Confidentiality in mentoring

By Prof David Clutterbuck

Confidentiality is an essential element to be addressed in every mentoring relationship. How people interpret confidentiality and what it means in different contexts vary, therefore it is important for the mentor and mentee to be able to have an open and honest conversation, which can avoid difficulties in the future.

Confidentiality is about trust and confidence. If the mentor and mentee trust each other and understand the terms of confidentiality they are more likely to have a heightened degree of honesty and personal disclosure during conversations.

Breaking confidentiality can be harmful to the relationship and result in the mentor or mentee losing confidence and trust.

Confidentiality is never absolute as there are exceptions, such as legal requirements, mental or physical danger. All mentoring programmes should have a Code of Conduct and in that Code of Conduct, the terms of disclosure should be outlined. Every situation is different and a written document cannot capture all scenarios, the mentor and mentee should use appropriate judgement.

It is 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.
  • When in doubt, the party, who feels that disclosure is appropriate, should seek professional guidance (for example, from the mentoring programme manager or a professional mentoring supervisor).

There are typically three aspects of confidentiality: content, process and structure.

Content concerns what is said in the relationship, whether formally or informally, verbally or written (including e-mails). With a few caveats below, everything said must be regarded as private (ie confidential within clear limits).

Process concerns issues such as how the relationship is progressing; what is working, and not working; and what support is needed. In most organisations, this is seen as open information.

Structure concerns whether the relationship is known to exist and the definition of boundaries between the mentoring relationship and other working relationships, such as line manager/ direct report. In developmental mentoring, it is unusual for participants to have any concerns about other people being aware of the relationship. In informal, sponsorship mentoring, this may be more of an issue, especially if the culture of the organisation is not supportive of mentoring.

If you think there has been a breach of confidentiality with regard to your mentoring relationship, you should: 

  • Firstly, discuss it with your mentoring partner; ask for an urgent meeting if necessary
  • Explain clearly what you think has occurred, why it is inappropriate and the actual or potential impact upon you, upon other stakeholders and upon your mentoring relationship
  • If the issue is not immediately resolved as a result of this discussion, take it to the mentoring coordinator. (If it is not dealt with rapidly, it may damage both your mentoring relationship and the programme as a whole.)