Ethical conundrum
November 4, 2012 4:37 AM   Subscribe

A first draft document (press release) I emailed to a new colleague for reaction and comment in a new organization I volunteer for was headed 'for your eyes only', 'confidential", and "not for release." It was copied and distributed to others and a reply to me with the explanation, "I assumed you intended others in the group to see it." My disappointment stings. My trust non-existant. While I was highly motivated to do this volunteer work, in something I believe in and value, I fear future experiences will be as frustrating and discouraging as this one. Anyone ever have similar experiences? Options seem to me to 1. ignore it, 2. Confront directly, 3. Resign.
posted by NorthCoastCafe to Human Relations (31 answers total)
I've been a lawyer for nearly a decade and have dealt with a lot of privileged information, and I've never seen anything labeled "for your eyes only" outside of a spy film. Anything with a heading of "confidential" and "not for release" I would always assume allowed for distribution among my colleagues with whom I collaborate in my area.

Absent a direct instruction ("Pete, please do not send this draft to ANYONE, including your boss, or Mary, or John from legal"), I would have had the same assumption as your colleague. And to be honest, if I were to have gotten an instruction like that, I'd be pretty weirded out.

I'd go with option 4., change your mindset. This doesn't sound like the outrage you're making it out to be.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 4:47 AM on November 4, 2012 [31 favorites]

If it's a press release about the organization you're volunteering for, why is it confidential from the other people who work there? I mean, presumably you wrote it with the purpose in mind that it be shared with not only members of the organization, but the entire world.

Maybe the person you sent it to thought you were just joking around or being bashful/low self esteem about your writing? In the nonprofit I work for, we often send out first drafts for comments to a pretty large group of people because hey, we're all volunteers and some folks may be busy with their other jobs and the rest of their lives and not have a chance to give feedback.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 4:53 AM on November 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

Seems strange to label a press release "for your eyes only". I understand not wanting a first draft of your work being released to the greater public, but surely it's a good idea to have other members of the leadership see it and give feedback? That said, if you don't enjoy working with this particular group of people, you certainly don't have to. Volunteer organizations are sometimes run in bizarre ways by bizarre groups of people, and it doesn't make you crazy to want to throw up your hands and say, I can't deal with this. Only you can know if the value of the work you're doing outweighs the annoyance of doing it.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 4:53 AM on November 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think your designations were taken to mean the draft should not be shared outside the organization. If you didn't want it shared within the organization, you should have asked for that in the cover e-mail. Something like, "this is the first press release I've drafted for the organization, could you please give me some private feedback before it is shared with the rest of the group?"
posted by Area Man at 4:56 AM on November 4, 2012 [18 favorites]

My disappointment stings. My trust non-existant. While I was highly motivated to do this volunteer work, in something I believe in and value, I fear future experiences will be as frustrating and discouraging as this one.

While your colleague seems a little clueless (obviously, if you had meant the document to be sent to others, you would have done that), this sounds like an overreaction on your part. On the scale of "frustrating experiences", this is pretty mild. Next time you are in this situation, just address the point directly saying something like, "before I show this to other people, can you give me some feedback on this document?" making it clear that you don't want the colleague to forward it. And if he/she still forwards it, stop consulting that person or "get with the program" and realize it is an institutional norm to share these things internally.

This doesn't seem like a hill worth dying on.
posted by deanc at 4:58 AM on November 4, 2012 [5 favorites]

The phrase you were looking for was "for internal distribution only - not for release." The idea of confidentiality within an organisation when working for press releases is absurd. In future you can send it to the guy stating "I'm looking for your personal feedback before distributing an early draft to the group" but there's still no guarantee on that.

It's important to keep organisational culture in mind (this is how this org functions), as well as context (this is a press release, not the Yalta agreement.)
posted by DarlingBri at 4:58 AM on November 4, 2012 [22 favorites]

DarlinBri makes a good point.

You're a volunteer. You ran headlong into the culture of the organization. The organization explained the organization's culture of teamwork and group work in this manner.

If you want plain feedback from just one colleague there on an early draft, then send it as a Google doc, shared with this person alone, and say "Will you please privately give me feedback on this draft, so that I can then prepare a next version for the group review."

