How to deal with sensitive proposal info? Ask the Proposal Doctor

Dear Proposal Doctor,

As the proposal manager for a large and important bid, I have access to information that senior executives in my company consider sensitive. Sometimes this is information about future assignments or promotions, and other times it is information about our solution, which suggests something about staffing, relocation, and the like.

When people on the proposal team ask me what is going in the proposal, I don’t like telling them something that isn’t true, but the higher-ups insist that certain things be kept confidential.

This puts me in a bind. What is the right approach in this situation?

-Torn Between the Team and the Execs

Dear Torn,

You raise an excellent point. Since you didn’t say whether you are a consultant or a full-time employee, I cannot tell if this is a recurring problem or just a one-time event.

It is troubling for two reasons. First, it is essential that the proposal team trust you. If someone finds out that you are not telling the truth, or selectively withholding the truth, they won’t trust anything you say in the future. You can’t buy your credibility back. At another level, for you personally there is a cost. We all know what it is like to believe one thing (I should be honest with the team) and do something else (I am withholding information from the team). This leads to stress, anxiety, inability to sleep, and heaven only knows what else – but it isn’t good.

Here is what I suggest. First, consider the context. Sometimes people get curious about things that are none of their business. Usually this means that they have not done their own work, and they can live just fine without the information. You can explain that information is shared on a need-to-know basis and ask that they justify their need to know.

Second, if someone is being proposed for a position in Nairobi, and you know they have many family commitments in Ft. Lauderdale with no intention of moving, they have a need to know.

You must go up the chain of command and make a strong argument that senior management talk to the person to explain the situation. Something will leak out about this in the short term or the long term, even if everyone takes a blood oath (Do people still do that?) to stay silent. It is better for everyone to face the music now and figure a way out (6 months in Nairobi and then send in a replacement?) than have the employee find out after the bid has gone in or after you win the contract.

It is very tempting to try to compartmentalize information on a proposal, and sometimes it has to be done to protect proprietary information. However, the more that can be shared, the better, both because it promotes trust across the team, which is priceless, and because it is so much easier from a housekeeping perspective. As a proposal manager, you should be spending your time making sure the proposal is compelling and compliant, not worrying about what information you are allowed to share with whom.

All the best,

Wendy Frieman, The Proposal Doctor