What do you do when someone who works for you walks into your office and says, “I have something I want to tell you, but you must promise you won’t tell your partner/boss?” If you agree to listen, you have made a serious mistake.

You have betrayed the fundamental relationship you have with your partner/boss, and in so doing you have:

1. compromised that relationship

2. diminished your status

3. weakened your business

A business is fundamentally a series of interlocking relationships. When a business runs well, it is because those relationships are understood and respected. Think of your business as a body and the relationships as its circulatory system. In a good business, there is a correct way for the blood to flow. If it is stopped at any point, or diverted from where it should be, something bad happens. The circulatory system that gives life and growth to a business operates according to a natural law that is comprised of respect for hierarchy, shared purpose, and loyalty.

When you agree to hear something about your partner or boss — no matter how important the information is — you are being disloyal to that relationship in a very bad way. (Remember our discussion about loyalty in Message #288.) It doesn’’t matter whether you suspect your partner or boss is taking drugs, having sex in the boiler room, or picking his nose in public — you cannot betray him by agreeing to keep information from him. Your relationship with him is more important than your relationship with the person who is making this proposition. You must respect that priority.

The next time this happens, say something like this: “Thank you for coming to me with this. I can’t agree to your particular proposal. It would violate my relationship with So-and-So. What I can do — if you will trust me — is handle this with as much discretion and sensitivity as possible, and that would include protecting your interests. But I think we both know that our primary responsibility is to our business, and that will have to be what ultimately directs my judgment.”

Then — if you believe he really does have some important information — ask him to tell it to you. If he demurs, ask him to think of another way to convey this information. And remind him that he has a responsibility to do so. Then thank him again. That’s as much as you can do with the individual who comes to you with this kind of proposal.

However, if the information he has really is important, you can find out more from other sources (if you want to). You can be sure other employees know about it too. This is essentially the same thing you would do if one of your children came to you with the same kind of deal regarding your spouse. It’s a manipulative way of dismantling a relationship that you have spent time and effort developing. You should look at it that way.

I’ve been asked to write more helpful hints about business etiquette, wine, art, and so on — sort of a bluffer’s guide to make you seem educated while you are learning (and getting rich). This, then, is the first in our “Fake It Till You Make It” series. (If there’s anything in particular you want me to cover in this series, let me know on the ETR Message Board, www.earlytorise.com).