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Blogger’s Note:  I have written about this issue before, but an article in the morning papers on Thursday prompted me to revisit this important subject.

CC Image courtesy of Sean Bonner on Flickr

In 1984, on a flight between San Antonio and Houston, I overheard several junior consultants for one of the major audit firms discussing – in spades – the specifics of a well-known community hospital’s financial distress.

They continued the conversation as if they were in a bubble, not a Southwest Airlines flight.  I furiously took notes in my capacity as a business developer for a not-for-profit hospital management company.  From my perspective, this incident was shocking on two counts:

  1. That the healthcare facility they were talking about, long admired as an innovative provider with a sterling reputation, was in financial trouble that would sooner or later lead to bankruptcy or sale of assets was beyond belief.
  2. That these two managers, employed by what was then known as one of the Big Six firms, would have a candid conversation regarding confidential client information in a way that others could clearly hear and understand what they were saying, was stunning.

Based on what I overheard, I had enough information to mount a push to take over management of the facility.

When we made our push, the CEO and Board Chair at first denied they were facing challenges.  That defense quickly slipped from absolute denials to a meeker questioning of how we knew and where we had gotten our information.

These information breaches happen all the time.  The things you hear on airplanes, elevators or in cocktail lounges would surprise you.  All you have to do is listen.  In my career as a senior officer responsible for business development, I have gotten leads that led to four successful management take overs from information that I heard while standing in airport rental car lines – in the days before frequent flyer programs – on airplanes, on trains and visiting vendor booths at trade shows.

Even in today’s hyper-sensitive healthcare privacy environment in which employees can be immediately terminated for violating patient privacy rules, employees routinely tell relatives and friends about the VIP patients who attempt to slip in and out of institutions anonymously.  Apparently, these employees believe that the rules DO NOT apply to their private conversations with family and friends.

Loose Lips Can Sink Ships, an illuminating story in The New York Times, points out that these information breaches are extremely common and in some cases provide competitors with access to non-public information that can shift market trends or produce a tidy profit.

Everyone who travels for business knows, or should know, that what you say and display on your computer screen can easily be captured for use by competitors – or by those who simply want to make a few extra bucks in the stock market.  For the seasoned business travelers who read this blog, I can almost hear a collective “I know that” in a dismissive tone.  However, it is amazing the business intelligence you can learn from all of those I know that travelers who become absorbed in what they are doing and forget where they are.

This is a subject that deserves ongoing re-education, strong reminders to employees that there are ethical considerations and legal issues that come into play regarding the information we knowingly, or unknowingly, divulge.

The Times article got it right:  Loose lips can sinks ships.

© 2012 John Gregory Self