The Different Confidentiality Risks For Managers And Supervisors

By Kirstin Heffner, The McCalmon Group, Inc.

Apple, manufacturer of iPhones and other devices, has zero tolerance for product leaks. According to a former Apple product engineer's teenage daughter:

At the end of the day, when you work for Apple it doesn't matter how good of a person you are… If you break a rule, they just have no tolerance. They had to do what they had to do.

Apple fired the girl's father, who worked on Apple's new iPhone X, after he showed her the product before its formal debut. The teenager posted a seemingly harmless five-minute video of her September day of shopping for makeup and clothing. She then visited her father on Apple's campus in Cupertino, California for pizzas in the cafeteria. When her dad handed her the iPhone X to test, she recorded footage of it, and posted it on YouTube. YouTube viewers got 45 seconds of footage of the girl scrolling through screens on the new design and showing off its camera. The video went viral. She took it down when Apple asked her to, but it was too late for her father's career at Apple.

Apple, like many tech companies, zealously guards against early disclosures of its products. The employer allegedly utilizes code names to describe internal projects and has a security team and investigators to track down leaks.

In a subsequent video posted on YouTube, the teenager offered an explanation of what happened and says that her dad "apologizes" and "takes full responsibility for the one rule that he broke." She claims she made the video "for fun because I love making YouTube videos" and that she had no idea she was breaking Apple's rules. Theodore Schleifer, "An Apple engineer showed his daughter the new iPhone X. Now, she says, he's fired." (Oct. 29, 2017).

The reason for confidentiality rules is to avoid exactly what happened - someone, here, a family member, revealing a new product before its launch. The employee's teenager learned an important lesson, the hard way.

Although confidentially is extremely important in highly competitive industries like the tech industry, it is equally important for other employers for different reasons. For example, health care employers are legally bound to keep patient medical information confidential. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) require most employers to keep employee medical information confidential to protect privacy and to prevent discriminatory decisions based on the information. When the rules are not followed, an employee or customer can sue the employer.

For some employers, confidential information may not be legally defined. However, production processes for a manufacturer or client lists for a professional employer are extremely valuable, for example.

Employees and former employees may intentionally or accidentally breach employer confidentiality. People have knowingly leaked confidential employer information out of spite for coworkers or revenge for the employer. When leaks happen out of malice, legal consequences can be different for the violation, even amounting to criminal charges.

More often, employees accidentally leak confidential information. Employees may let their guards down and forget the sensitivity of information at social gatherings, not unlike the situation with the father-daughter pizza lunch in this case. Social media and email make it easy to leak information and exponentially increase damages.

So, how do managers and supervisors fit in? Make sure employees know and understand your employer's policy. Define protected confidential information for them understandable terms, including concrete examples of how they put their employer and themselves at risk.

Be the eyes and ears for your employer. Most employees have some level of access to confidential employer data. Remind them of what information is confidential when the opportunity arises. If you see or hear anything that might lead to indiscretion, put a stop to it and remind or warn employees of the risk.

Finally, make sure your employees and coworkers understand the seriousness of breaching confidentiality and the possible consequences. All employees, managers and front line workers alike, should understand that they will be held accountable and that discipline and termination are possible consequences, as well as the possibility of being charged criminally or being named personally in a lawsuit.

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