Trade Secrets

How to Tell Your Most Intimate Secrets to Your Competitors

The phrase “loose lips sink ships” was made popular by the War Advertising Council during World War II to drive home the importance of operational security. The main concern was keeping information out of the hands of those who might use that information to do harm.

Related: The 'George Costanza Defense' to Stealing Trade Secrets

When it comes to business, things are not as serious as they were then; but regardless of what industry you work in, you will always have competition. And while most competition is cordial and respectful (not everyone is at war with you), companies still go to great lengths to safeguard their proprietary information. And they probably should: Despite employers' best efforts, employees sometimes unknowingly (and accidentally) give away insider secrets that could potentially "sink the ship."

You don’t have to work for a Fortune 500 either to spill secrets. It happens to entrepreneurs and small business owners, too.

So, how do companies avoid spilling the beans? First and foremost, companies should give employees specific instructions about what not to say when they’re outside the office. That may sound like a no-brainer, but you wouldn’t believe the things I’ve heard about competitors from their own employees and where I’ve heard these things. Here are some of the most common contexts in which people tend to spill the beans:

Walking down the street. Yep, something as mundane as walking down the street. At any given point, you’re walking, minding your own business, and something stops you dead in your tracks: a voice you may recognize talking sensitive company information that shouldn’t be discussed in the middle of Fifth Avenue.

Most of the time, it’s just harmless -- someone talking to a fellow co-worker or a friend -- but you never know who might be listening. So, be smart about it. Rule of thumb: If you’re in public, keep your mouth shut. If you absolutely feel the need to talk about something specific to your company, don’t do it in the street. The world may be a big place, but in the grander scheme of things, we’re truly only a stone’s throw away from hearing something we shouldn’t.

Related: The One Question All Businesses Must Ask About Protecting Trade Secrets

Business meetings. Have you ever been to a meeting for a potential new business and noticed some binders or loose documents someone else left behind? Sometimes those binders include that presentation or talking points your competitor's rep just used. Jackpot! Now you know your competitor’s approach to try to gain that new business (or take it away from you). Now you can plan your own attack. Knowledge is power and your competitor just gave you a significant dose of it.

What I’m trying to say here is: Take with you what you brought to the meeting. If you brought in a bunch of PowerPoint presentations, be sure to take those back with you. Do not leave anything behind. Others won’t hesitate to use it against you, so be smart. Clean up your mess!

Airplanes. We’ve all hopped on flights to travel to a convention or a big industry event. Sometimes, onboard, we even pop open our computers to finish that big PowerPoint presentation we’ll be showcasing at the event. What we may not be aware of is that the person behind us is probably going to the same event, with a competing presentation and that we just showed this guy everything he needs to know to potentially one-up us or even take away the business altogether. We've showed our cards to our "neighbor."

Well, isn’t that a coincidence. Something completely innocent could end up costing your company a lot in revenue and/or intellectual property. So, pay attention to your surroundings.

Computers and phones. I’ve seen this a million times -- people taking pictures and posting them on social media. That may seem innocuous enough, but if you look at the picture up close, there in the background is the picture-taker's computer screen. And a chunk of the email the CEO just sent is there for all to see. Oops! You just let the entire social media universe in on a potential corporate secret.

We’re all connected 24/7, or so it seems, but before you post anything on social media that may or may not pertain to your job, think twice. Something that might be cool or funny to you at the moment could end up costing you a pretty penny, and even your job!

There are other effective ways to keep up with your competitors that won’t require anyone to spill anything or walk a tightrope:

  • Sign up for your competitor’s newsletter. In order to keep track of what this company is doing, you must carve out some time to read these publications.
  • Set up your online news alerts. Be sure to include key people from the company you’re researching and other key search terms.
  • Keep up with your competitor's press releases.
  • Visit your competitor's web page.
  • Engage your employees in a sort of "competitor scavenger hunt." See what they can find.
  • If a competitor has done something great, drop a congratulatory note. This approach presents two key points: 1. It shows you’re keeping track of what the competitor is doing; 2. It fosters good will. Just because you are in direct competition doesn’t mean you can’t be civil to each another. Besides, it’s good karma, and I’ve found throughout my career that the more you give, the more you receive.

The first takeaway here is that there are ways to keep tabs on your competitors that won’t cost you anything but a little time investment and awareness of your surroundings.

Related: Using FOIA Requests for a Competitive Edge

The second takeaway? If you decide to open your work computer to try to get a little work done, someone might be watching and someone is always listening. Just be smart and remember: Loose lips sink ships.