Organisational Development

Confidentiality In Organisational Consulting

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Confidentiality In Organisational Consulting

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The Ethical Dilemma of Organizational Consultants to Maintain Participant Confidentiality vs. Responding to Ownership of Personally Identifiable Data

Breach of confidentiality issues are to be faced more often in the current times characterized by increased competitiveness in business. Many business leaders are coming to terms with their inadequacies in dealing with organizational change efforts, leading to increased dependence on external consultants (Huszczo & Sheahan, 1999). Business ethics has to deal with a lot of issues that come up when external consultants are hired to help the organization meet its goals. The assigned case was discussed with the Regional Manager for General Motors in Singapore.

The Regional Manager asked for details of any formal contract that might have been agreed upon by the consultant and the client. It was made known that there was no information about a negotiated written contract in anticipation of any ethical issues in this case. However, the duties of a competent I/O Psychologist were discussed. The psychologist/consultant has a commitment to integrity and confidentiality while collecting research data from participants. Assuming the consultant is competent, the Regional Manager believed that the consultant would be engaging in an unethical practice if he/she decided to divulge the requested information.

Prior to knowing these duties of an I/O practitioner, the Regional Manager’s initial reaction to the case was that the practitioner would probably be required to provide the confidential data. The reasoning behind it is legal rather than ethical, especially since there is no evidence of a mutually agreed upon contract. He explained that the organization would have not hired the consultant if he/she made it clear that it would be impossible to reveal specific individual related information. Thus, the competence of the practitioner was questioned because it does not appear as if the consultant explicitly expressed adherence to an ethics code. In addition, after reviewing the APA ethics guidelines, the Regional Manager pointed out that non-compliance with the code does not compel the consultant to be subjected to legal action (American Psychological Association, 1992). It would thus be important for any practitioner to clearly state her/his commitment to an ethics code in order to avoid legal complications, which may go against the code.

Applicable Ethical Principles and Ethical Standards

The core issue in this case is the competency of the consultant. It can be argued that applicable general Ethical Principles of Integrity (Principle B) and Professional and Scientific Responsibility (Principle C) could come under the umbrella of competence. This larger principle states that psychologists ought to be committed to achieving excellent standards in terms of competence by recognizing their limitations (American Psychological Association, 1992).

Specific Ethical Standards that apply to this case are those of the following:

(1) 1.02 Relationship of Ethics and Law
(2) 1.07 Describing the Nature and Results of Psychological Services
(3) 1.14 Avoiding Harm
(4) 1.16 Misuse of Psychologists’ Work
(5) 1.21 Third-Party Requests for Services
(6) 5.01 Discussing the Limits of Confidentiality
(7) 5.03b Minimizing Intrusions on Privacy
(8) 5.05 Disclosures
(9) 5.06 Consultations
(10) 5.08 Use of Confidential Information for Didactic or Other Purposes
(11) 6.11 Informed Consent to Research
(12) 6.16 Sharing and Utilizing Data

The General Principles of ‘Integrity’ and ‘Professional and Scientific Responsibility’ are influential in this case. In the noble attempt to be honest and fair, it was imperative for the consultant to clarify for relevant parties the roles she/he was performing and to function appropriately in accordance with those roles (American Psychological Association, 1992, pg. 5). The role of the consultant should have included the protocol regarding privacy and confidentiality of personal information collected for research.

Concerning Professional and Scientific Responsibility, it was the responsibility of the consultant to adapt her/his methods to the needs of different populations (American Psychological Association, 1992, pg. 5). This principle would imply the consultant having the skill to anticipate areas of conflict, and formulate agreements with individual members and the senior team of the organization accordingly. It is apparent that issues of confidentiality were not addressed at the outset of the consulting relationship. Similarly, the practitioner did not make individual employees aware of any potential misuse of the information they volunteered due to her/his lack of anticipation, which may have led the employees to be unwilling participants.

Table 1 outlines the specific Ethical Standards applicable to this case:

Standard - Reference Quote - Interpretation to Case

1.02 - If ethical responsibilities conflict with law, psychologists make known their commitment to the Ethics Code | Interpretation to Case: The practitioner had to respond to the argument of legal ownership of the organization over the confidential information.

