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Jeff Kaplan, 3/20/22

An employee complain to you as their manager about another employee and say, “But you can’t say anything.  I don’t want them to know that I told you.” Ever happen to you?

My response to this employee is, “Really? Grow up.”  You’re not childhood siblings secretly telling on each other (which also, by the way, doesn’t work well in the long run for the siblings or family).

The main excuse for the employee to not want their manager to say anything is that the employee is afraid of retaliation.  The main reason I hear from managers who are willing to collude with the employee and keep the secret is that they value hearing what’s going on and don’t want to risk losing getting this kind of information.

What’s really happening, though, is that you are, at best creating silos and spreading negatively around half-truths and, at worst supporting a highly toxic work environment that is in short supply of psychological safety.

Allowing an employee to hold you in secrecy around the employee’s inherently biased perceptions of another employee seriously limits your ability to do anything about it.

What do you do instead?  Here are 5 things:

  1. First, be sure to explain the limits of confidentiality when you discuss expectations and communication preferences with new direct reports.  
  2. Offer to coach and even role play with the employee on how s/he can appropriately confront the other employee.
  3. Offer for the three of you to meet together where you can mediate a discussion, clarify expectations of collaboration, and affirm consequences of any further negativity, especially acts of retaliation.
  4. Refer the employee to HR if the matter is an HR issue, such as harassment, that needs to be addressed accordingly.
  5. Speak with your peers and seek to uncover and resolve larger, more systemic problems with communication and collaboration occurring within the organization.

There are, of course, exceptions where you might allow one of your direct reports to share information about other employees in confidence.  However, be sure to avoid engaging in conversations (with your employees or peers) in which you are supporting a toxic work environment.  As leaders, you need to be part of the solution and not part of the problem.

-Dr. Jeff Kaplan

Dr. Jeff Kaplan is a business psychologist and executive coach who coaches executives and high potentials to lead with heart. Jeff helps leaders to work more collaboratively with others, recognizing that people are an organization’s greatest asset.