Are 1:1s confidential?

You’re having a 1:1 and someone brings something to you that feels like it needs addressing with someone else. Maybe they’re having a problem with a teammate. Maybe they’ve been approached about a new role. What do you do? Is the discussion confidential, even if they didn’t ask you to keep it so?

Mark Rabkin, VP Engineering and Product Facebook said, "If it’s safe enough to be overheard — it’s not the right content for a 1:1." The very idea of a 1:1 is to talk about things that shouldn’t be discussed in groups. Confidentiality is a requirement.

Skip-level 1:1s are almost always complaint sessions, often about their boss or teammates. You have to keep them 100% confidential. This is hard because it often feels like you need to fix things. You’re the manager after all, and what is your job there for if not to fix things? You must resist this urge. If the team doesn’t feel they can tell you things without it getting out, they will hold back, and you’ll miss out on the benefits of the skip levels.

If Carly tells you she’s thinking of applying for a spot somewhere else in the company, you can’t go tell her boss about it or your trust is blown and the skip levels become useless.

You often have to avoid taking direct action after a 1:1, so you don’t inadvertently leak what was talked about. Evan tells you that his boss is taking forever to approve the latest plans, you’ll have to wait a while to talk about it with his boss, or he’ll think Evan tattled on him.

In 1:1s with your own reports, they’re talking to their boss, so they have an absolute expectation of privacy. Unless you specifically talk to them about bringing someone else into the discussion, their thoughts and concerns should stay completely between the two of you. If you find that you’re regularly talking bringing something up with someone else, then you either have a seriously dysfunctional company, or you’re talking about the wrong things in your 1:1s (hint: stop talking about the work you’re doing).

Of course, if something illegal or unethical is going on, address it right away. Take whatever steps you can to sanitize the source, but you can’t allow bad behavior to continue.

This is one of a series of posts about holding 1:1s. View the rest of the series.

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