“Who would you handle confidential information?”
This question can quickly throw you off guard in a job interview because it often leaves you with more questions.
Why am I being given confidential information? What sort of information are we talking about?Why would I need to share it with anyone?
These are all very natural responses, but asking questions in response to a question doesn’t usually land well in an interview.
Instead, you need to understand what’s really being asked of you, and what you need to touch on in order to satisfy the interviewer.
Variations Of This Question
Before we get into the why and how of this interview question, know that the question itself can be worded slightly differently from time to time, but your answer will follow the same format.
The most common variations are:
- Who would you discuss classified information with?
- Who would you talk about private information with?
- Who would you share sensitive information with?
- Who would you discuss confidential information with in the workplace?
- Who would you discuss confidential information with regarding a customer?
Know the Lead Up Questions
There’s no way to know when or even if this question will come up in your job interview, but there are some warning signs that it could be coming up.
If you get any of the following questions during the interview, there’s a good chance the confidentiality question will follow:
- Who Inspires You And Why?
- What Is Your Philosophy Towards Work?
- How Would You Describe Your Personality?
- Can You Describe Your Working Relationship With Your Colleagues?
- Can You Describe Your Work Ethic?
What The Interviewer Really Wants To Know
The interviewer wants to know if you can maintain discretion at work.
Most people are very social at work, so the flow of information between employees is unavoidable.
While this can be beneficial in many cases, especially in a team-based work environment, you may sometimes have to be more selective about who share your information with — if at all.
Whether it’s sensitive information about the company you work for or the people you work with, having a good moral judgment on the flow of information shows that you’re responsible, reliable, respectful, and trustworthy.
How does this question determine that?
While the question doesn’t directly ask you if you have these traits, it does force you to create a scenario that reflects on your judgment, and any good interviewer will be able to derive some character traits from that.
How to Answer: “Who Would You Discuss Confidential Information With?”
Here’s a simple structure you can follow to come up with a well-rounded answer to this interview question:
1. Acknowledge the Meaning of Confidential
The obvious and perhaps safest answer to this question is to say that confidential information should stay confidential.
So lead with that:
“If it’s confidential information, it shouldn’t be shared with anyone and I would always strive to respect that.”
But this doesn’t tell the interviewer everything they need to know.
Specifically, it doesn’t tell them if you can identify what constitutes confidential information, or if you can make the right judgment call about whether it should stay confidential.
In order to do that, you need to explain that you understand the nuances surrounding the question, before transitioning into an example to demonstrate it (we’ll cover the example in the next steps).
Here’s how to make that transition:
“However, I understand that this isn’t always practical in the real world. Sometimes, sensitive information needs to passed to the right person in order for the appropriate action to be taken. For example…“
2. Set the Stage with an Example
Now you need to describe a work-related example that would involve you learning or acquiring sensitive information. (If the interviewer gives you a scenario as part of the question, you can skip this step.)
Preferably, this should be something that actually happened in a previous job because it means you actually did what you’re about to describe, and this adds far more credibility to your answer.
“The best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour”— Some wise person.
It should also be an example that leads to you passing information on to someone else, otherwise, you’re just showing that you can keep a secret. That’s great and all, but it’s not the best example of your discretion.
Of course, if the question is specifically about customer information or data, your example should match that same description.
If you absolutely can’t think of a past experience that fits the bill, a fictional example can work in its place – it just means framing your answer in future-tense as opposed to past-tense.
Some ideas to get your juice flowing:
“I once received an email at work with sensitive information about a customer. It came from a coworker who found it amusing.”
“I saw my manager applying his discount codes for his friends on the shop floor. He asked me to keep it between us.”
“I overheard one of my colleagues talking about finding another job because she was unhappy with her current job.”
3. Clarify the Nature of the Information
Once you’ve explained how come about this sensitive information, you need to disclose the nature of it.
In simple terms, that just means categorizing the information.
Doing this shows you have some inherent understanding of the consequences involved in sharing it with the wrong people, laying the foundations for the final part of your answer.
So what are these categories?
Fortunately, in this context, there are only two categories you need to know, and virtually anything you learn in a workplace will fit neatly into one of them.
- Personal information. Information or data that can be directly related to an individual person, especially where public knowledge of that information could be detrimental to that person.
- Business information. Information or data that would be detrimental to the company (such as its reputation or revenue) if it went public, particularly if a close competitor were to learn of it.
After you’ve identified which of these types your example fits into, you just need to acknowledge it before moving to the final stage of your answer.
