Bob writes…”I am the VP in charge of an enormous merger at my company. Moments ago, I learned that someone on my team accidentally forwarded an email that contained information about highly controversial decisions. It went out to three people and as far as I know, one of those people sent it on to another six people.”
Well Bob…the truth is you’ve got two wrong moves that you might be considering and before we talk about anything else I want you to know why you shouldn’t make either of them…
I suspect you’re inclined to send an email out to all 9 people who are now privy to private information saying something along the lines of “do not talk about what you saw in that email.” Bob, I want you to resist that urge.
This is one of those times when email does not work in your favor. It’s too easy for recipients to keep hitting that forward button and you’ll be too far away to stop them. They’re well intentioned. They just want to make sure they’re colleagues know what’s up. “Hey, did you get this?” Get what? Oh, so and so leaked information, but Bob doesn’t want us to talk about it.” You see where this is going…
And if you’re not thinking about mass email distribution, you might be entertaining thoughts of a seriously official confidentiality statement. Something that tells those 9 people if they talk, dire consequences will result.
This, my friend, is the second potential wrong move…a slippery slope that I don’t want you to go down. First, if you have a breach and you’ve created a termination clause you’ll have a perception problem if you don’t act on it. After today, if one employee leaks information, somebody knows about it and if you don’t terminate them because of it, then you look like a wishy washy leader…unable to live by the standard you set. And if there’s one thing I’m certain of…people can’t help it…they talk. What if it’s one of your most trusted employees…just having a bad day?
So what is your move? Shhh…be as quiet as you can possibly be. Contain the leak. Remember I told you email isn’t your friend. But in this case, the phone is. You need to make a call. Eliminate the paper trail…make it impossible to hit that forward button. Grab your pen and paper; here are your next steps and the message:
- Advise top leadership of the situation as soon as you can. By phone…not email.
- Organize a conference call with the 9 individuals you know saw the information.
- Deliver the following consistent messages to everyone at the exact same time:
- We’ve called all of you together today to discuss an email message regarding the merger.
- The note was marked confidential and included a list of assumptions we’ve been considering (careful word choice here…”assumptions” not “decisions”)
- The information was shared with you by mistake. I will be brief, but I want you to understand we are still in the planning mode, and have made no definitive decisions about anything.
- We are committed to providing regular and consistent updates, but in this case, information was inadvertently and prematurely shared with you. Please treat it as confidential and do not share.
- Open up the call for questions…if anyone asks about the “assumptions,” respond by saying, “we are still in planning mode, and it would be speculation to comment. Let’s focus on our goals.”
- If anyone apologizes or tries to downplay their involvement, be empathic “we understand that until now you may not have realized that the information was not intended for you.”
- And finally, create a holding statement for anyone beyond the 9 who might be in the know, “unsanctioned planning information regarding a merger was distributed to employees outside of the core team. The information was marked confidential and we have addressed the situation.”
Now back to your “confidentiality” agreement…the one I don’t want you to issue. The trick to ensuring silence isn’t threatening employees; it’s actually convincing them of the good that will come from it. For example, “if we contain this leak, we’ll ensure productivity levels remain high…let’s not allow this to slow us down.”
Bob, contain the leak, talk as little as possible, only on the phone and clearly demonstrate how the hush factor will benefit everyone. At the bottom of this blog, post your comments. I’d love to hear from all of you about this scenario or another one. You can also message me privately at firstname.lastname@example.org.