July 30, 2016
Oh dear – another volunteer has hit the headlines, for all the wrong reasons and then some.
It’s a breach of confidentiality, perhaps a slip of the tongue or maybe an inadvertent blurt about something that did not seem important at the time. Nothing malicious it seems, nor at whistle-blowing level.
The matter caused the police to lay a complaint with the organisation, because they have a memorandum of understanding which includes the condition of confidentiality. The organisation is duly obliged to investigate. In the end no action is taken because there was insufficient evidence to support the complaint. However, the volunteer called in a lawyer and incurred significant costs, and now looks for compensation and an apology, even though he may have been a bit obstructive in engaging with the investigation.
When a story like this hits national news then it’s something for volunteers and their organisations to sit up and take notice.
It would be rare for a volunteer-involving organisation to have a contract or code of conduct for volunteers that does not include confidentiality. But the issues around confidentiality are complex. At the top end are things like intellectual property and ‘commercial sensitivity’ and personal privacy which might invoke expensive prosecution if a breach occurs. At the other end of the scale a volunteer might simply make an unthinking comment.
Given the seriousness of privacy when working with vulnerable people or the organisation’s business, how much discussion on confidentiality takes place in a volunteer training session? What would be considered a breach of confidentiality? Are there limits of confidentiality when it comes to client/users health and welfare issues? What’s a volunteer to do if they learn of criminal activities? Here’s the place to introduce discussion on confidentiality and the ethics around confidential issues. And to make sure everyone is familiar with privacy legislation. This kind of protection for volunteers and the organisation is just as important as the measures for physical safety.
And after all that do we ever spell out the process for investigating and dealing with an actual or potential breach? Is there a policy and procedure in place? And are the possible remedies included? For example, minor breaches can be dealt with a reminder or a verbal warning, or possibly a flag on your personal file. Investigation of a serious breach may lead to dismissal.
I am not suggesting we go to the lengths of a volunteer equivalent of employment tribunals and courts. But we can avoid such drastic measures when we ensure the full implications of confidentiality and consequences of a breach are fully explained and understood.
Prevention is better than cure, right?