October 27, 2009
On the New York Times bestseller list is the book Postsecret: Confessions on life, death and God by Frank Warren. This is his 5th Postsecret book. They are part of the Postsecret Project, an online community art project where people mail in their secrets anonymously on one-side postcards. Someone wrote on one of the postcards
“I lied about the fact that I am depressed and suicidal because I was afraid they would not renew my pilot license.”
More than 10,000 cards have been collected so far and Postsecret.com has more than 500,000 fans on Facebook. Frank Warren believes that revealing a personal secret is therapeutic and can have a life-changing effect.
We all have secrets, our own and those that were entrusted to us. Individuals, corporations and government have secrets.
There are however circumstances when a secret has to be revealed. Let me list two:
- When the secret has the potential of causing physical or financial harm to yourself or to others.
- When keeping the secret violate your legal obligations.
The U.S. Government has a special office (The U.S. office of Special Counsel) that “serves as a safe conduit for the receipt and evaluation of whistleblower disclosures from federal employees, former employees, and applicants for federal employment.” One can file a report online!
Whistleblowers do perform important service to the community by exposing fraud and other illegalities. However in many cases their professional careers are permanently damaged. Whistleblowers Cynthia Cooper of WorldCom, Colleen Rowley of the FBI, and Sherron Watkins of Enron were named “Persons of the Year” by Time Magazine in 2002. Yet they were never again hired by neither the government nor by corporations. Cynthia Cooper created her own consulting firm and wrote a book, Colleen Rowley retired and Sherron Watkins write a blog called “The Insufferable Truth Blog.” She wrote a book as well. Could it be that people feel that someone that has been a whistleblower in the past is not to be trusted in the future?
Keeping a secret should not be difficult because the information we are given in confidence do not belong to us. It belongs to the person that trusted us with the secret. Disposing of something that is not ours is, in my view similar to stealing.
Respecting confidentially is an essential value in the profession or function of an ethics officer. Violating confidence even if it is only once can destroy the ethics officer’s reputation and ability to function effectively.
Furthermore, revealing a secret is a violation of trust and trust is at the core of all human relationships.
Unfortunately and sadly there are few people that can really be trusted with a secret. Some are careless and forgetful; others hope to gain recognition and acceptance by revealing a secret and some will do it just for personal financial gain.
King Solomon once said: “He who goes about as a talebearer reveals secrets, but he who is trustworthy conceals a matter.”