Transparency builds trust, especially in a startup. As a serial entrepreneur and CEO, I believe in sharing as much about the company as possible.

While going into too much detail might be a bit much, it's absolutely vital that every employee understands certain aspects of the business. Vision. Strategy. Goals. Where you are. Where you're going. And most importantly, how you will get there -- as a team.

Some startups go even further. Buffer is notable for publishing the salaries of all employees, from their latest hires to the founder and CEO. It also shares how pay rates and benefits are calculated.

But there is one thing you should never discuss with your employees: personal and professional information about their peers.

Privacy is just that: private.

Granted, maintaining employee privacy can be difficult where a small team is concerned. When people work closely together -- not just in terms of proximity but also emotionally -- it's easy for those lines to get blurred. When you work with people you trust as professionals, it's natural to extend that trust to the personal side of things.

People talk about their personal lives, about their families, their health, their goals -- people share.

Which is fine.

But not for you.

Here are two basic rules of thumb:

  1. Never discuss personal information an employee has has shared with you. The only exceptions are when the employee gives you express permission or has openly talked about it with not just one person, but with many others on your staff. In short: Wait until the information is common knowledge.
  2. Never discuss professional information about employees with their peers. Period. The employee should feel free to discuss developmental plans. Or improvement plans. Or disciplinary actions. Or illnesses or other conditions, even if they affect their work. Confidentiality also extends to employee status, pay, or performance. Speaking openly about work conditions, like wages, is a right the National Labor Relations Act grants to every employee as a way to support fair and equal pay. Your employees can talk -- but you should not.

Keep in mind that the rule for professional information applies to peers and not to an employee's supervisor or manager. A supervisor should fully understand the details of development plans, of disciplinary actions, of conditions that affect work performance. Great leaders know their employees.

That doesn't mean a supervisor or manager needs to know everything. If an employee speaks to you in confidence about, say, problems with a personal relationship, that stays between you and the employee. The same is true if the employee talks about issues his family faces. Or with a friend. Or about an illness or condition that does not affect his or her work schedule or work.

Be flattered that the employee trusts you. Don't be tempted to break that trust.

The first time you do is the last time your employees will trust you -- and, by extension, your company.

Published on: Nov 26, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.