Does Keeping Secrets at Work Help or Hurt Your Career?

New research from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology analyzed more than 13,000 secrets. The findings revealed that the average person is keeping 13 secrets right now. Five of them are secrets they’ve never told another living soul! (if that doesn’t pique your curiosity nothing will).

Secrets at work aren’t new, but they’re increasingly difficult to keep (thanks to the all-encompassing digital trail). From leaked emails to hacked websites, keeping confidential information on lock is almost impossible. According to Harvard Business Review, we are moving into an era in which every company and organization must expect that secrets will get out.

Of course, not all secrets are created equal. Some are comical, or even brand-builders, like KFC guarding their secret recipe. Some are more serious, like fraud or conspiracy. Exhibit A: Theranos, whose founder will be sentenced this week for hiding information from investors and patients.

Illegal acts aside, there are some upsides to secrecy. Dr. Katie Greenaway of the University of Melbourne notes, “People tell secrets to create a sense of social closeness; we make ourselves vulnerable and increase our social bond.”  This can help you establish yourself as a trusted confidant at work, to your boss and your coworkers.

That said, the elementary school motto of “nobody likes a tattle tale” can also come back to bite you. Continually keeping secrets can erode the long-term trust of your team and keeping big secrets can cost you your job.

It can be tough to know the difference between being a blabbermouth and safeguarding your reputation. Here are three best practices to navigate the nuance:

Pretend your boss found out…now what?  Say someone on your team was going through a divorce. They told your boss, and when they shared, they mention you already knew, and had known for a couple of months. Would your boss be mad at you for keeping their secret? Probably not.

But, what about if your boss found out that someone was leaking company information to a competitor, and you knew about it? Different story. If you’re unsure whether keeping the secret preserves or erodes your reputation organizationally, mentally walking through a hypothetical ‘uncovering’ can help you get clear.

If you have to lie, lie by omission. Oftentimes, my executive coaching clients are privy to information long before their teams are. Whether it’s a potential merger, IPO, or round of layoffs, carrying the weight of the “secret” can cause them major unrest. If you’re a senior leader, and you’re close with your team, keeping information from them can make you feel icky (even if it’s for the best).
In these cases, it is irresponsible (or even illegal)  to break the confidentiality you’ve agreed to.

If you need to keep a secret temporarily, preserve trust with your team by avoiding direct lies. Omitting information, or even offering generalities like “it’s a developing situation” or “I’ll be able to share more soon” can fend off feelings of potential betrayal down the line.

If you’re on the receiving end of the (late) information, understand that in most cases, your boss was not gleefully delighting in your unknowingness. More likely, the emotional heaviness of not being fully transparent was difficult for them to bear.

Read the fine print.  Aside from potential legal troubles, disregarding confidentiality agreements can cause you major reputational damage. Things like non-competes, non-disclosure agreements, and even buried clauses in your onboarding paperwork can come back to bite you. If you’re struggling with what to say (or not say) the answer may already be spelled out for you. Time to dig up that paperwork.

Over any career, you will both keep and blab secrets. And you won’t always be right. What’s most important is that you act in a way that you can be proud of (or at least, not embarrassed about) when things inevitably come to the surface.