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Sunday, August 1, 2010

when I talk to HR, don't they have to keep it confidential?

A reader writes:

I had a conversation with the HR Director about something happening in my department. She went to my boss with the issue, citing me as the source. This was not an official complaint by me, as we were not in her office but in the lunchroom. However, I considered conversations with HR professionals to be in confidence. Was I in error?

HR people aren't doctors or priests; there's no confidentiality statute and you shouldn't assume confidentiality when talking to them, even if you're at lunch. Even if you're talking to them when you run into them at the grocery store over the weekend.

HR is there to serve the company; their loyalty and responsibilities are to the employer. If they hear information that they judge needs to be shared or used to address a situation, their job obligates them to do that. A parallel: Imagine you're a computer programmer and you learn there's a serious bug in the software you're working on, but you do nothing. You'd be being negligent and not doing your job, right? It's the same thing with HR.

Now, in some cases, you can talk to HR in confidence if you explicitly work out an understanding of confidentiality before you share. But even then, it might not really be kept confidential. I've seen plenty of cases where a HR person judged that the best interests of the company required that the information be passed along, even after promising confidentiality to the employee.

Additionally, there are cases where HR is actually required to report things, no matter how vehemently the employee requests confidentiality: They have to report any concerns about harassment or illegal behavior, even if you beg them not to.

Now, should it be this way? Is HR in the wrong to operate like this?  The reality is, HR is there to serve the interests of the employer. To the extent that they also serve the interests of the employees, it's in service of the larger goal of serving the company. For instance, they may do work on employee retention or morale -- but that's because it's in the employer's interests to retain good employees and to care about morale, not because their primary "clients" are employees. And similarly, if HR hears about, say, an incompetent or struggling manager, HR's job is (generally) to find a way to address it.  They can't remain quiet if that would violate their professional obligation to the company.

But there are good ways and bad ways of doing this:

Bad = letting an employee think something will be confidential but then sharing it anyway

Good = explaining to the employee that it can't be confidential and how the information will be used, and possibly agreeing to keep their name out of it to the extent possible (which may be zero, depending)

HR people (or managers, for that matter) who mislead employees about confidentiality not only are operating without integrity but are also pretty much guaranteeing that over time no one will trust them, respect them, or tell them anything.

But HR people and managers who are clear and direct about how they may need to use information -- and who don't promise confidentiality before knowing if they can really keep that promise, instead saying explicitly, "I can't promise you that I can keep what you tell me off-the-record; I don't want you to think something is private because I may end up being obligated to share it" -- are generally able to maintain trusting and professional relationships with those around them. 

So back to your situation: Was the HR director in the wrong? It doesn't sound like you asked for or she promised confidentiality. You could definitely argue that she should have made a point of telling you that she would need to act on the information, but you could also argue that she assumed that was understood by virtue of you talking with her about it at all. 

Overall, never assume confidentiality.


Christian said...

Yepp, HR are there to serve the interest of the employer. And so is EVERYONE ELSE in the company. People seem to forget the little fact that they are employed to do a job, its not that they are doing the company a favour. That applies to HR and to everyone else.

Anonymous said...

Well of course there ARE confidentiality statues about certain matters. Just not about the matters OP writes about. HR is required to keep confidential any information they may have about a worker's sexual orientation, health records, income, etc.

But AAM is correct, too often workers assume HR is there to be an office counselor, and that's not their job.

Anonymous said...

HR's function is to protect the employer and a key part of their role is sharing information to gauge company climate.

The infamous "I'm going to HR" is on equal footing with "I'm telling mom". HR is looking out for the company and ime Mom wants quiet. Disruptions are usually handled in kind, without any favor thrown toward the tattler or messenger.

Is this fair? Not really. There are many situations that would benefit from an objective opinion or interference. Employees that expect justice or even things to go their way, are concerned more about themselves than the company. HR is there to protect the best interests of the company, not necessarily the employee.

Charles said...

There is at least ONE issue in which I think HR should keep confidentiality; especially since they often say they will.

When one applies for another job within the organization.

While the hiring manager does have the right to ask my current supervisor about me HR does not/should not talk to my CURRENT supervisor about my application for another position.

Twice I have been burnt by HR NOT keeping my application confidential when they said that they would. In the one case I actually overheard them talking to my supervisor by asking if there was anything "wrong" with me as I had asked to apply for another position in a different department

I now know that if I am ever in that situation again I will go directly to the manager hiring and by pass HR all together. I know I will still have to eventually go through HR; But, at least, I can get a feel for the position by talking directly to the source before HR burns me.

So, yes, HR is there to serve the company's needs. But, I think there are some cases where confidentiality is expected.

Anonymous said...

Honestly, I'm amazed that someone would expect confidentiality in an internal hiring situation. This is just my jaded hiring manager pov, but internal is more complicated with more people involved. Along with the rush of promoting someone you also have a lot of cleanup filling jobs created by the domino effect of 1 well placed promotion.

HR has to make sure the employee is eligible to move, which means they have to talk to your boss, and while they're at it, they would also determine critical job functions and begin to make plans for another job opening.

As much as I would like to say that I'm okay with conversations about so & so moving on.. I'm not okay with managers holding someone back because of alleged business need. Call it selfish or whatever, if a good employee wants to move on, they'll find a way. I much prefer they find their way internally so we don't lose knowledge and valuable, tenured employees.

Just my 2 cents...

Charles said...

Anon at 1:46;

All very good points. But I would expect, especially since HR says so, that they NOT talk to my current supevisor until the hiring manager is ready to move forward.

Even without an agreement of confidentiality I would not expect them to approach a current supervisor with the words "what's wrong with . . " simply because someone has expressed an interest in another internal position.

Perhaps my comment was a bit off-topic in expressing my frustration with unprofessional. behaviour on the part of some HR folks. I certainly don't mean that HR has to or should not mention anything until I am hired for the new position. But I do believe (again, especially when it is said) that HR should not mention anything to the current supervisor until the hiring manager is ready to move forward.

There is no harm done to the company if nothing is said and it turns out that an employee is missing key qualifications for the new job; However, there can be harm done to the employee (and, as a result to employee moral and ultimately to the company) if HR mentions something to the current supervisor and the employee is not even considered for the new position. Some managers do not take kindly to "their" staff looking for work elsewhere, even if that elsewhere is just down the hall.

Sorry, to harp on this issue. But as I have said, twice I was burnt by HR on this. I think that you and I are possibly operating from two different viewpoints: You are looking at the situation with a professional manager's attitude. I am looking at the situation in which I had unprofessional managers who treated me (and others who looked elsewhere for work) as if we were "traitors." In both cases, my experience was that HR said (or as written in the job postings) that all applications were confidential. They did NOT keep my applications confidential.

All the points that you make, while true, are not a situation where someone is in danger or the company would be liable if HR didn't mention something to the current manager. What is wrong with HR holding off until it becomes clear that someone might be moving forward?

Anonymous said...

SHRM Code of Ethics:

fposte said...

Charles, I think the point of this blog post is that it's not actually something you should expect. Hope for, maybe, ask for, sure, but expect? No. That's not a judgment on what HR should or shouldn't do--it's a statement about appropriate employee expectations.

Anonymous said...

Charles, You're expecting someone who's already exhibited unprofessional behavior to keep confidences in situations where an underlying loyalty conflict already exists.

Although you can hope for privacy, it's not a very realistic expectation.