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?

3 thoughts on “The Executive Assistant:  Discretion/Confidentiality           

  1. Another interesting post Moriah. Thank you!

    I was interested that you mention NOT telling the executive something the EA might hear or know from others. I am curious to hear more as to the reason or context when that is the best thing to do.

    I also wondered about how the EA handles (or should handle) knowing about unethical or illegal or fraudulent activities by the executive. Is there an ethical responsibility to name this if it happens? If the EA doesn’t, does that person become complicit? It surely does depend on the ethical nature of the executive and the relationship they have. But it made me wonder.

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  2. Diana, thank you for these insightful questions. I have made it a practice to write, in this blog, about personal experiences or about topics and issues of which I have extensive or intimate knowledge. In this case, I am, for confidentiality reasons, unable to disclose specific incidents, but these inform the following observations and reflections.

    In the article on discretion, I used the words “essential” and “gratuitous” to describe when information gleaned from other employees should or should not be shared with the EA’s principal. If the information is essential for the executive to do his or her job effectively, then it must be reported. If it is not essential, if the executive may learn it from other channels, or if no organizational norms of behavior have been violated, or illegal acts performed, then the information should remain confidential. There may be a fine line between essential and gratuitous. Discerning whether to speak or stay silent requires focus and in-depth analysis. Laziness will blunder and harm.

    In cases where confidences must be broken, it will take courage to go back to the original informant and explain why the secret could not be kept, taking the risk that trust will be damaged or broken in the process. That is why the “in-betweenness” of the EA puts her in a lonely position.

    Your second comment/question: What is the EA’s responsibility if she discovers unethical, illegal or fraudulent behavior by her boss? You are right, of course, that her reaction will depend on the relationship that has developed between them. If it is one of openness, trust, and partnership, she will feel more comfortable about speaking directly to her boss about what she has learned. If experience has taught her that the executive would be unreceptive to such a conversation, it may be her responsibility to speak to another senior member of the organization. Many organizations have Ombudspersons who can advise an employee about the best course of action in such instances.

    I am confident that none of us will read this, in our current climate, without thinking of sexual harassment in the workplace. We are all familiar with the risks and retribution that victims face if they report their experiences. The same dangers may apply in other “whistleblower” cases.

    In my own career, I encountered only one situation in which I felt uncomfortable about a particular decision by my principal. I was unable to raise the issue with the executive or others in management without risking anger on their parts, diminishment of our relationship, and therefore, loss of my effectiveness in the organization. Quite honestly, I was concerned about losing my job as I neared retirement and about the ageism I would face if I had to seek another position. I was also keenly aware that I did not have access to all the facts and therefore could not see the full picture. So, I did not speak up. Had I been younger, I may well have done so, regardless of the risks. Or, had the situation worsened, I may have expressed my ethical concerns, and, had they been ignored, chosen to report them further up the chain, or leave the organization.

    Lastly, I think the EA should be very sensitive to the differences between “unethical, illegal and fraudulent.” Ethics, though commonly shared in social situations, are sometimes a personal matter. Mine may be very different from my boss’. Organizational norms should be respected and followed. The law must be obeyed. But many situations are delicate and complex. That’s when respect comes into play. Respect for everyone involved in the incident(s). Respect can only be cultivated by humbly listening, observing and understanding the multiple perspectives. There may not be any pristinely clear path of action. Quick judgment should be eschewed. Wait, and proceed cautiously, kindly and respectfully. Integrity, your own and that of others, is paramount.

    I’m very interested in your perspective, Diana.

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  3. I guess I would add to your excellent list of virtues that guide the best behavior: justice. I am thinking especially of standing up for another; perhaps a person in a less trusted or senior position who may not be able to speak for many more reasons than you or I might have. Thinking here of the privilege of our skin color and our education and (sometimes) our position. Or patients as in the example below–vulnerable on so many grounds. To me this is a place where a well-trained and ethical (however one defines that!) guide who maintains the confidence to consult with really helps. Someone we could talk to who could help us examine the incident or pattern of behavior and determine what needs to happen next if anything. Perhaps we could then be strengthened to do what is the just thing as well as what is the kind, respectful thing. (Please know I am not taking the moral high ground here to raise the issue of justice. It is just much on my mind and so, so difficult to act out in real life situations. And here you have offered your readers a chance to consider it.)

    Perhaps it is the Ombudsman as you suggest if the organization has one. Many don’t and many Ombuds-people (male or female) are conspicuously absent or totally ineffective. Thinking here of the nursing home where I worked for 2 years. As chaplain, I did have concerns for residents that did not reach the level of complaint to administration, but I would have loved to talk to the Ombudsman about them. I bumped into him one day on the hall and he was flaky, distracted, bumbling, and didn’t seem to be interested in taking the time to even talk to me. Perhaps that was my fault and I should have pursued it (even for justice sake, ie better care for the resident), but I didn’t. Mea culpa.

    This also makes me appreciate even more your thoughtful use of the phrase “lonely position.” I think many of us in workplaces large and small have that feeling. I work in a small, non-profit hospice which has as good a chance for these issues going well as any place. On the whole, it is a good work environment with good people. But things happen. I have learned the value of silence.

    I am sad to read of the difficult experience you had at the end of your career. Sounds to me like you did the right thing and your concerns about a new position are well-founded. But it is hard and stressful to have something like that happen.

    Oh: I also wanted to mention the EAP program that many businesses have. They are surely of varying quality, but there do have counselors who can help an employee free of charge and anonymously. At least they say that and I guess we have to believe them.

    And–yes–sexual harassment (and worse) in the workplace has got to be part of the conversation these days. I have certainly experienced it especially in the form of gender influencing the outcome of my progress in my career not the quality of my performance.

    So, yes, it happens in the church too. I even earned an apology from an Episcopal Bishop’s assistant (who became Bishop of WA state) for what happened to me in NC in the ordination process and was somewhat dubiously awarded the title “sacrificial lamb” (said without irony.) To make me feel better he shared that my experience had pushed the diocese to change their process and make it more fair to others. But the damage was done to me and would not be undone. Injustice for sure. And I suspect that many women (and men) have had this happen to them as well. But who could I (or most people) have reported to for possible redress? No one. I moved on and have done the best with my life that I could manage. And with wonderful friends and confidants like you, I hope I have still been able to help “mend the world” in my little corner of the Great Pacific Northwest.

    Finally (!): I did have a personal experience once of breaking a confidence that did not go well. Ministers are “mandatory reporters” and I reported my concerns about a physician working her shift in the ER who reported being suicidal. It felt to me that she was putting patient safety at risk (in terms of not being able to treat them without her own emotional issues interfering) so I reported to my superior. She was very angry at me. Maybe she was right. But we later became friends as I tried to support her in her emotional struggles. And she stopped practicing medicine which I think was a relief to her.

    Thank you for another thought provoking post and allowing me to comment.

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