When dealing with HR, can employees/managers assume confidentiality?

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Dear Joan:

Please advise me about the following question. When an employee contacts the company Human Resource Representative, is the conversation covered under confidentiality laws/regulations? Is the employee required to state that the contact is confidential, or is this "assumed" when speaking with your HR person?

I work for a national company as a supervisor in one of our seven offices in my state. I spoke with my HR representative, only to learn she had misinterpreted my "venting" regarding a crisis to the state director.

Obviously, I am mortified that my contact was assumed private and that I would obtain information and direction to diffuse the problem. I regret the situation has exploded and I feel if the matter had remained confidential it would now be in resolution status.

Am I completely on the wrong track with my thinking? Your consideration and response in this matter would be greatly appreciated. Thank you   

Answer:

Don’t assume confidentiality—ever—unless you’re talking to your lawyer or your physician. If you want confidentiality, say so. But there is still no guarantee.

For example, HR professionals are bound to divulge anything they deem unethical or illegal behavior. Under those circumstances, they can’t stay quiet and they will have to report it and take action.

But be forewarned…some HR people blab, or insert themselves inappropriately, and really mess up the works, even if no rules have been broken. There are many wonderful HR professionals who wouldn’t share something told to them in confidence, even if they were tied to railroad tracks, but some are either na├»ve, political, or inexperienced (common human traits among people in general, I might add) and therefore, share something they promised they wouldn’t.

Why would an HR professional blab? Here are a few reasons (none of them justified):

  • Some HR representatives see the executives as their primary client (not lower level managers, or employees), so they feel compelled to tell the executive the news, in an effort to give the executive a heads up.  While some might have honorable motives, others only want to enhance their political standing (as in, “see how loyal I am to you?”). Unfortunately, when the HR person spills the beans, the executive usually feels as if she must act on the information. Once that happens, the person who shared the information in confidence is forever burned. HR        people who do this quickly earn the reputation as an executive lackey who can’t be trusted.

  • Other HR folks make the mistake of thinking their role is to listen to employees’ complaints and march in to save the day for the “little people.” This HR person believes that his role is to be an employee representative to fight for their causes. This is a problem for several reasons.

    • When the HR person speaks for the employee, it robs the employee of the opportunity to solve his or her own problem. Instead, a little coaching from the HR person would arm the employee with an adult approach and a chance to build a better relationship with the person with whom they are in conflict. Managers recognize that their best course of action is to keep them out of their business.

    • It’s also a problem because as soon as a third party gets involved, it escalates the entire situation (sound familiar?). The reason is that the manager worries that he now looks bad, and the employee worries that she’ll be retaliated against. Justification and defensiveness prevail and it usually turns into a bigger mess than before.

So, what is the right role for HR professionals? In my opinion, they should be the trusted advocates of all employees. If they’re told something in confidence, they should be “The Vault,” or as one HR Vice President described herself, “Switzerland” (neutral).

Their role should be to advise a smart course of action and help the person think through the pitfalls, so they can communicate for themselves and solve their own problems. Only after that fails, should they carefully step in. It’s the only way to leave the person and the organization stronger.

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Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, customized training (leadership skills, presentation skills, internal consulting skills & facilitation skills), team conflict resolution and retreat facilitation.
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