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I recently got a new job at a large company's R&D department, and a lot of what I do is considered sensitive information to the company. Since getting the job and updating LinkedIn, a number of family and friends (some I haven't talked to in years) have asked me what I do now. I used to just say it's confidential, but this seemed to offend people. Is there a more polite and professional way to convey this information?

  • @JoeStrazzere You get it right a lot but not here. To me it is clear he is getting question like what? – paparazzo Oct 15 '16 at 21:39
  • do you not have a cover story? – Pepone Oct 15 '16 at 23:06
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    lie. "I am working as a janitor." – Rui F Ribeiro Oct 16 '16 at 16:31
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    I've worked on sensitive DoD projects recently as well as projects entailing proprietary trade secrets. In your case, it sounds more like a trade secret than truly SF-86 clearance mandated work. In both cases, I haven't found a situation where a polite "I'm not at liberty to discuss my work" or a generic "I'm working on product development for a consumer facing product" hasn't been enough. People should respect your boundaries pertaining to your work. – Alex Oct 17 '16 at 13:00
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    I think you're taking it a little too seriously... Don't go to a competitors company and start drawing details of your product on a whiteboard, but you're worried about discussing your job with family? You're not working for a highly classified government agency... – pay Oct 17 '16 at 15:02
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The short answer, is to talk to your employer for clarification on what you are allowed to say to describe your work to your friends.

For example, for a while, I worked on a telematics project for a well known U.K. Motoring organisation.

Likewise, I am under obligations to not confirm technology used by a particular company. That means I can say to people where I was working, or discuss the technology I was using - just not both at the same time.

In one of my earlier roles, we solved a very similar problem.

If I'm then asked which role, the answer is

I'm sorry, I'm not allowed to confirm that this company uses specific products or techniques, and frankly the technology is far more interesting than knowing the name of a large company.

If they still want to know the company name, I'll tell them and then not talk about the tech.

its worth pointing out that this strategy is not appropriate if you have a clause requiring you to protect secrets. It is only appropriate where you are required to not disclose or confirm.

  • I would only use this approach if it is reasonable that a person couldn't guess which company you are talking about. "I worked on this cool auto technology in one of my jobs." "You've only worked at one auto-related company, so it must have been for Xcorp?" ".... I can't tell you which company ..." – David K Oct 17 '16 at 14:17
  • There's a lot of competing issues at stake here. One of which is your ability to continue to earn a living and continue working with the same technical skill sets. Whilst it's not the intent, to my mind if someone puts 2 and 2 together, and forms their own conclusion, that is different from me saying it's 4. I'm not going to confirm that it is 4 or deny that it's not 5. – Michael Shaw Oct 18 '16 at 19:12
  • If you do this you need co-operation from the people you live with - they too can never, ever tell anyone which company you work for. Otherwise you say "I do X" and your kid says "my parent works for Y" and suddenly you're in the poo. – Móż Oct 19 '16 at 3:28
  • It depends entirely on the contract you signed. In that case, it was explicitly "not allowed to disclose or confirm that company X uses technology Y". To breach that requires ME to link X with Y. – Michael Shaw Oct 19 '16 at 6:16
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I don't understand why someone would be offended by "confidential" - perhaps it's how you're saying it? Consider using "proprietary".

Family and friends should understand when you say "I can't talk about it; it's prohibited; I'd lose my job." Anyone who wants to pry after that, you just need to repeat what you said the first time, and then change the subject.

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    Confidential and proprietary are not the same. – paparazzo Oct 15 '16 at 21:42
  • @Paparazzi no, obviously they are not exact synonyms. But the one isn't working for OP so I suggested the other. – John Feltz Oct 15 '16 at 21:45
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    Agreed. Anyone who takes offense at not being given company-confidential information is not respecting you as a friend or a professional. Don't bother defending it, just tell them no. – keshlam Oct 15 '16 at 21:55
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The usual answer: "I could tell you, but then I'd have to shoot you."

