When people glibly say that the mentoring relationship is confidential, what do they mean? In helping hundreds of organizations define confidentiality, here are some of the lessons I’ve learned:

• Confidentiality is about confidence — trust in the other person’s discretion and judgement. The greater the level of co-confidence, the higher the level of honesty and personal disclosure within the mentoring conversations
• It’s surprisingly rare in well-managed programmes for either party to break confidentiality. When it does happen, it often destroys the relationship and can undermine the entire programme
• Confidentiality is never absolute. Among exceptions:
? The mentor’s duty of care towards the mentee takes higher priority, should they be in mental or physical danger
? The mentor also has higher responsibilities in the context of duties in law (e.g. avoiding complicity in crime) and in their role as an officer of the organization (to avoid damage to its reputation)
• Privacy is often a more accurate term than confidentiality
• The existence of the mentoring relationship should always be public (otherwise it is open to misinterpretation, particularly in the context of cross-gender mentoring); however, the content of the mentoring conversations is private to the mentoring pair
• It’s important to agree protocols for how to handle discussions with third parties. For example:
? What is an appropriate response when a mentor is asked for their views on the suitability of the mentee for a new or more senior role? How much of the content of the mentoring conversation is it appropriate to reveal in this situation, with regard to the mentee’s strengths and weaknesses, career aspirations and so on?
? What can the mentee say to their line manager about advice they have been given by their mentor?
? If mentor and mentee meet with the line manager to discuss the mentee’s development options, what should be revealed and how?
• If confidentiality has to be broken, for good and ethical reasons, it should never come as a surprise to either party. It’s important that mentor and mentee talk with each other to:
? Establish that there is an ethical issue
? Clarify each other’s responsibilities and duties of care
? Explore, and if possible agree, who should make the disclosure of the confidential information and how
? If one party refuses to behave ethically, and the other believes that a disclosure is necessary, the latter should set out clearly what they are going to say, to whom and when. This may not save the relationship, but at this point the level of trust (confidence) is likely to have been damaged irreparably anyway
• When in doubt, the party, who feels that disclosure is appropriate, should seek professional guidance (for example, from a professional mentoring supervisor).

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