Survey, opinion and marketing researchers pride themselves on their demeanor and standard of maintaining confidentiality of respondent information. It is the hallmark of the profession. There are circumstances and situations, however, during the course of some research studies where considering to maintain the confidentiality of respondent information becomes unclear.

What should a researcher do when presented with a respondent who has either shared or engaged in activity that could be considered likely to harm to themselves or to someone else in the present or imminent future? Should a survey research professional share the results or information with the client or should the survey research professional go beyond the client and take the matter to the appropriate law enforcement authority, healthcare practitioner, mental health facility or some other professional service? Or does the privacy interest of the respondent outweigh any concern that the survey researcher should have over the safety of the respondent?

In a nutshell, these questions should never be reviewed lightly; each matter and each respondent situation will require a delicate and balanced analysis. Overall, however, there is a standard of exception to the privilege of confidentiality that is considered ethically and legally justified when there is a reasonable belief that the individual is a danger to themselves, or another person, and it is necessary to take steps to protect the individual or the safety of others. Information, however, should be released that is only necessary to insure the health and safety of the individual and should be limited to only individuals with the case--as few individuals as possible; in the matter of survey research, it appears it would be the client or its designated representative.

The prevailing standards stress that this concern for maintaining confidentiality is outweighed by the responsibility of the intervener to prevent various threats. Matters such as suicide and assault on others (including physical and sexual abuse), which initially were defined as legal exceptions to privileged confidential communications have become an established limit for confidential disclosure.

The release of the confidential information should be considered carefully. There must be a reasonable belief that the respondent is likely to commit harm and that the release of the information would likely prevent the respondent from harming themselves. If there is not a guarantee that that will occur, then the information should not be released and should remain confidential or personal, including for survey research purposes.

The information provided in this document is not intended and should not be construed as or substituted for legal advice. It is provided for informational purposes only. It is advisable to consult with private counsel on the precise scope and interpretation of any given laws/legislation and their impact on your particular business.