Don’t ask….Don’t Tell

By | Feb 26, 2008

Confidentiality.  It’s possibly the single most important topic for an administrative assistant.  As an AA, you have access to an incredible amount of information, not just about the company and it’s employees, but about your boss’s private life as well.  I don’t think I have been in an interview since I got to the administrative assistant level that I wasn’t quizzed about confidentiality.  My usual response is, truthfully, that not even my boss generally knows how much I know.

Most admins understand that you do not share information you learn from your boss with anyone else in the company.   It doesn’t matter how much you love gossip (and trust me, I love gossip), you may partake of gossip being dished, but you may not ever be the dishee.  One of the most sacrosanct rules of being an administrative assistant is that you keep your boss’s confidences.

The difficulty arises when you know something that the boss’s boss should probably know.  But where do you draw the line between loyalty to your boss and loyalty to the company?  This is the dilemma that faces many administrative assistants.  How far do you go to maintain confidentiality?

My opinion is that you keep anything short of illegality confidential.  If you find out she’s stealing money from the company, that’s something you tell.  If you find out he’s forcing women to sleep with him to gain promotions, that’s something you tell.

However, if you know that he’s hangs out at a cross-dressing  club on the weekends, keep it to yourself.  If you find out that she’s secretly moonlighting in a job that isn’t in competition with the company, keep it to yourself.  If it’s something that you have an issue with morally but isn’t something that affects the company, then look for another job if you can’t handle it, but keep it to yourself.

Probably the biggest dilemma is when you find out that your boss is looking for another job.  It’s something that his boss really wants to know, but it’s usually something your boss would rather keep to herself.  I’ve been in this situation before, and my usual response is to err on the side of your boss.  I have a couple of reasons for this.

First, just because your boss is looking for a new job doesn’t mean she’s going to find one or that she’ll take it if she does.  If you betray her confidence, and she doesn’t end up leaving, she’s never going to trust you with anything important in the future.  You’ve just wrecked the admin/boss relationship that is so important in our work.

Second, if you choose company loyalty and tell her boss thinking it will give you brownie points toward future promotions, don’t count on it.  Think of it from her boss’s point of view.  If you’d break your current boss’s confidence, why would the her boss think you’d keep his confidence if he promoted you to work for him?

When asked about confidentiality in interviews, I like to tell the story of my first boss as an administrative assistant.  I worked for him for three years, and he was without a doubt one of my favorite bosses.  When he called me into his office to tell me that he’d taken a position in another company, he was stunned when I told him I already knew.  I didn’t even tell him that I knew, much less anyone else.  Ten years later, he is still giving me good references for jobs.

I tell potential employers that if they want me to know something, they’ll tell me.  Until then, I don’t need to bother them with what I may or may not know.  Don’t ask, don’t tell.  That’s my motto.

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