1.07 - They provide appropriate information beforehand about the nature of such services and later about results | Interpretation to Case: The consultant did not appear to clearly state her/his priority of maintaining confidentiality over organizational visionary goals.

1.14 - Psychologists take reasonable steps to avoid harming their participants and minimize harm where foreseeable | Interpretation to Case: The practitioner realized that harm was being done to participants because the organization needed information for termination purposes.

1.16 - Psychologists do not participate in activities in which it appears that their skills/data will be misused by others | Interpretation to Case: The consultant did not seem to anticipate any potential problems, and did not foresee the organization’s use of personal individual data.

1.21 - …clarification (at outset of service) includes the role of the psychologist and fact of having limits to confidentiality| Interpretation to Case: Acting as a third party, there was no indication that the practitioner provided clarification about confidentiality prior to commencing services.

5.01 - Psychologists discuss (1) relevant limitations on confidentiality, and (2) foreseeable uses of data obtained | Interpretation to Case: There is no evidence that the consultant had the all-important discussion, about the ethical use of personal information, with the firm.

5.03b - Psychologists discuss confidential information only with persons clearly concerned with such matters | Interpretation to Case: At the outset, the practitioner did not assure herself of whether senior management had legitimate authority to access confidential data.

5.05 - Psychologists may disclose confidential information with the appropriate consent of the individual or corporation | Interpretation to Case: The consultant seemed not to have entertained the idea of a mutual agreement between the corporation and its employees on using the data.

5.06 - When consulting with colleagues, psychologists do not share confidential information without their prior consent | Interpretation to Case: As a course of action, the practitioner might want to consult colleagues. Even this may not be possible as participant consent is unclear.

5.08 - Psychologists do not disclose personally identifiable information concerning research participants | Interpretation to Case: The consultant faces an ethical dilemma due to this very principle. She/he is in a fix because the firm has requested personally identifiable data.

6.11b - …psychologists inform participants of significant factors that may influence their willingness to participate… | Interpretation to Case: By including foreseen confidentiality issues in consent forms, a sample of genuinely willing research participants could have been obtained.

6.16 - Psychologists inform participants of anticipated (and unanticipated) use of personally identifiable research data | Interpretation to Case: It was not outstandingly clear whether the practitioner adequately informed participants of how their personal information could be used.

Recommendations on Resolving Issue

The primary way this dilemma could have been avoided is by the psychologist being aware and familiar with the Ethics Code. If she/he referred to it, then the senior management team would have had to render the services of the practitioner only on condition of her/his adherence to this code. As the Ethical Standard on Resolving Ethical Issues states, the Lack of awareness or misunderstanding of an ethical standard is not itself a defense to a charge of unethical conduct (American Psychological Association, 1992, pg. 24). Thus, a psychologist’s excuse of not knowing a protocol prescribed clearly in the Ethics Code would be invalid.

Recommendations for the future to avoid unnecessary cases like this would need consultants to look into the deeper meaning of ethics as well as changing their attitudes about their own role as change agents. The former idea implies that the 21st century corporate consultant should move away from a superficial following of the Ethics Code toward knowledge of how ethics is constantly being revised to accommodate a fast-changing global environment (Sudhir & Murthy, 2001). The second idea proposes a change at the more individual level. Practitioners will have to abandon the traditional view of the consultant as a neutral third-party agent (Huszczo & Sheahan, 1999).

Sudhir and Murthy (2001) maintain that the organization of the future is going to evolve into a dominant institution, which brings forth the human spirit due to the ever-increasing world of interdependence. Consultants will need to recognize the link between business and society at a more detailed level in the future. Thus, mere knowledge of an Ethics Code will not be enough in order to be a successful change agent. In order to accurately identify this link, practitioners would have to be accountable for increased clarity in their thought process. Sternberg (1994) asserts that confusion resulting from ethical issues can almost always be attributed to a lack of clarity in thinking. This may entail moving beyond mere intuitive moral standards towards a more specific method of analysis to deal with immediate ethical problems (Hosmer, 1995).