But this is the way the organization works, as a team, and that can be a good thing. There's nothing for anyone to feel bad about, including yourself.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 5:03 AM on November 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yes, I think you've badly misunderstood the culture of the place you're volunteering, and it seems odd to restrict internal access to a press release unless it's information that's secret from the majority of the organization. "Confidential" and "Not for release" would suggest to me it's not for dissemination outside the organization; "For your eyes only" is ... pretty meaningless.

I'd go to whomever you report to and say, "Hey Jess, coming from journalism, I'm more accustomed to a single editor going over my work for major errors before it gets loose in the newsroom. Is there a way I can get corrections and suggestions from you privately before it goes to the whole group for feedback?" But of course you run the risk of Jess saying "I don't have time for that" or "That's not how we do it here" or "You need the input of at least three people right off the bat ..." or "Your work's great, it doesn't need a first edit."

"I've been a lawyer for nearly a decade and have dealt with a lot of privileged information, and I've never seen anything labeled "for your eyes only" outside of a spy film."

I used to work with a guy who wrote "for your eyes only" or eventually just "eyes only" (NO NOSES!) or "FYEO" so often, on so many hundreds of pages of things a week, that were clearly not confidential (like magazine articles he found interesting and Xeroxed for senior staff) that he got a stamp, so he could just STAMP things. And he really believed that putting this designation on things rendered them magically invisible to outside authorities, FOIA requests (this was a public organization), and maybe lawsuits. And nobody could tell him it was stupid because he was very senior, and VERY TOUCHY. It drove me crazy, but every week, I got my documents with the magic stamp that rendered them invisible! I don't know, he spent a lot of time trying to skirt public disclosure requirements, which I think are very important, so I guess it's good he was really bad at it.

posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:03 AM on November 4, 2012 [8 favorites]

Absent further context (for example, did you write something that would harm your relationship with others within the organization, who have now seen it?), it seems likely that you have made unusual assumptions that your email receiver couldn't be expected to understand.
posted by Mr. Justice at 5:05 AM on November 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

In my role I am given a tonne of documents labeled "confidential"; it is actually my JOB to decide who to share the information with, whether it is the rest of the executive, or another committee. "For your eyes only" is unprofessional and usually on documents that are in no way worthy of that supposed level of importance.
posted by saucysault at 5:25 AM on November 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

If I marked an email "(private)" or "(For Your Eyes Only)" (which I agree is a little spy-novelish) in the subject line, I'd expect the person I was writing to keep it private. If I water-marked a Word doc 'draft' or added 'confidential' to the footer, I'd only mean that it was a draft, and confidential--meaning okay for internal distribution and I just didn't want the whole world to see my cruddy early draft and if it escaped I'd want it on the material that I was sort of preemptively disowning it.

So in the first case I'd be pissed, in the second not really pissed at all (probably not too psyched about it because as someone said, I'd not included others in the first place and not because I didn't know their names).

If I found myself in a gray area between these two things, where someone misinterpreted, I'd blame myself and chalk it up to lesson learned.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 5:32 AM on November 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

The way you do what you really wanted to do (get on-the-side advice off the record) is in person with a hard copy. "Hey, have a second to look something over for me? [specific thing to look for, for example: I think it might be too jargony.]. What do you think?

I have no problem with that, as the reviewer. I don't like getting things to "look at" by email. When that happens, I feel like I'm being set up for you to say later, "but ctmf approved it." That looks especially suspicious if you've left out specific other people that I know might have issues, as if you're trying to sneak something by them.

Absent some explanation, I would have done exactly what that person did. Or, just sent it back to you with a "please follow the standard process" note.

It would, of course, be different if I'm your official "mentor" or whatever. But that's a special case.
posted by ctmf at 5:37 AM on November 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

All dogs get one free bite.

State your objections and why, and leave on the next occurrence.

