Watch What You Say – You Never Know Whose Feelings Will be Hurt

My first job upon earning my Ph. D. was Director of Marketing Research at a large hospital in Jacksonville, Florida. Soon after I began working, I met an influential staff member who escorted me throughout the entire campus, introducing me to all of the high level executives whom he believed would help me in this early stage of my career. Our tour of the hospital included lots of walking and many elevator rides. As anyone who has ever ventured inside a hospital surely knows, hospital elevators are shared among patients, physicians, hospital employees, and visitors. My new friend informed me that employment of some employees had been terminated for poor conduct in an elevator. Being new to the world of health care, I was curious about what would constitute poor elevator conduct. I was surprised to hear the answer. Certain hospital employees, while riding in an elevator, were discussing that “patient so and so, in room number so and so, had expired after surgery.” Although they meant no disrespect in their clinical description of a recent event, these unthinking individuals just happened to be riding in the elevator with the family of the “expired so and so,” who, and you may have guessed this, just happened to be a long time member of the hospital’s board of directors. This was a powerful warning that, to this day, has remained with me. One never knows who is listening, who will be offended, or worse, who will be hurt by one’s thoughtless words. The person about whom you are speaking behind her back might be able to hear you making fun of her humble home, or his well worn shoes, or his ugly dog and maybe, just maybe, you should have kept your thoughts to yourself. And, if someone is saying mean things about anyone with the last name of “Pigott,” watch out. That long haired country boy with the slow drawl is one of my many cousins!

I would add to Melissa’s elevator concerns the adage of “lose lips sink ships.” Beyond healthcare with its HIPPA rules, there are many environments where confidentiality is a concern. And, not just for the risk of hurt feelings. In fact, this is an area we make special efforts to train employees when hiring. And, we take special efforts to ensure confidentiality in many ways, from using, and referring to, cases by numbers instead of case or client names. One never knows who is next to you on the airplane, in a restaurant, or in a hotel lobby (there was a time the opposing counsel was sent Melissa’s hotel bill because both sides’ trial teams were using the same hotel – of course, they had to pay it one day anyway). We are very careful, when working in small towns, when conversing about any case details that might be recognizable. Such “code talk” is a bit awkward at times, but confidentiality is critical to our success and viability. This point has frustrated marketing consultants with whom we’ve talked over the years – “you should talk about your clients…” they say. “We can’t,” we say – at least not until the case is resolved and with that client’s permission. Better safe than sorry!

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