Why being indiscreet can stall your career

Helen Green


written on August 11, 2017

Being indiscreet and saying the wrong thing in the wrong place can lead to legal or contractual issues, but the most likely harm is to your reputation or “brand”.

Some recent personal experiences have made me wonder whether we all need reminding about being careful with what we say about our work in public spaces. You hear all the time about being indiscreet on social media, it’s still an burgeoning minefield but it’s fair to say the message is out there, whether heeded or not.

Yet being overheard in the real world, speaking about your employer, employee, clients, colleagues or associates is not really discussed – particularly being wary of negative remarks or comments that call into question the person’s interpretation of confidentiality.

I learned the hard way. Very early in my career, I worked alongside a very senior staff member who had a great sense of humour and provided me with much needed guidance. Travelling back together from a meeting, I casually mentioned someone’s name, no doubt in the context of attempting to demonstrate my understanding of the day’s proceedings. I was given a harsh reprimand to NEVER mention names in public again as “the walls have ears.”

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Being overheard, misquoted, recorded or misrepresented is a risk you take when speaking freely in public – even if you consider your comments to be innocuous or spoken in a “code” that others would not understand. You’d be surprised how much people can decipher if they are given a reason to listen in.  Sadly, I have come across several people who have landed themselves in difficult situations at work by making candid or indiscreet comments in public spaces, only to have someone who knows the person/company being discussed relay this information back to the injured party.

At the serious end, you could find yourself dealing with possible legal or contractual issues. Perhaps a more common scenario is damage to your “brand.” Keep in mind your values and what personal and professional message you want to send others in the wider community.

I challenge you to find someone who has never revealed a little too much to someone they barely know and later regretted it.  After work events where alcohol is present can be a particularly problematic. I am not suggesting you shouldn’t speak about your work or career at a café and share ideas as this is how many of us work, network, plan, study and learn. Just be mindful of what you are saying.

I recently sat near a woman on a peak hour train. Speaking very loudly, she answered a call and had very clearly just been to a job interview. I could tell you the company, the position, her opinion of the remuneration, questions she didn’t like and what she thought of one of the panelists who she named in full multiple times. What if I worked for the company concerned or had been a family member of the panelist?

Indeed, an acquaintance told me she recently interviewed someone she had, only month earlier, heard talking very candidly on the tram about her supervisor, who she explicitly named.  Yes, it was a “private” tram conversation and she may have been a wonderful employee and the complaint worthy and legitimate, but her lack of judgement in a public space was unfortunate. I don’t know the outcome of the interview, but I can’t imagine this helped her chances. Employers value discretion.

When you have to talk

What if you need to be available to clients while you are out in public, as many of us do? I doubt your employer or client would want their private details or the specialized advice they are paying for, shared with wide world. So here is my strategy for public phone calls:

  1. Be mindful of where you are
  2. If something confidential comes up, explain you cannot speak
  3. Avoid talking negatively about your staff or business problems

On a related topic, avoid talking negatively about your staff or business problems to or in front of customers – especially at the counter. It is not appropriate and makes customers feel uncomfortable, even invisible.

It’s all too easy to get some people to spill, you just have to ask how their day is going. Don’t be that indiscreet person – it could stall your career.

Helen Green is director at Career Confident. Her article was originally published here.

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