If that doesn't help: "Seriously, what I'm doing is confidential. Don't ask me again, or I will be offended." That way it becomes their fault for asking, and you are the offended party.

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You do know you are going to have trouble finding the next job if you cannot disclose what you do in the current job.

I have worked on some projects I could not talk about and it can get awkward.

With your significant other. "I am working on stuff I simply cannot talk about and I need you not to pry. They are not asking me to do anything illegal or unethical."

Let's take it to the extreme you work for the CIA and do cryptography. You may not even be able say you do cryptography. At the level you just have to have friends that understand. Not all will. You could even be working for an agency that is classified. Look up the Hillary email testimony.

If your title is classified. "I work for X and unfortunately my title and projects are classified." What is classified? "Classified is something I cannot talk about".

If projects are classified. "I work for X as an Y and unfortunately my projects are classified."

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    People who have worked for the UK MI5/6 GCHQ etc in certain roles are not even allowed to say that is where they worked, never mind the details of what work they did. Finding the next job is an interesting challenge. – Michael Shaw Oct 15 '16 at 23:41
  • Michael, even those folks do have perfectly useful ways to describe their skillset to a layman audience. Which, admittedly, will be different to a Security Cleared audience. – Rory Alsop Oct 16 '16 at 16:22
  • @RoryAlsop They might have perfectly useful, prepared ahead of time, spiel for people who ask. Which doesn't mean they can tell the truth or even reveal information that could be used to do basic leg work and connect dots. It's a special case, since MI5/6/GCHQ are peculiar groups in their own right. I remember one of them coming in to uni to speak with students and earmark potential candidates for the future. Potential jobs were not mentioned in any detail we could see as interesting. By interesting I mean "how much of that is spy stuff?" – Cthulhubutt Oct 17 '16 at 14:04
  • I've worked in this space myself, and interviewed folks from that background. While fine detail may be a challenge, there is always content that can be discussed. – Rory Alsop Oct 17 '16 at 14:35
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    Note that "makes it hard to find another job" is not usually a problem for the classified employer. It may count as a benefit. – Móż Oct 19 '16 at 3:30
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My work with confidential-but-interesting stuff has never been classified. But often it's deliberately kept opaque just to reduce the attack surface we expose. So my employer would very strongly prefer I not go to a user group meeting and say "hey, we're struggling with ... and here's how", because that tells anyone present about the sensitive parts of our system.

I deal with that particular issue by creating anonymous accounts online to ask those questions, and I am careful not to link the questions back to my employer, or the exact task I'm doing. "How do I run Windows remote Desktop over an SSH tunnel to WinXP" is quite answerable, without anyone knowing that I'm trying to maintain a Diebold ATM (which I'm not, obviously).

In person I say "I work for a company that makes burglar alarms" and talk about the cool/annoying stuff I'm doing at whatever level suits the person asking (we have a shiny new product, we have a shiny new server, or a shiny new programming tool, depending). I talk about my relationships with my co-workers, I talk about the challenges of working in a hetrogenous coding environment, or simply whine about my low pay and how they all hate me and it's not fair (until whoever is asking walks away).

If your company doesn't have a public product or service, that's somewhat harder. But with a little care about blackmail-worthy details, you should be able to talk about the office politics if nothing else. I'm sure you have co-workers who drive cars which get replaced by newer models, break down, cost money... or perhaps the same with their spouses :)

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When I asked people about their (mostly US government) jobs and they were not able or willing to tell me, they would point me to their job ads and say something like

I'm not allowed to tell you what I do, but look, this is the job ad I applied for

In all instances this was enough to satisfy my curiosity and also perfectly legal public information. The job ad will contain a lot of interesting information about the job without giving anything away anything that would be confidential. It's way better than being told "none of your concern", no matter how friendly you say it, it's neither helping nor leaving a good feeling with friends, people that trust you and now have to come to terms that you don't trust them.

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