Employee Confidentiality: Circles Within Circles

The father of a friend, a rancher in South Texas, conveys confidential information by preceding it with the following caution.

“Now I’m going to tell you a secret, and you have to swear not to tell another soul. And when you do, you have to make them swear not to tell another soul.”

Keeping confidential information within a company is often a pipe dream. We regularly tell employees of plans and changes that we don’t want to become common knowledge. Yet almost inevitably, another employee will refer to the secret with a knowing wink within a few days.

People tell secrets because they want to feel special. Sharing a confidence serves that need on two levels. First, it says “I am more important than you, because news was shared with me before it was shared with you.” On the second level, they are saying “Our relationship is important to me, and I want you to feel special too.”

After all, what is the point of being special if nobody knows about it?

Sometimes, there is impending news in a company that has to be available to some, but could create huge problems if it were known to all. This is usually game-changing confidential information, such as a planned merger or an impending reduction in force. Key employees need to prepare for the change, but the consequences would be dramatic if the secret became widespread.

You can utilize the psychology of being special by employing what I call concentric circles of information. First, you share the information with a core group of trusted employees. Bring them together for the news. Knowing who else knows is important. They can share the pride of being special. The other people in the group know who else is in on the secret, and know that the others see them on that level as well.

If they feel an absolute need to discuss the news (and they probably will) then they know whom they can safely talk to.

When it becomes time to spread the confidential information more widely, you choose another group for the same process. The second circle is informed as to who is in the first circle (e.g. executives to managers to supervisors.) At each level there is a recognition of the employee’s individual importance, as well as identification of a “safe” group to discuss things with.

The purpose of sharing in concentric circles goes beyond mere information control. As you tell each circle, get their buy-in on the company explanation. They are your advocates when the next circle comes to them with concerns or questions. Let them know it is their role. “When we inform the managers, we will tell them that you already know. They will come to you with questions, and we are depending on you (because you are more special than they are) to support and explain this.”

Sometimes the news is so huge that you can have little hope of it staying within planned bounds for long. In a company of a hundred people, I’ve used the concentric circle method in as little as one day. The 3 executives were informed in the morning, the 5 branch managers in the afternoon, and the 8 supervisors (who were most likely to blab), after the close of the business day. The general announcement was made the next morning. Each group was assembled from our branches at a central location. When they returned to each office, they informed the next level that they needed to attend a special meeting later that day.

It worked. When we made the general announcement (our acquisition), we had multiple advocates in each branch who could say, “Yes, I knew about that (because I was in on the secret). Everything is going to be OK.”

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