What Is the Meaning of HR Confidentiality?

When You Go to HR, What Confidentiality Does HR Owe You?

A woman is sharing issues with her HR manager. What can she expect in terms of HR confidentiality?
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Want to know what confidentiality really means in HR?

Human Resources practitioners online receive frequent emails from employees that say, "I had a problem, so I went to HR. I told HR, and they told my boss, and now my boss is mad at me. Isn't HR required to keep everything confidential?“

It's easy to see how people can think that. HR deals with a lot of information that should be confidential. For instance, they handle health insurance (although, they aren't subject to HIPAA regulations except in cases where companies are self-insured), the handle salaries, and they handle discipline.

An employer would fire any HR person who shared information about any of these topics without authorization and a good reason. But what about other things?

Some things HR has to act on, and that means they can't keep your information confidential. Shocked? Well, here are some of the things that HR must act on.

Sexual Harassment Claim

If you file a complaint saying that your boss, coworker, or even a vendor sexually harassed you, the HR department has to act. Legally, if they ignore your claim, they make the company liable for the actions. This is true even if you say, "I don't want you to do anything, I just want you to be aware.“ Legally, HR must act.

How many people will be involved depends on the type of claim the employee made. If, for instance, your claim is that Jim watches porn on his computer and it makes you feel uncomfortable, the HR person can pick up the phone, call the IT department and ask them to look at Jim's computer history.

In a couple of minutes, HR can bust Jim, and no one will even have to know that you complained in the first place.

But what if your complaint is that Jim made inappropriate advances? HR has to investigate that, and that will involve speaking with people. They will speak with Jim. They will speak with other potential witnesses, and after they've gathered the information, they'll make a decision.

Lots of people think that a claim is enough to cause HR to punish the person, but it's not. The company should always conduct a thorough investigation and maintain a position of neutrality while doing so. This means that they will not automatically assume that you are a victim.

This is a good thing. You want them to come to the truth. Remember, just as you can accuse someone else, someone else can accuse you. You wouldn't want HR to just believe your accuser and take action without an investigation.

While HR makes every effort to keep as few people as possible involved in this type of investigation, it's impossible to keep it completely quiet. Some people will have to know about it.

Other Discrimination Claims

If you claim that your boss is mean to you because of your race, HR will conduct an investigation much like a sexual harassment claim. It's impossible to keep this completely quiet. But, what if you claim that your pay is lower because of your race?

Sometimes, the HR person can investigate a claim of race or gender pay discrimination by simply looking in their database. This may allow them to determine that no, your pay is consistent with everyone else at your level and experience, so no pay discrimination is occurring.

Case closed, no one else has to know.

But, what if you just know that, even though your pay is the same as your coworkers, you're not getting the assignments that will prepare you for promotion? Then, you'll have to make your case, and then HR will conduct an investigation—and again, people will know about it.

General Complaints

Here is where it gets sketchy. You may think that your HR person is just a sounding board, but then she goes straight to your manager and reports what you said. What just happened? First of all, your HR person should make it very clear to you what she will and will not share.

You should also make clear what your expectations are. For instance, say, “I'd like some tips on how to get along with my boss better, but I wouldn't like you to speak with him. Is this okay?” She should say yes or no, and then you can proceed, but with the full understanding that your HR manager has agreed not to go to your boss to report.

Keep in mind, if one of the issues you struggle about with him has to do with him breaking the law (sexual harassment, stealing, securities fraud), she has to act. Even if she told you at the beginning she wouldn't, the nature of your complaints can cause her to need to intervene.

If your complaint is that your coworker is always late and never getting punished, just what do you want her to do about it? Do you want her to speak with your manager? Speak with your coworker? Just listen to your venting? Decide what outcome you want before you go in.

Remember, an HR person is not the same as your union rep. She's there to help the company. Sure, the best way to help the company is to ensure that employees are treated well, but that sometimes means going to a manager with your complaint, or ignoring your complaint.

Frankly, it's not your problem that your coworker is coming in late unless it impacts your workload. She may remind you of that. If you complain too much about things that are not your problem, you may motivate your HR manager to go to your boss to let your boss know that you're a problem employee.

Overall Advice

Your HR manager will keep your salary from your coworkers (unless you work in an office where salaries are public), should keep your medical problems confidential, and should do her best to keep delicate situations as close as possible—with only those who need to know knowing.

But, you should not count on your HR manager to act like your priest or your lawyer. She will protect the business. She's not required to keep anything other than medical information quiet (if your company is subject to HIPAA). If you absolutely, positively, don't want your boss to find something out, speak with a therapist instead of HR.