A health insurance agent is at a holiday party among friends and neighbors. He’s feeling comfortable and the opportunity arises to share a “funny” story about a client of his involving an unfortunate and somewhat embarrassing injury the client suffered that has created a permanent condition.

The person wasn’t seriously injured, but this type of sensitive information isn’t something most people would be comfortable with anyone else knowing. It’s “need to know” only. The only reason the agent knew about it at all was because the person was applying for health insurance and inquired as to if something like this would need to be disclosed as part of the application.

The agent has his “agent hat” off. After all, he’s at a holiday party amongst friends. He is not thinking of the ethics of his profession at this time. As a result, the agent launches into the strange and sordid tale, capturing the attention of everyone within earshot exposing private information about his client.

In the course of telling the story, the agent inadvertently reveals some details about the client’s background that essentially removes the cloak of anonymity from the client for anyone who really thinks about who it could be in their community.

Among friends or not, this agent just committed an ethics violation. Even without inadvertently giving too many clues as to the client’s identity. Specifically, standard No. 3 according to the Million Dollar Round Table’s Code of Ethics, which reads:  “Hold in the strictest confidence, and consider as privileged, all business and personal information pertaining to your clients’ affairs.”

That standard prohibits an agent or advisor from revealing a client’s name or a personal situation without permission from the client, and further directs the agent or advisor to protect client files and records with regard to confidentiality.

The Standards of Professional Conduct of the National Association of Sales Professionals, which starts by saying, “I will act with the highest degree of professionalism, ethics and integrity,” soon goes on to pronounce, “I will keep confidential information about my customers confidential.”

Confidential information can be used in the course of securing insurance proposals, to provide services to the client or as otherwise permitted or directed by the client, but the agent should limit access to any confidential information to those of its employees reasonably required to assist in obtaining coverage or for providing services to the client. Confidential information should not be disclosed to any third party without obtaining the consent of the client.

So it might seem innocent enough, telling a funny story among friends at a party. And of course the agent had no intention of naming names. But you never know where this information will go from here. A truly funny story tends to get repeated by those who share it. Good gossip spreads like wildfire.

Confidentiality of sensitive client information should be one of an agent’s top priorities, and that doesn’t always just mean keeping their medical and financial data secure. Sometimes it also means checking your tongue.