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

This post was originally published on August 1, 2010.

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.

{ 68 comments… read them below }

  1. Jamie

    Why do people see HR as pseudo therapists? I’ve seen that everywhere I’ve worked – some people make appointments and want to talk about their feelings about work, whatever is bothering them, but are outraged when HR wants to take action or try to resolve the issue.

    This is one of those weird misconceptions that’s out there – but it’s so pervasive I really wonder where it stems from.

    1. Joey

      That is a million dollar question.

      I think its because HR is presented as impartial, rational, confidential, and interested in the well being of employees.

      1. SevenSixOne

        A lot of employee handbooks say something about how employees are protected from disciplinary action for speaking up about legal/ethical/policy violations, so I think some people interpret that as “I can talk to HR about anything and everything and face no consequences!!!”

    2. PJ

      I believe I know where this comes from. I’ve been in HR for 1.2 gazillion years. In the beginning of my career, people went into HR because “I’m a people person” or “I want to help people.” Even now, inexperienced and untrained HR professionals, especially in companies that do not respect the HR profession or understand its proper role in the management of an organization, will align themselves with the employees rather than with management. This is detrimental to the employees and to the company.

      As an HR professional, I hang my head and say that there are those among our ranks who are still confused about their appropriate role.

      Hot button of mine. Sorry for the rant.

      1. the_scientist

        My dad is a career HR professional and a well-respected and good one. I learned as a teenager “HR is there for the company, not for the employee.”. I’m still shocked at how many of my peers don’t realize and have never learned that.

        And I f

      2. kd

        I, too, have been working for a gazillion years. Before EAP’s, etc.
        In my 20’s and early 30’s I worked in many places, because that is what you did then – stayed 2-3 yrs and moved on when you were ready to go further your career.
        The HR I encountered in those companies were completely different then current – they did encourage this talking and feelings stuff, with confidentiality. So much so, I thought it was ‘normal’. I never had an issue with something coming back at me and advice was given to resolve whatever was going on. If a boss was brought in, it was known to me first. This is early 80’s into the 90’s.
        I experienced this in large and small for profit businesses, east coast, tri-state (NYC) area and LA, CA.
        HR has morphed and changed, just like everything else.

    3. Yup

      Because HR is often brought in to workplace disputes in a mediator role, and is also often the recommended safe harbor when whistle blowing or expert for handling tricky stuff like medical leave. People confuse this with am ombudsperson (or union rep or similar) who’s supposed to advocate on your behalf.

    4. Artemesia

      Employee assistance which provides help with personal issues is often part of HR and people come to see HR as a support for the employee. I think I would have to be pretty desperate to use my employers employee assistance services if I had a problem with alcohol, depression or other personal problems.

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        Keep in mind that EAPs aren’t generally staffed by your company’s HR. They’re an outside company that your company is providing to you for help with those types of issues.

        1. Ruffingit

          Thank you for that! I have had to tell that same thing to people more than once. EAPs are a great resource if you’re having issues, make use of it! It’s not your company’s way of spying on you. Most likely, the person you speak to won’t even know who your boss/company owner is, let alone be speaking to those people about your issues. Therapists are bound by confidentiality with a few exceptions, none of which involve “Well her boss asked me about her and I told her about the depression and the drugs…”

          1. HR “Gumption”

            Good for you Ruff, it is a great resource and information to a 3rd party resource is confidential.

        2. JenTheNiceHRGirl

          That is correct… we have an EAP and we have no way of knowing who is using the service and what they are using it for.

      2. Windchime

        I work for a medical facility that has mental health services, and there are a certain number of visits that are no-cost as part of our EAP benefit. Yes, the mental health providers are part of the company, but it is absolutely confidential, just as any mental-health visit would be. We don’t even have to go through HR in any way to use the benefit. You just make the appointment, tell them that you are an employee, and the visit is no-charged.

        I haven’t used the benefit (yet), but I know of several co-workers who have and I would feel totally comfortable doing so.

    5. Ruffingit

      I think it’s because some of what HR deals with is considered confidential by the working population as in a person’s tax issues, immigration issues, etc. I think the idea just got expanded in the minds of workers that because some of what they handle is confidential that it ALL is. Therefore, they feel that, like a therapist, HR will keep what they say confidential and they can go to an HR person and hash out their thoughts and feelings. People do not understand that HR is not a therapist, a lawyer, or a confessional.