“I knew right away that what I learned was highly personal information, and that if my other colleagues found out it would ultimately put [Name] in a very difficult situation.”
4. Reveal Who You Passed It On To (And Why)
Next, you need to explain who you shared the information with, and why you decided they should know.
This is the single most important part of your answer because it underlines exactly how you would handle confidential information — which, remember, is the question you were originally asked.
If you started with an example that actually happened, you simply need to tell the truth and finish your story. If you were given a scenario or you created a fictional one, you’ll need to figure out the appropriate response on the fly.
This could be anyone in the workplace, from the top down:
- Your Boss
It may help to think about the desired outcome of the situation, and then work backward to figure out who needs to be in possession of that information in order for that outcome to happen.
Unfortunately, aside from that, there’s no “hack” you can apply here to magically get to the right answer. At this point, you will have to demonstrate your own ability to direct sensitive information through the right channels.
Here are some examples:
“I decided to tell the General Manager what I knew because he oversaw that area of the business, so I felt he would know the appropriate steps to take.”
“A part of me wanted to pretend it didn’t happen, but I knew it could potentially come back to hurt the company. I ended up telling my boss what happened and, as suspected, she immediately took steps to resolve the issue.”
5. Talk About What Happened as a Result
Now, ideally, you should finish your answer by explaining what happened as a result of you passing on the information.
Assuming it produced the desired outcome, this will show that you did, in fact, push that information through the appropriate channels, in turn validating the decision you took in the previous step.
I say “ideally” because this won’t always be possible.
If the example you gave didn’t produce any meaningful result or you simply don’t know what happened after, this part is best left unsaid. However, if there is a happy ending to your story, this is where you round off your answer.
As before, you should have no trouble here if you gave your own example from past experience. Just say it as it happened.
However, if the interviewer gave you a fictional scenario to work with, I recommend finishing off by giving your opinion of what should happen in an ideal world.
Putting It All Together (Example Answers)
We’ve discussed how to structure your reply above, but how do you piece this all together to make a coherent answer?
Here are some sample answers:
Example #1: You Learned Of Impending Layoffs
“Typically, confidential information should remain confidential, but I think we can both agree that doesn’t always translate in the real world.
For example, at my last job, I discovered that management were gearing up to let a large portion of the workforce go. Despite them knowing weeks in advance, there would be no forewarning for most employees.
I knew this was sensitive business information and there were risks involved with drawing more attention to the issue than is necessary. Mass layoffs are hardly ideal from a public relation standpoint.
Still, my colleagues had a right to know as soon as humanly possible, so I requested a meeting with the CEO to discuss my concerns.
It was a very amicable and productive discussion, and my boss ultimately agreed to give 2-weeks notice to everyone on the basis that key personnel sign a NDA.”
Example #2: Customer Complained About Your Coworker
“I wouldn’t share information with anyone that shouldn’t be shared, although I think it’s important that we exercise discretion in situations that call for it.
For example, when I worked as a Store Manager in retail, a customer once made a formal complaint about one of my coworkers. He was being accused of sexual assault.
It was a pretty serious allegation that would have had some equally serious personal implications if it turned out to be true, not to mention termination of employment.
Most of my staff were female, so I was conscious of handling this information with care. I went straight to higher management and suggested we review in-store footage to verify the allegation.
Fortunately, they reviewed the store footage and it was evident that what was described never actually happened. The complaint was buried and the customer was later banned from the store.”
How NOT To Answer
We’ve converted what you should say, but what about what you shouldn’t say? Here are some mistakes to watch out for:
Don’t Confuse It With Keeping Secrets
The question goes beyond keeping information private but actually directing it to the right people for the right reasons.
If you only give an example of a time you kept something to yourself, it doesn’t properly demonstrate your ability to “handle” information because you aren’t really handling it, you’re burying it.
Exercising discretion is more than just choosing whether or not to share information, but who best to share that information with.
Don’t Reveal Sensitive Information In Your Answer
If sharing a story from experience, you need to be careful about the information you reveal in your answer.
This is a question about keeping confidentiality, so revealing sensitive information about the people and companies you used to work for isn’t the smartest way to demonstrate that.
In most cases, confidentiality shouldn’t extend to your period of employment. Don’t break that trust when it matters most.
- Learn the different variations of this question
- Familiarize yourself with the most likely lead-up questions
- Explain what confidential means (and why discretion is necessary)
- Give an example of you recieving confidential information
- Clarify the nature of that information (business or personal)
- Talk about who you told (and why you told them)
- Explain what they did with that information (the end result)