Dealing with Confidential Information in the Firehouse

Company officers must know when to keep information confidential, but also when to pass it along to their boss

By Matthew Tobia
Published Tuesday, May 1, 2012 | From the May 2012 Issue of FireRescue

It is said that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. In chess, pieces are often traded to achieve a more advantageous strategic position. But it would be wrong to believe that a queen and pawn are similarly situated. Occasionally, the initial action is designed to provoke a powerful reaction; in fact, the initiator is counting on it. It may be disguised as a “mistake” when in reality it was carefully planned from the outset. For the novice, this is an easy trap to fall into. In the fire service, company officers often face similar traps. One of the most difficult: when to maintain confidentiality.

Keep Quiet, or Not?
There are two clear examples of when a company officer cannot promise to keep information confidential. The first is when an officer is asked to keep something in confidence before they’re told the substance of the information. This is an incredibly dangerous and indefensible position because it’s likely that the officer will have to break their promise if they’re made aware of something that either legally or morally demands action. An unambiguous example: A firefighter tells the company officer that a member of their extended family may be abusing their children, perhaps as the result of an addiction problem. As a public safety official, you likely have a legal requirement to report such information.

Promise to be supportive and non-judgmental, but do not promise to hold information in confidence. Making this promise before having all the facts is the functional equivalent of exposing your king to checkmate.

The second example involves an issue where the company officer wrongly believes that they should not make their superiors aware of a situation out of fear of being perceived as being unable to manage their company or out of some misguided attempt to “take care of their crew.” Company pride is essential; however, our history is replete with examples of former company officers who lost their positions because they used the guise of “unit cohesion” to conceal activity that was inappropriate.

The consequences of such choices extend far beyond the individual or the company and can have devastating effects on the organization’s reputation. Such incidents are the basis of federal case law. Examples include workplace harassment, workplace violence, consensual sexual activity while on duty, and the use of alcohol or other drugs while on duty. If you become aware of such incidents, you must take decisive action.

Equally important: Company officers must simultaneously maintain confidentiality within the parameters of an internal investigation. Internal investigations are confidential for a reason: They’re designed to protect both the accused and the accuser. An individual’s lifelong reputation of integrity can be destroyed in an instant, particularly if the information is “leaked” by anyone wearing bugles. Bugles lend credibility to information.

It’s difficult to keep information confidential. Think about it: Most of us have a friend with whom we’re willing to share such information because we believe that it’s going to remain confidential. But what happens when that person shares the story with a close friend, adding the caveat, “But you have to swear not to tell anyone else.” Then that person tells someone else, and so on. This is how information ends up widely distributed. No one believes that they are betraying a confidence because they trust the next person not to tell anyone else.

A Balancing Act
Two effective strategies for the company officer concerned with being respected and trusted: First, actively work to arrest rumors that have the potential to hurt an individual or the organization by being willing to stand up at the kitchen table and indicate that its time to change the subject—permanently. Second, learn how to say, “Yes, I’m aware,” “No I cannot talk about it” and “I would appreciate it if you did not talk about it.”

Company officers become trusted members of an organization when they demonstrate the ability to maintain confidentiality. At the same time, you should never attempt to conceal a situation from those who need to know or promise to “keep a secret” when the law or a moral obligation require otherwise. The consequences far outpace the outcome of any board game.

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