It IS up to you to be explicit about distribution, of course. If this was your failure to communicate, you own it. You'll need to develop superior techniques in the future. Holds true no matter where you are. Continuous improvement.
posted by FauxScot at 5:39 AM on November 4, 2012

BTW I don't find it weird that you'd share something with one person and not everyone. I sometimes share drafts with one or two people, but not everyone, and sometimes drafts are shared with me, but not everyone.

Sometimes you just don't want feedback from a bunch of people either because you respect someone's writing skills more than others, or because you don't want twelve people weighing in on policy, or because someone's uniquely in a position to say whether something is accurate. And some decisions and reviews are done just by a couple of people.

So I don't find that part weird.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 5:43 AM on November 4, 2012

There's nothing wrong with only wanting one person to see a document, but if that's what you had wanted, then you should have been as thuddingly literal about your instructions as possible, i.e. "This draft is only meant for your personal review. Do not forward this to anyone else, even within our group."

"Confidential" and "not for release" both sound like something that would be written on something that can be passed around within the organization. "For your eyes only" is very spy movie.

I would chalk this up to a simple misunderstanding and move on. What specific, concrete harms have really flowed from this incident?
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:51 AM on November 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think you're being a tad too dramatic.

I write and edit for a living. I've found that less confident, less experienced writers get REALLY protective of their work. The more experienced writers I know have gone through hundreds of rounds of iterations/workshops/rejections over the years and gotten really thick skin as a result (the cells themselves are armored in a heady mix of confidence + pragmatism).

Look: In some organizations, EVERYONE pitches in. I volunteered some design work for a nonprofit recently, and EVERYONE passed around the drafts, and EVERYONE commented, from the head of the org to the finance lady! ("We're paying for color, so we should fill in this white space!")

Yeah, it's weird to have so many voices chiming in, and in small organizations, people feel like they aren't doing their jobs correctly unless they weigh in or get consensus. The real question is: Are you professional enough to roll with it?
posted by mochapickle at 5:57 AM on November 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

If you want to quit, quit. You don't have to volunteer there or anywhere.

But, for what it's worth, I don't think you were clear (it just said this in a Word watermark, and did not spell it out in the email?) and I don't know that your intended request was reasonable in any event (these were all colleagues at the same organization?).
posted by J. Wilson at 6:02 AM on November 4, 2012

Let's break this down, phrase by phrase:

"Not for release" — That implies "not for release to the general public." Since your coworker referred to "others in the group," I assume it wasn't released to the outside world.

"Confidential" — The question I have is whether your job regularly involves documents marked "confidential." If so, I'd expect that the people working there would expect these documents to be freely shown around within the workplace. If not — that is, if documents marked "confidential" are not normally seen at your workplace — then there's probably no clear policy on how to handle this label, in which case you can hardly blame your coworker for not being sure of how to handle it.

"For your eyes only" — Look up the word "your" in a dictionary. It can be singular or plural.

So your coworker didn't clearly violate any of your labels. Either be more explicit in the future, or, as the first comment says, change your mindset.
posted by John Cohen at 7:05 AM on November 4, 2012

You are overreacting.

Talk to the person who leaked the release. Let them know that the release was not meant to be distributed. Then ask your supervisor what you can do in the future to prevent this from happening. There might be a company policy that delineates the kind of verbiage that would be most effective in preventing others from having access to such a file. Be proactive right now and stop taking this so personally.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 7:24 AM on November 4, 2012

People really, really don't read things very carefully. You can't just put "confidential" on a document and assume that it will be kept confidential. You have to have an explicit conversation with the person where you say "please don't show this to anyone else." Take this as a learning experience and move past your disappointment - this should not significantly affect your trust in this person.
posted by Ragged Richard at 7:25 AM on November 4, 2012

I also think this is an organizational culture thing.
Maybe his including everyone else in the email was his way of saying: this is how we do things here. Do not send your drafts just to me.
posted by Neekee at 7:34 AM on November 4, 2012 [7 favorites]

My disappointment stings. My trust non-existant. ... I fear ... frustrating and discouraging ...

Your emotional response to this is inappropriate. It's a professional situation and even if the person who you sent the email to was wrong by sharing your draft with a project team (they weren't), your reaction is way over the top.

