Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 6, Issue 13;   March 29, 2006: When You Aren't Supposed to Say: I

When You Aren't Supposed to Say: I

by

Most of us have information that's "company confidential," or possibly even more sensitive than that. When we encounter individuals who try to extract that information, we're better able to protect it if we know their techniques.

Mike froze in mid-stride. Without realizing it, he'd left that other guy in his office unattended. Sitting in open view on his desk were the financials for the quarterly summary. He turned to the woman beside him and said, "Excuse me, I'll have to show you to the elevator in a minute. Please come back with me to my office now."

When they reached his office, the man was gone. Mike looked at his desk. It appeared undisturbed, but he still felt uneasy. He'd have to report this.

The Great WallMike has just become a victim of a misdirection tactic, intended to breach the virtual wall of security at its weakest point: person-to-person interactions.

First the unknown man had entered his office, asking for Philippe, who was at a meeting. Then, almost immediately, the woman had entered asking for directions to the elevator. He'd stepped out of his office to point the way, and she'd asked him to escort her a little farther. And that was it. A perfect setup.

Most of us have information that must be protected. We must take care, for example, when disclosure would be impolitic, unethical, or dangerous. And the more sensitive the information, the more likely we are to encounter persistent and skillful seekers of that information. Some are willing to do almost anything to get what they want.

When you possess sensitive information that others desire, you might become the target of a variety of techniques of varying ethical value. Understanding those techniques, and preparing to resist them, helps protect your information, your career, and perhaps even your life.

The more sensitive the information,
the more likely we are to encounter
persistent and skillful seekers
of that information
Some seekers have extensive resources that are out of view of the target. They use these resources to wring value out of even the most unlikely bits of data. Here are some examples of resource-based methods.

Holography
This technique involves integrating partial information from multiple targets to make a useful whole. It's effective when the targets feel that they're safe in revealing a minimal bit of data, not realizing that other targets might reveal other pieces. Indicators of this method are questions about details, such as what make of car someone owns. "Just curious" is rarely a reasonable justification for questions of this kind.
Nonchance chance meeting
If you have a routine, such as often going to the same place for lunch, you might "accidentally" meet the seeker, who strikes up a friendship that appears to be unrelated to your job. Disclosing information to someone you met seemingly by chance can be risky. Validate.
False flag
Seekers might represent themselves as law enforcement, reporters, biographers, insurance investigators, or similar information gatherers. They might display legitimate-looking credentials or other insignia. Unless you have the expertise required to validate credentials, remain skeptical.

Seekers have other techniques available, too. We'll look at some misdirection-based methods next time. Go to top Top  Next issue: When You Aren't Supposed to Say: II  Next Issue

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We aren't completely free to specify the content or frequency of status reports from the people who write them. There are limits on both. Here's Part II of an exploration of those limits.
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See also Effective Communication at Work and Ethics at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A hummingbird feeding on the nectar of a flowerComing October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.
An owl of undetermined speciesAnd on October 19: Bullying by Proxy: I
The form of workplace bullying perhaps most often observed involves a bully and a target. Other forms are less obvious. One of these, bullying by proxy, is especially difficult to control, because it so easily evades most anti-bullying policies. Available here and by RSS on October 19.

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