It would be sound advice to future consultants that they view themselves as advocates of all organizational parties, rather than a neutral third-party. Huszczo and Sheahan (1999) would firmly predict less ethical conflict if the consultant explicitly offered support for the goals of senior management as well as the individual employees. By offering support to senior management, the consultant would have known their visionary goals and discussed beneficial uses of the research data. The issue of identifying specific individuals for what senior management thought would benefit the organization would not have come up if the consultant did explain appropriate data use.
As of the current situation, the recommendation would be for the consultant to seek the advice of peers and colleagues, and not give up on the attempt to explain to senior management the importance of confidentiality for a researcher.

Huszczo and Sheahan (1999) suggest conducting separate sessions with the organizational parties involved, which ideally should have been done early in the entry/contracting phase. The session with senior management could include discussions on confidentiality issues, and why a practitioner is bound to upholding this crucial ethical principle. The session with the research participants should include assurances that the consultant will not reveal their private, confidential information to senior management. The researcher now has more of a duty to comply with the Ethics Code in resolving this issue, which mainly resulted out of a lack of communication and anticipation.

Relationship to Human Values (Bronowski, 1965)

Sudhir and Murthy’s (2001) idea of the ethical fabric being emphasized more as the world gets highly interdependent can be directly related to Bronowski’s (1965) idea of science as a creative act from a creative mind. He suggests that values are not hard and fast rules, but constantly changing with the times. The values come from the practice of science rather than science being dictated by values.

The Ethical Principle of Professional and Scientific Responsibility, which involves adapting to meet the needs of different populations draws from the idea that the scientist is compounded of the interest of his time and his own interest. The need of the age gives its shape to scientific progress as a whole (Bronowski, 1965, pg.8). Bronowski (1965) also clearly states that the scientist is personally involved in her/his work, which is connected to principles of Competency, and Scientific Responsibility of the psychologist in the Ethics Code.

The Integrity of practitioners would remind Bronowski (1965) of what he refers to a certain human condition called the habit of truth. Scientific enquiry in ingrained in humans as the search for truth affects how people choose to use their freedom. By making connection, we find in our experiences the maps of things. There is no other evidence for the existence of things (Bronowski, 1965, pg. 31). The scientific method results in discovery through experience. In order to satisfy the human need for stability through creativity, the experience of knowing the truth has resulted in the habit of automatically seeking it. Applying this idea to the current case, the consultant through habit hesitated when asked to reveal personally identifiable information of her/his participants. The consultant came to terms with a constructively formed habit of knowing consequences that would occur if she/he were to breach confidentiality principles.

In addition to knowing the ‘map’ of revealing private information, a reason for the ethical dilemma is the dignity of the consultant at stake. Bronowski (1965) believes that science has made us more deeply human. There are, I hold, no atomic facts. In the language of science, every fact is a field – a crisscross of implications…(Bronowski, 1965, pg. 52). The sense of human dignity that the practitioner feels about herself/himself is embedded in the honor brought by her/his practice. The work will affect the operations of organizations and will have implications on the lives of many. Breaching confidentiality would not be scientific, because the consultant would compromise self-respect by forfeiting Professional Responsibility.

The problem of values arises only when men try to fit together their need to be social animals with their need to be free men (Bronowski, 1965, pg. 55). The conflict in this case was about freedom to perform in a competitive environment versus the need for the consultant to be a social being in her/his responsibility toward the privacy of participants.



American Psychological Association. (1992). Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct. [Online:]

Bronowski, J. (1965). Science and Human Values. Harper and Row Publishers, Inc., New York.

Hosmer, L. T. (1995). The Ethics of Management. Universal Book Stall, New Delhi.

Huszczo, G .E., & Sheahan, M. (1999). The Advocacy Approach to OD Consulting: Neutral is Not Enough. Leadership and Organization Development Journal, 20 (5), 262-269.

Sternberg, E. (1994). Just Business: Business Ethics in Action. Little, Brown and Co., London.

Sudhir, V., & Murthy, P. N. (2001). Ethical Challenge to Businesses: The Deeper Meaning. Journal of Business Ethics, 30 (2), 197-210.

This Article is authored / contributed by ▸ Mubeena M. who travels from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Mubeena is available for Professional Consulting Work both Virtually and In-Person. ▸ Enquire Now.

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