Even your proposed actions: "1. ignore it, 2. Confront directly, 3. Resign" are really emotionally loaded (passive-aggressive, confrontational, extreme). This is work. Nobody's betraying your trust here.
posted by headnsouth at 7:39 AM on November 4, 2012 [9 favorites]

I'm replying as the person that a volunteer and/or employee has often latched onto and then asked for my feedback on documents, projects, evrything possible under the sun, etc.

What about different options, such as doing 4) Modify how you elicit feedback from an individual and/or small group there, and 5) Learn the culture of that volunteer organization.

There are many reasons that the person that you are approaching for feedback may not be able to do so (i.e. time, the normal process is X [give it to the entire group],etc.). So rather than shoot the email with cryptic top secret implications, first approach the colleague in person (as in speak to them/not email) for the next document that you want personal feedback on and spell out what you want, specify how you imagine this proceeding (i.e. feedback a few times/ten times/infinity and beyond), and give them an option to not do this if they don't want to for whatever reason.

So you could say, "Hi colleague X, as [insert appropriate comment or compliment- top editor, person who knows the organization, etc.], I would like to initially get feedback on my documents privately from you the first few times [insert reason - until I learn how to write these until I learn the organization culture]. Ideally, after you give me your feedback, I will incorporate the suggested changes and submit it to the group for review. If you don't have the time or don't like to do this, can you recommend someone that I can have initially review the document?"

If colleague X agrees, when you send it for first review, just email that person and the first few sentences will summarize your conversation (as discussed, please review- after, I will incorporate the changes and resubmit to the group). This to me would be clear cut directions and you know that the person is willing to do as you would like.

Also, I do think that 5) is essential. Some work places always want person Y and to be involved and cc)ed, or all documents will be reviewed by committee at once, etc. Just learn what that is.

If you are new there, they will probably overlook this. Just ask for clarification on the normal procedure: So everyone is cced to review before publication? If I want one or two people to first review, with whom should I discuss this?
posted by Wolfster at 7:45 AM on November 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Bucking the trend of answers so far I work in a field where I find myself often emailing documents that contain information that is confidential (tender reviews, internal budgets, potential offers etc).

Whilst this sounds maybe different to your environment I would be (/have been) extremely frustrated if the information is forwarded to the wrong people as it causes large problems. It would be absolutely appropriate to 2) confront this directly, in person if at all possible (not just email).
posted by Albondiga at 8:58 AM on November 4, 2012

You're upset because one of your basic values was violated. That's entirely appropriate, it's not at all unprofessional, and it should indeed cause you to reassess the work situation.

If you want to try continuing with these people, I'd suggest figuring out exactly what the value is that they violated, so you can articulate it clearly when you discuss it with them. I'm pretty sure it's not just that they should obey whatever conditions you put on them, but it's something about the nature of the work itself. Maybe you see draft writing as sensitive because it reflects on your personal writing processes, or maybe you see it as personal property which other people don't have the right to do with as they please. Whatever it is, if you can state it clearly, the others will be able to respond definitely, with either, "Oh, sure, no problem, sorry for the misunderstanding", or "Yeah, no, we don't work that way here", or whatever, and you'll know where you stand.
posted by stebulus at 12:38 PM on November 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Hi there, I work in comms/PR, and this answer is somewhat long and orthogonal, but I guess I'm gonna talking about what might be provoking this feelings.

Firstly, I must say that - in the context of my internal comms and PR work - neither "confidential" or "not for release" imply that distribution should be limited to one person. I have never seen for "your eyes only" in a professional (or to be honest any other) setting.

Tell me, do you work in PR/Comms as a day job? I can totally understand your disappointment. When you're trying something new and you're not sure if your work is going to be right, you get very sensitive about it, and you don't want any missteps you've made projected sky-high.

At the same time, however, this kind of ready-sharing, and rough-and-tumble is very much part of what working in comms/PR means. It is very very common - especially in close-knit teams or committees - to share a draft around. It usually goes hand in hand with exhaustive changes to the text as well, so if you're likely to be offended by lots and lots of changes to your work (some sensible, some trivial, some seemingly nonsensical) you might want to think about whether this kind of thing is right for you. You might want to ask yourself why something like this has made you respond so emotionally.

