Confidentiality: A Serious Business

ConfidentialityWe live in an era when freedom of information is being vigorously pursued by all and sundry. Though we might have constitutional rights to demand certain information, sometimes we won’t so easily have access to this information. Just as we need access to certain information, people also have their reasons for needing confidentiality and their rights to such cannot be violated. According to the International Organization for Standardisation (ISO), confidentiality is simply “ensuring that information is accessible only to those authorised to have access.” Conversely, information lacks confidentiality to the extent that it is available or when it is disclosed to unauthorized persons or processes.

Confidentiality is paramount for the survival of any system. Nations, governments and their parastatals, corporations, organisations and professional bodies often have ethical codes containing statements about confidentiality relevant to their practices and guidelines for their members to follow. In our various places of work we also have company policies which regulate our behaviours. In most cases, these policies will expect us to treat all information we come across as confidential, to protect our clients’/customers’ information, to keep confidential any information concerning our business, to not discuss business dealings outside the place of work, to ensure what we see and hear in the workplace stays and remains there, and to not give information to clients/customers without permission from appropriate superiors, etc. Some organisations go as far as technically restricting certain employees who occupy sensitive positions from engaging in similar businesses for a certain number of years after disengagement. Lawyers, Consultants, Bankers, Business Executives, Medical Doctors, etc. will always want the highest level of confidentiality pertaining to the records of their clients, customers or patients. The reasons for these are not farfetched. They want to maintain confidentiality in the work place: to respect the clients’/customers’ right to privacy; to shield their businesses from going under due to cut-throat competitions; to maintain company/practice reputation; to operate within the laws of the land; and to avoid financial losses, unnecessary litigations, etc.

Of all the qualities Legal Secretaries and Legal PAs are usually expected to possess, the ability to maintain confidentiality in sensitive matters is one of the most important. As the scriptures tell us, love covers all sins—if we have God’s love in our hearts, we can’t ‘deliberately’ do anything to hurt our fellow man. In the same manner, though as humans we are fallible, the ability to keep your company secrets strictly confidential will cover up for your other mistakes. This does not mean all the other qualities expected of you will have to be relegated! The point is that it would be a disservice to allow unauthorized access to company secrets, the consequences of which could be incalculable.

These nomenclatures—Confidential Secretary, Personal Secretary, Personal Assistant, Private Secretary, Legal Secretary, Legal Personal Assistant, Medical Secretary, Farm Secretary—all depict secrecy, meaning one cannot be so appointed if he/she cannot be trusted. For you to be a good Legal Secretary or Legal PA, therefore, you must be a person of integrity with the strength of character to be able to efficiently manage the array of information coming your way. This is the primary reason Secretaries/PAs, whether in the private or public sector, are seen as the custodians of classified information. If ‘desperate people’ know you have vital information that can, in the twinkling of an eye, fetch them a fortune, transform their businesses or even pose a threat to their very existence, they will go for you or after you, and refusing them that information will spell disaster! That is one of the hazards of our profession, hence the reason to take confidentiality very seriously; it will be in the interest of not only the organisations we work for, but also our own.

Information is power! Those who have it take undue advantage over those who don’t! Unauthorised access to power has led nations into avoidable wars, wrecked economies, depleted company profits, prompted serious litigations with accompanying financial implications, truncated the career paths of many thought innocent, destabilised stock prices and even torn families apart…you name it! The point is, no matter how intelligent you might be, if you are lacking in this distinguishing quality expected of distinguished professionals, if you cannot keep company secrets and only release them to authorised personnel when necessary or needed, you will soon make a shipwreck of your career—your employer will surely notice it and it will cost you your promotion or higher responsibilities if you managed to retain the job.

I doubled as Secretary/PA to the Chairman/MD and to the Company Secretary/Legal Adviser at a printing outfit. The company was going through tough times and management thought it necessary to rightsize. The plan was on for weeks before I was asked to prepare a draft of the disengagement letter, which I did before taking a day off for personal reasons. On resumption, I was shocked to meet our close-to-150 workers in a near-riotous state. You know what? Production had been stopped as workers gathered in groups discussing having been gripped with fear of the unknown. The most astonishing fact was that they even knew who was to go! I was immediately summoned alongside the Secretary to the Admin Manager. There and then, it was discovered the Secretary to the Admin Manager lacked this distinguishing quality of confidentiality. He couldn’t manage the information I had deftly handled for weeks. Within the one day he was allowed access to the information due to my one-day absence, the entire company was set on fire! Quite unfortunately for him, the MD instructed that his name be included on the list, and until he was handed his disengagement letter alongside others, though a very close friend to me, he never knew he was also to go!

This is the whole essence of belonging to a professional body like ours, where career-moulding experiences are shared in our quest for excellence. Remember, when the going gets tough, only the tough get going, and you can only be as tough as the practical trainings and experiences you have got, the best of which ILSPA offers.

Confidentiality builds trust, confidence and security in others as well as respect! It is, therefore, in our best interest as Legal Secretaries and Legal PAs to ensure that our organisations, our profession and even our families are protected the best way we can. If we become adroit at it, we will be respected and valued beyond our imagination.

See you at the top!