January 26, 2014

In Confidence

Posted in Best Practice, Organisation responsibilities, Professionalism tagged , , , , at 3:14 am by Sue Hine

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In all the on-line chatter between managers of volunteers it seems strange we do not raise ethical issues very often.  Yes we can get hot under the collar about job substitution or whether mandatory service is really volunteering – but I do not recall discussion about privacy and confidentiality or codes of conduct.  It’s like we – and volunteers – have a built-in recognition and sense of ethical responsibility for such matters.

Yet I am quite certain this does not mean volunteers are all perfect and we never have cause to deal with breaches of privacy.

I spent the first half of my life in a small town where my name and pedigree were widely known.  My face was familiar to storekeepers without having to present an ID card.  Youthful indiscretions could be reported to parents before I got home.  Later, my children were bewildered by the number of pauses I made in walking down the street to greet and chat with all the people I knew.  Back then the idea of individual privacy and confidentiality was nothing to worry about.  Why would you, in such an open and inclusive community?

Time passes.  Population increases and urban migration ramp up the pace of living.  Global technology speeds up communication and multiplies the means of interaction – and also the opportunities for information-sharing.  The value of personal privacy is coded into legal rights and protections, and no voluntary agency can afford to be without a privacy policy, which can include reference to personal information held on volunteer databases.  Confidentiality and privacy boundaries will be included in volunteer training.  It’s all about trust and integrity, especially when volunteers are engaged in people support services.  Confidentiality is also important to maintaining the integrity of the organisation and its standing in the community.

But still there are slips of the tongue, sometimes unthinking.  Sometimes there is gossip-mongering.  So what is a manager of volunteers to do?

A story is fed back to me that a couple of volunteers were overheard chatting about their work in the queue at the supermarket.  The volunteers are not identified, and there is no major transgression evident.  I choose to put up a sign in the volunteers’ office:  Loose Lips Sinks Ships, and in the next newsletter I include a reminder of the importance of protecting client privacy.  I can also reinforce this message at a volunteer support meeting.

On another occasion a staff member hears a volunteer in conversation with a service user about another part of her volunteer work, disclosing information about another client’s condition.  When the volunteer is known I say thank goodness for the volunteer code of conduct.   I can remind her of the clause about confidentiality, and about the potential impact of the private information getting back to the client.  It’s not quite a disciplinary matter, and the direct approach is usually sufficient to avoid a repeat.

In an ideal world people would not need to be reminded of this ‘duty of care’.  We would know the limits of what to share, with whom and how.  Even better, we can learn to say quite firmly We shouldn’t be talking about this, or Hey, that information is private.  And when I say I can’t tell you – it would be breaching the Privacy Act, I am sending a clear reminder of the rules we need to follow.

And then you will point out the paradox.  In the world of journalism and internet social media there are no boundaries.  We chase the gossip about celebrities and crave the latest details of personal and public tragedies.  Social media offer a platform for disclosing personal information and sharing it widely.  My small town village pump gossip has not gone away – it’s gone global, along with inherent risks of abuse.

Yet privacy law remains a benchmark for organisations, their staff and volunteers.  Personal information is given by the individual; it is held for organisation purposes; and disclosure elsewhere needs individual permission.   Let’s keep it that way, as a principle of our professional ethics.

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1 Comment »

  1. So true! We encourage our volunteers to “care” to “get involved” to “get to know” the clients, all in that small town sense of ages past. Then, we must tell the volunteers to “zip it up” all in this new age sense of confidentiality. We’re in a paradox now, fitting old fashioned values and goodness into new ethical guidelines. It;s challenging, but necessary. Balance is the key.

    Like


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