If you're entering any kind of career around writing, it's critically important that you're able to separate your work from your feelings or confidence about it. A true professional is chameleonic in this sense; not only able to adapt their style to various "house" styles, but also to weather the changes their work will endure from others and - where appropriate - to parse those changes for common themes that may form the basis of a solid critique of your writing or style.

As I say, your anxiety is understandable. However, the events that provoked it are bog-standard across the industry in my experience; do not reflect a judgment on you or your writing; and were not formed from a callous disregard for your feelings or desire to hurt.

I'm sure that your probably have a lot of feelings and self-worth wrapped up in that press release - writers always take their work seriously and its a commendation for you. But at the same time, it's important to remember - for your own sanity - that it's just a press release. Not many people are going to read it unless you're announcing something truly stupendous; those that do read it will care more for the information it contains than the prose; and they will forget both quickly. So far as writing jobs go, it's not War and Peace.

I see a lot of people in my sector - and I think you might be one - who believe that everything they produce needs to be 100%. I tell you from my experience, that virtually nothing needs to be 100%. Further, getting from 80% to 100% is subject to a law of diminishing returns (it will take more work to get from 80 to 100 than what it took taking it from 0 to 80). Further still, your idea of 100% will never, ever mesh with someone else idea of 100%. No one will notice that extra 20% except the person who made the changes, and the person resenting that person for making the changes.

Cultivate the ability to do your best, then let it go. Let others look at it, voice opinions, make changes. When someone judges a piece of writing, they are not judging you, or your ability to write usually. Good luck.
posted by smoke at 2:04 PM on November 4, 2012 [8 favorites]

It sucks when people ignore us.

Particularly when we've outlined it (as far as we can see) very clearly.

Next time, put your desires in text very clearly: I would appreciate it if you didn't forward this to anyone else in the group and kept this draft between us only.

From there you can ascertain whether you have a bigger problem in which you're just going to keep getting ignored.

But, maybe, the person genuinely misunderstood. People don't read things very well - they skim and make assumptions. Slow it down, deliberately ask for what you want, and see what happens.
posted by heyjude at 2:42 PM on November 4, 2012

You feel what you feel, and that's valid. But I'd advise getting some more information before taking action.

I work in an industry that values information security and also sometimes features strange internal politics about what gets shown to whom when.

I have seen big problems caused by people (especially bosses who were in a position to enforce their demands) asking for confidentiality in situations where that confidentiality was very hard to preserve, or where it kept employees supposedly pursuing a common goal from communicating openly about what was going on. And I've had jobs where the chain of confidence was a way of establishing alliances and cliques -- so someone might tell you something in order to mark that you are their friend, and incidentally create an effective barrier between you and the other people who don't know the secret yet -- or certain people were passively-aggressively cut out of the chain of information. Juvenile, but it happens, and it means some people have been burned by confidentiality requests and may resist honoring them.

So here's what I generally do:

-- if I want someone's private feedback on a draft I plan to share later, I'll explicitly say "I'd like your feedback on this before I show it to X, Y, and Z because Reason. (Example: I want to make sure I'm right about the technical capabilities of this code library before I make promises to other departments.)" This lets them know exactly what kind of confidentiality I'm asking for, and also that I plan to loop X, Y, and Z in later and that there's no looming problem where I'm planning to keep an important thing secret. It also establishes that the confidence isn't part of any weird power play.

-- if it's something confidential enough that I never want anyone else to see it, I don't commit it to email. I talk to the person live instead. Email can be forwarded; also, at least at my organization, it's "owned" by the company, not by me, and there's no absolute guarantee that it won't be viewed or distributed under future circumstances I can't anticipate. It's very hard to control the flow. So, if you care a lot about keeping something to yourself and the one person you're talking to, the phone call or in-person chat is usually better.

-- if someone sends me something and I think they deliberately omitted someone, I'll reply to that person and say, "hey, I really think we should share this with X, Y, and Z -- unless there's a reason you prefer not to do that?" so that I make sure I establish the parameters and that I'm not helping contribute to passive-aggressive information control.

