposed to hear it. This is absolutely a case of staying in your own lane and recognizing the impact it will have on someone to provide this information to them without the whole story. It’s apt to increase any anxiety he might have, or perhaps he already knows that he’s in a difficult spot. Learning that other people know will cause even more distress.

If you have what we’ll call “insider information,” which is easily gained in many different roles and levels at organizations, you need be trusted with confidence. The things you overhear or deduce more quickly than others should be considered confidential, whether or not you’re asked to keep it to yourself. Most leaders want and try to be honest and transparent with people, and they want to ensure that, whatever the outcome, they are supporting the people in their organization.

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If you’ve been able to overhear these conversations with these same managers previously, it might be a good time to say, “Your voices carry throughout the open door. I just want to make you aware if you’re talking about sensitive items, you may want to close the door.” You don’t have to be specific. Keep in mind that if you find yourself lingering near this open door, you may simply want to walk more quickly next times or take a different path.

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