      1. Elly

        I would add, HR is not a DOCTOR either. Sometimes employees come and say that they are not feeling well and are unsure whether they should go home. That is not HR’s decision.

    6. Feed Fido

      I know from my experience some HR folks have acted like therapists/friends/confidants…they are the dept. we are told to turn to if harassed. Considering HR’s loyalties if I had a legally actionable issue no way would I see HR.

      1. HR Pro

        Feed Fido, for what it’s worth, typically people who are suing for a legally actionable issue like harassment have made their legal case weaker if they did not go to HR to complain about it first. It’s up to you, of course, but you might be shooting yourself in the foot by bypassing HR (and going straight to the EEOC, for example).

        I know your comment was just hypothetical, though. I hope you never are in a situation to have to make that choice (in other words, I hope you are never harassed).

        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          Yes — in fact, very solid harassment cases have been lost because the company had a reporting policy that the plaintiff didn’t follow. (The defense basically says “look, we had a policy in place to deal with situations like this; the plaintiff didn’t give us a chance to resolve the concerns.”)

            1. Feed Fido

              PS

              It is important for folks to KNOW these laws. Not that anyone (scrupulous) plans to be harassed but given it can happen, it would be awful to dig your own grave by not following rules. I know what I assumed was wrong.

  2. iseeshiny

    This makes me think of Sheldon Cooper’s need to honor closet organizer-organizee confidentially.

  3. JenTheNiceHRGirl

    When someone comes to me with an issue, I ask them if they are just venting or do they want me to act on what they are telling me. Sometimes people come to me with a complaint but really they just want someone to listen to them (they manager is being too strict with them, they got passed up for a promotion, they were asked to do something they don’t want to…etc…) Of course there are things that I absolutely have to act on like something illegal, harassment, severe violation of our company policies etc… in those cases I do tell the employee that I am obligated to act on the situation. In those cases I tell the employee who is reporting the situation that I will do my best to be discreet, but that depending on the situation, their name may come up.

      1. RJ

        My addled brain translated this as “Like Toby in ‘The West Wing’!” and I was struggling to see the correlation. :)

    1. jesicka309

      Exactly what I was coming to say. As so many people are confused by what HR actually does, I feel like it’s only right for HR to disclose the next steps. If it’s something that HR won’t take action over, they should tell the employee that so they don’t go away feeling like HR are taking care of their niggles only to be disappointed.
      Similarly, if an employee discloses something that HR are obligated to take action on, having advance warning would be nice.
      HR wouldn’t have such a reputation as the ‘evil boogey monsters’ if they were clearer about what they were going to do. Most rational people can understand HR’s reasoning for disclosure/action – it’s the feeling of being blindsided or ignored that makes people wary of HR.

    1. Joey

      Fmla,a disability you’re not comfortable talking to your supervisor about, supervisor doing something really bad/illegal, issues with benefits coverage that the provider isn’t handling, possible benefits to cover a specific type of personal issue that you don’t want people to know about all come to mind.

      1. Ann O'Nemity

        “Issues with benefits coverage that the provider isn’t handling.”

        Yes to this, though I wasn’t really thinking of things like this in the context of the discussion.

        To everything else, no I wouldn’t go to HR expecting confidentiality.

      2. JenTheNiceHRGirl

        Those are 99% of reasons people usually come talk to me. Although HR people are here to serve the company, just like all other employees are, a big part of our job is helping the employees with these types of things and sometimes that means that we hear things that the employee wants to keep confidential. It’s just part of the job and anyone who is good at their HR job isn’t going to break someone’s confidentiality unless they absolutely have to.

  4. Ann Furthermore

    Yes, it is a common misperception that HR is just there as a friendly ear, but the reality is just like Alison said: they are there as employees, with a duty to the employer to act in the employer’s best interests.

    I think people also think that HR has more power than it actually does. About 2 years ago, a friend from my former department came running down to my cube to share the glorious news that the director of that area, who everyone but her boss despised, and who rained misery into everyone’s lives for as long as she’d worked at the company, had given notice. There was much celebrating — and not just by me.

