This blog post is inspired by Chapter 7 of my book "Leading in Chaos: Insights to Lead through the Storms." Chapter 7 is called "Secret Conversations." Just to give some background and context, I was the Director at a large government agency that was highly dysfunctional. I was selected after a national search, to clean up the agency because new federal laws tremendously incentivized good program performance. This particular agency rated at the very bottom of every performance indicator the federal government measured. It had a staff of 120 and a budget in excess of $10 million. Further, several of the main perpetrators of this dysfunction had gotten their jobs through government patronage. For those who are unfamiliar with the term government patronage, it is "knowing or being related to someone with the power to control appointments, hiring, rights and privileges." Recruits are selected not on merit but through political patronage and/or because of campaign contributions (monetary or time).
Now don't get me wrong, every workplace has secret conversations between colleagues, groups or cliques. But when should you NOT keep a secret if asked to do so? That's a great question that everyone must answer based on their personal values. For me:
The obvious reason is when the secret is about something illegal.
When keeping the secret may cause bodily harm to you or someone else.
When keeping the secret is designed to hurt. It is a lie and you know it.
When you are asked to keep the secret of someone in a position of authority or political power.
In my career, I experienced the request to keep a secret from someone in a position of power on two occasions--once from a person in political power (read Chapter 7) and once from a very high ranking person in Corporate America. Each time, my personal value system said TELL. On one of those occasions, I paid a steep price professionally. In one of the instances, I came so close to stepping over the line between keeping the secret and doing the right thing that I was physically shaken. Do I regret divulging the secret in either case? Not for one minute. Do I think that it makes me less trustworthy? Not for one minute. The best workplace is a transparent workplace. Leave the intrigue to the movies!