Both in dealing with sensitive information and in cleaning up after there's been a problem, I've had the most success with a direct communication that very overtly explained exactly what I wanted to have happen (or why I was not satisfied with what did happen), combined with an assumption that no one involved is malicious and everyone has some reason for what they are doing.

And that's what I'd advise here; in particular, try not to go into it acting like it is a Big Huge Deal unless you have to. I'd have this conversation in person if at all possible, and I'd just lead with "oh, hey, by 'confidential' I meant that I was hoping for your feedback before Chris and Pat saw the draft.' Then see what they say -- "we all work on the press releases together here," "oops sorry I won't do that again," "you should really be mentored by Jan instead," or whatever. If they do give you pushback and you feel like you were intentionally betrayed after you've gotten a response from them, then you can think about whether and how you want to escalate.

But don't lead with Drama.
posted by shattersock at 2:50 PM on November 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

Putting aside ambiguity about what "confidential etc." was or should have been understood to mean, the part that really jumps out to me is that you put this in the header of your document, which you emailed for feedback. I don't know where your professional work experience has been previously, but where I work, people frequently forward emails to people they believe to be appropriate recipients without opening or reading the attachments.

I think you're attaching a lot of significance to things that may not have occurred at all. I'm not going to try to talk you down off the ledge, so if you want to stop donating your time here, go for it, but if you want to keep working there, I recommend letting go of the resentment and in the future having a more direct conversation about exactly what you want to have happen, such as suggested by shattersock above.
posted by J. Wilson at 3:15 PM on November 4, 2012

A first draft document (press release) I emailed to a new colleague for reaction and comment in a new organization I volunteer for

Ah. So, who owns the copyright to this press release? Even though you volunteer, you do not. This is a work for hire and the organization owns the copyright. You really don't have any legal or ethical basis for restricting who can see it.

As such, it's really your mindset that's out of whack here and needs adjusting. It's been discussed above how the organizational "culture" is something you need to fit into; trust me, what you've encountered would be the norm almost everywhere I've ever volunteered (things were a little different in my jobs in the insurance and health industries).

The only thing that's at stake here is your relationship with the person in the coordinator role, and their main concern isn't really protecting your fragile ego with regard to what you've written. Outside of something on the order of a layoff notice, I can't think of anything that would need to be kept from others in the organization, especially if it's ultimately to be released to the press. I may be being blunt here, but I think you need some blunt if you're going to be doing this type of service -- others are going to see and evaluate your work. Accept that. Now ask why you placed so much of a "trust" issue on this relatively minor service which normally would hardly get noticed, and why you're determined to make a Big Deal out of something that was obviously of little concern to the rest of the organization. That's definitely going to be noticed, and it isn't going to reflect well on you. You want the organization to think of you as a valued contributor, not a problem agitator with trust issues. Ideally, in their world, the press releases go out and the organization succeeds and they may, potentially, thank you at the end of the year. But if you go in with your very solipsistic approach to submission and review they may just decide that your services were free and they're better off with someone who's much more no-drama, even if the press releases fall short of perfection. That's the real world.
posted by dhartung at 4:05 PM on November 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

Where I've worked, there are several tiers of increasing "confidentiality," but aside from an HR or finance issue, there is almost no circumstance where I would assume that "confidential" meant something couldn't be shared within the organization. The organization exists to achieve a goal, such as winning a campaign, and if one part of the body (say, a "finger") touched something that needed the action of another part of the body (say, to be looked at by the "eyes" or to have the help of all the "fingers" on the "hand"), they'd quickly make that happen. Engaging the right part of the body becomes an almost automatic response, and not to do so would feel wrong.

The organization exists to achieve a goal via a particular approach, and you're there to help the organization do that, so you might consider trusting that the person handled the email in the best way to achieve the goal. If you had another goal (e.g., having your first press release as a volunteer be stellar) and wanted this person to understand "confidentiality" within that context, then you may have needed to explain that clearly. (People have given examples above.) But when you're asking them not to handle something in their normal, professional way, it might feel inappropriate or like you're asking them for a favor.
posted by salvia at 10:52 PM on November 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

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