When is What Employees Discuss with HR Confidential?

Guest: Rachel Bitte Bad HR, Business Development, Career Paths, Communication, Culture, Employee Communications, employee experience, Employment Law, HR

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: “I had a complaint about my boss, so I told HR in confidence. They told my boss, and now she’s mad at me. Isn’t HR required to keep everything confidential?”

Employees often assume that any conversations they have with Human Resources are confidential and can’t be shared. But since we’re not doctors or priests, we know that’s rarely the case.

As HR professionals, we’re responsible for navigating the often tricky task of balancing what can seem like conflicting responsibilities: the need to be a trusted resource for employees and an effective partner for the company. So, how do you protect the needs of employees and the business at the same time? It’s up to us to understand the policies and laws, exercise discretion, and use smart judgment.

When HR must take action

It’s easy to see how an employee might think certain topics would be off-limits when it comes to confidentially. After all, complaints involving sexual harassment or discrimination are serious matters and are often desired to be kept private. But they are also legal matters, which means that HR can’t keep employee information 100% confidential because they must act on it in accordance with the law.

If what is being reported to HR is a rule, policy, or legal violation — it’s going to have to be dealt with, period! Even if the employee tells you they don’t want anything done, just for you to be aware of what happened… you’re still required to comply with company standards, avoid legal liability, and most importantly, protect your employees.

A good HR team brings in only the people needed (or involved) to complete thorough investigations, which means, in the end, some people will have to know about what you were told. Complete confidentially is impossible to guarantee here, even if promised ahead of time.

When HR could take action

Based on the nature of complaints that violate policies or laws, it’s usually straightforward to assess when to break confidentiality and intervene. Where it gets more tricky though is in those situations that rely on HR’s discretion, such as general complaints about managers or coworkers. So, how do you know what to share (and what not to) to get to a resolution?

It’s key to understand why someone is coming to HR in the first place, and what they want to get out of it. For example, if someone complains that a manager has blatant favoritism, understand what they want to happen. Do they want HR to speak to the manager? Are they looking to learn if other complaints have been levied? Or are they there to simply vent their frustrations?

From the coach to the mediator, there is a broad spectrum of roles HR can play once you understand the employee’s reason for sharing. However, what workers sometimes fail to realize is that HR professionals are not often decision-makers, but rather facilitators. HR education in the workplace is the key to helping employees understand when and why to come to you, and also to trust that you’ll do the right thing with their (sensitive) information.

So then, what is actually confidential?

Overall, employees should not expect unfettered confidentially — that’s a bit naive. At the same time, HR needs to dispel this (often prevalent) notion that somehow, it’s the employees versus the company. Employees are the most important and expensive asset of any company. They are the ones in the trenches doing the work, and they have an important perspective. So, it’s crucial to develop a rapport with them so they trust you with information about their workplace experiences.

You can diffuse a lot of tension right off the bat by giving employees a disclaimer about what’s confidential when they ask to talk about something in confidence. Most often the answer is nothing, as HR is not actually mandated to keep too many things confidential. That said, you’re expected to have expert discretion and judgment. Good HR professionals do their best to limit the exposure of delicate information shared by employees to a need-to-know basis.

Do that well, and you’ll build lasting relationships with both employees as a trusted advisor, and company leadership as a dependable brand representative.