One of the most commonly required qualities listed in Executive Assistant (EA) position descriptions is “the ability to handle highly sensitive material and information with discretion and confidentiality.”

This seems like a no-brainer to anyone who has worked in a business environment.  Secrets abound and are indiscreetly shared daily, doing damage to morale, team dynamics, and sometimes to the bottom line. The ability to keep a secret for your boss or from your boss is an invaluable capacity for an EA.

Because she is party to many high-level management confidences, the executive assistant’s position in the organization may be a lonely one.  Her peers may choose not to share work problems with her, out of concern that she will pass the information on to her boss.  And she can share very little about her work, her opinions and dilemmas with her associates without compromising the confidentiality expected by her boss. Loneliness, in this instance, is the price paid for professionalism.

If her executive trusts her, she may have access to his voicemail, email accounts, credit cards, social security number, bank accounts and other highly sensitive information of both a business and personal nature. She will also see and hear things, as people come and go from his office, that reveal very delicate situations and decisions.  She is expected not to share this information and sometimes not even to acknowledge awareness of it.  In a sense, she is like the butler standing by at a family dinner.  She hears all the family secrets and sees them at their best and worst but must keep these insights to herself.  The difference for the EA, hopefully, is that the head of the “family” respects her role and knows that the more information she has, the better she can assist him/her.

The executive, if she respects her EA, will encourage her to contribute the insights she has gained from watching and listening to sensitive situations.  Those insights may bring another valuable perspective to the decision-making process and may help the executive more fully understand the complexities and nuances of workplace issues. The executive will also ensure that her EA fully understands the reasons for her decisions and that they openly discuss differences of opinion.  This builds trust and encourages loyalty.

The EA must develop keen intuition about when to share with her boss sensitive information that she has learned from other employees.  Her first loyalty is to her principal, to the fostering of her effectiveness as a manager and leader.  She will know when sharing information is essential and when it is gratuitous. She will be careful not to promise confidences and then to break them.

As I write, I am aware that I am describing two persons with integrity.  The work and the relationship can go badly wrong when one of the parties (executive or assistant) acts in an unprincipled fashion. Mutual respect and understanding are crucial. Any wonder that an executive worth his salt would put the phrase, “the ability to handle highly sensitive material and information with discretion and confidentiality” in his assistant’s job description?


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