By: Linda May Grobman
From the Winter 2003 issue of THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER
by Linda May Grobman, ACSW, LSW
"Let' do lunch."
Going out to lunch is an age-old tradition for professionals of all kinds, including social workers. Getting away from the office at lunchtime can be like a mini-vacation from a stressful day. But if you’re not careful, "doing lunch" can have its own detrimental effects.
When I was a social work graduate student, I was at a neighborhood restaurant one day with another student from my practicum agency. At the next table sat a group of lawyers from a nearby firm. Even though we weren’t trying to eavesdrop, we could hear their conversation. They were talking about a client-a woman who was going through a messy divorce. As we listened in horror, we realized that the woman whose intimate life details we were hearing in public was one of our own agency' counseling clients! We were being exposed to this confidential information not as a result of our professional relationship with her, but as a result of another professional' (supposedly confidential) knowledge. What were we to do with this information? How could they risk talking about their (our) client at lunch?
On the short walk back to our agency, with no one else in sight, I said something like, "I can’t believe they said that about (client' first name)!" My fellow intern almost jumped down my throat for quietly whispering the client' first name. She made me think, and I never forgot that.
Later in my career, I worked in a setting where the staff often "got away" by going out to lunch together. But instead of totally "getting away from it all," some work talk occasionally slipped into the lunch conversation. I would cringe in my seat, and "shush" my co-workers, but this lunch talk was a habit that was not to be easily broken. They would talk quietly, using initials or first names. Maybe a question came to mind that could have waited until they were back at the office, but that might be forgotten by then. So, they would go ahead and ask it. But what if the client' neighbor, employer, friend, or family member was sitting nearby? Even if no one heard them who knew the client, they could have. If anyone overheard them at all, how did it make them feel about our type of agency and about seeking services they may have needed in the future? Not to mention the fact that it' just plain unethical and disrespectful.
More recently, I have experienced other kinds of lunch talk. One day, I was sitting with my husband in a restaurant, and a couple sat behind us in the next booth. I could hear him saying, "I loved her, but I loved you more," confessing an affair, and explaining an arrest and other sordid details. This was much more than I ever wanted to know about these strangers whose faces I never even saw.
And then, a most disturbing instance of lunch talk-sitting in a cozy eatery where the tables are so close together that the waiters are likely to ask if you want separate checks or not-and you’re not even sitting at the same table. A man and a woman sat, talking about someone whose funeral I had attended only days earlier. Having heard what they said, my image of that person would be forever changed, and I knew things that were so private, I would never reveal them to anyone.
Should I have said something to these people-these lunch talkers? Maybe, but I was in shock and denial, thinking I must have misunderstood what they said. But when they left, my lunch partner confirmed that I had heard correctly.
Over the years, my idea of what constitutes "lunch talk" has expanded. The term could be used to describe talk that is overheard at lunch, dinner, a baseball game, or even in one' own home.
Imagine this conversation between your 10-year-old son and his classmates, the day after you receive a frantic phone call at home from a client: "Last night my Mom got a phone call from Mrs. Jones. She' got lots of problems, like all of my Mom' clients." "Oh, really? Who is Mrs. Jones?" "I don’t know, but I think her son Jimmy is in 4th grade."
Regardless of where you do your talking, if it concerns a client, confidentiality is a must. This is one area of the NASW Code of Ethics that is crystal clear. Section 1.07 (c) of the Code states, "Social workers should protect the confidentiality of all information obtained in the course of professional service, except for compelling professional reasons." And in Section 1.07 (i), the "lunch talk" issue is addressed specifically: "Social workers should not discuss confidential information in any setting unless privacy can be ensured. Social workers should not discuss confidential information in public or semipublic areas such as hallways, waiting rooms, elevators, and restaurants."
So, yes, "do lunch." As a social worker or future social worker, you will have many such encounters throughout your career. Take some time to think about what topics you and your dining partners will and won’t discuss. What will you do if you hear something you shouldn’t, or if you’re caught in the middle of an improper dialogue?
Taking a much-needed break during the day is important to your self care. Just be careful, or you (and the people you serve) could get burned.
Linda May Grobman, ACSW, LSW, is the editor and publisher of THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER.