Secrets on the Job – My Experience with Discretion
By: Dr. Helen Ofosu
Secrets on the Job – My Experience with Discretion
A secret’s worth depends on the people from whom it must be kept. – Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Shadow of the Wind
Over the years, I’ve developed a few friendly relationships with family lawyers. Eventually, I’ve said to the ones I know well, “I don’t know who holds more secrets, is it you or is it me?” More often than not, I’m met with a curious furrowed eyebrow or a soft, knowing, chuckle. It’s easy to grasp why lawyers keep a client’s personal information to themselves. They deal with a variety of intimate matters such as divorce, separation, child custody, wills and estates, trademarks, copyrights, etc. Their success relies heavily on being discreet. What is less obvious is that I too have access to sensitive information when working with my clients. This means that I also share the task of keeping things very quiet in my line of work.
For me, Discretion is a Little Word that Carries a Big Obligation
Morally, I am someone who understands the importance of keeping what has been shared with me with in the strictest of confidence. As a specialist in I/O Psychology and a member of the Society for I/O Psychologists (SIOP) since 1999 (and also a member of the Canadian Psychological Association [CPA]), I am ethically bound to maintain clients’ privacy and confidentiality. This applies to career-related and HR matters.
Sometimes, when people hear the official title of my job, I/O Psychologist, they don’t really appreciate many of the nuances of what I do. So, I started using labels like ‘Career Coach’ and ‘HR Consultant’ mainly because they are more relatable and they also describe how I use my training in psychology.
However, what is even less known about my profession is that I am qualified to work in complicated and often deeply personal situations that most people would not want to have discussed openly in their community, family, or in front of their colleagues/peers. These are serious matters that I have taken on when other ‘normal’ Career Coaches and/or HR Consultants are reluctant or lack the training and/or experience to take on.
For instance, during consultations, I’ve had clients reveal complications related to their divorce, separation, workplace bullying/harassment, discrimination, burnout, and mental health issues (especially depression and anxiety). On any given day, a client may tell me that they are accessing my services to improve their career and livelihood before separating from an abusive spouse. Likewise, people seek my advice on how to leave a toxic or unpleasant work environment without putting a dent in their resume or jeopardizing an important job reference.
In all my interactions with clients, I am honest, hardworking, and trustworthy. From the beginning, it is clear that I never divulge our private discussions or (their) plans to anyone without their permission. Staying discreet is both an ethical and a professional must, and it’s how I represent myself in everything I do. Just as a lawyer or medical doctor would have to remain tight-lipped about their client or patient confidentiality, I will not compromise a client’s reputation or their ability to get themselves out of a bad situation.
“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” – William Shakespear, Romeo, and Juliet.
Not all career coaches are created equal. I have to comply with the CPA Code of Ethics for Psychologists. This is not true for the vast majority of career (or business) coaches, but hopefully, they have some type of code of conduct. As a client seeking coaching or HR services, it’s important to know who you are trusting with your high stakes situation. I won’t argue that others who are not governed by a professional association are unethical, but I will say that I/O Psychologists like myself have a lot more to lose when we don’t honour these Codes of Ethics, Conduct, and Guidelines.
There is a wide range of skill and approaches in the coaching industry. It’s fair to say that some designations are significantly less rigorous than a reasonable person would expect. My expertise is based on 10 years of formal education and many more years of experience dealing with difficult and often complex information.
When I have revealed the ways in which my work involves ‘covert assignments’ I’m usually met with a surprised response of “Wow … I didn’t realize the scope of what you do or the level of discretion that you must use.” In those moments, it is nice to have my profession properly understood and to receive some recognition for my hidden efforts. Another unknown fact is that because I value my clients’ need for discretion, I readily accept that sometimes it isn’t in my client’s best interest to publicly acknowledge the support that I have provided them. This means for every 5 or 10 public reviews or recommendations that I get, there may be 30 or 40 cases that will never be known. These are the hidden implications of maintaining discretion even after the job is done … and it’s always worth it.
Do you have a sensitive career or HR situation to discuss? I invite you to contact me by email, phone, or via direct message on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. If something urgent comes up, I’m also available by a voice or video on Magnifi, an expertise-on-demand app.
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