    Anyway — I got to be friendly with one of the HR managers during an HRMS implementation, and I happened to run into her as I was leaving the office that night. She had, in a very tactful and circumspect way, acknowledged that this director was quite unpopular, and people were not shy about expressing that. Anyway, I asked her if she’d heard the news, and she said, “Oh, thank GOD!” I laughed, and then she said that HR can only do so much when people come to complain about managers. They can talk to the manager’s boss, recommend courses of action, and so on, but unless that person is doing something outright illegal, or something cited as grounds for dismissal in the company’s code of conduct, they really can’t do any more than that. The decision to get rid of someone has to come from the manager, and no one else. And because this director’s boss for some reason had the idea that the sun shined out of her posterior, he had no interest in hearing anything bad people had to say about her.

    It was an interesting perspective. Makes total sense, of course, but something that had never occurred to me before.

    1. Joey

      Eh, that’sjust probably not a very good HR person. A good HR person has tons of power. It’s just usually in the form of persuasion and having the right persons ear.

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        HR in and of itself, though, shouldn’t be making decisions to fire someone. They can attempt to influence and persuade, but ultimately it’s not up to them.

        1. Ann Furthermore

          And overall it’s a good thing, if you look at the flip side. What if you did something to tick off an HR person, and they were able to see to it that you got fired?

          1. Ask a Manager Post author

            Hell yes it’s a very good thing. HR people should not be making managers’ decisions for them. (I may bristle extra at this since I come from the manager side rather than HR, but I would run far away from a company that let HR make serious management decisions that a manager should be making.)

            1. JenTheNiceHRGirl

              I have never worked anywhere where the HR Manager had the ability to get someone fired. It has always been up to the department managers and supervisors to performance manage their staff and make hiring and firing decisions. I am not saying there are not companies where they may allow the HR Manager to make those kinds of decisions, I just don’t think that it is the norm… based on my experience anyway.

                1. KJR

                  There have actually been times where I told managers they could NOT fire someone…mainly because they are jumping the gun and not following ANY progressive discipline, or warned the person in any way.

                2. Joey

                  Absolutely it works both ways. I bet you’ll do whatever it takes to prevent terrible firings and from keeping terrible employees regardless of what a manager says, right?

              1. Joey

                I’ve seen it frequently. A manager doesn’t want to fire someone for starting a fight or fo testing positive after an on the job injury. HR effectively overruled them by going over their head as much as necessary.

                1. Ann Furthermore

                  But I think that would fall into the category of violating company policies which is grounds for dismissal, no matter what.

                  I have also seen HR prevent a firing because the manager has not done the due diligence of documenting the issues, and going through the formal discipline process. I understand why HR does this — they want to have something to refer back to if there’s ever a legal issue or some other question — but the drawback is that many managers won’t take the time to go through these steps, for whatever reason. And so poor employees are allowed to stay.

                2. Joey

                  You’d be surprised how many managers don’t want to fire when its what most people would consider the only right thing to do. An conversely lots of managers want to fire when there’s poor or no documented evidence of wrongdoing. Lots of managers don’t really get how important good documentation is until they get put in the spot as part of an EEOC or UE inquiry or lawsuit.

              2. Windchime

                Same with my experience. If anything, HR has sometimes delayed firings because certain steps and procedures (such as extensive documentation) are required to protect the company before someone can be fired, and if those things haven’t been done, then HR requires the manager to do those things before the firing can proceed. And I think this is ultimately a good thing.

            2. Ann Furthermore

              Yes, it is a good thing….but then again, sometimes you wish HR would intervene when a weak manager is not effectively managing a poor-employing employee, and so the whole team suffers.

              I’m not an HR person, nor have I ever been, but I think it must be challenging to find and maintain the right balance.

        2. Joey

          Well ultimately it’s not up to the manager either. If you want to get technical its all up to everyone’s boss. The difference is a good manager only has the ability to affect decisions in his area whereas a good HR person has the ability to affect the decision over a much broader area.

        3. De Minimis

          I think even trying to influence and persuade is outside what they should be doing in a lot of cases, but I’m probably somewhat biased–I’ve had the experience of working in an environment where they had way too much power. It’s sad when you have group meetings where the staff won’t speak freely with their managers until the HR person is instructed to leave.

          1. Joey

            No, the most important part of their job is persuading. Persuading managers to see how a decision ultimately is going to produce more return on the money the company is spending on its employees.

      2. Ann Furthermore

        True, but in this case, the director reported to the Senior VP, and the policies and culture of the company state that the VP has the final say on hiring/firing decisions.

        So sure, HR could have gone to the VP’s boss, the CEO, and get that person’s ear, but in the HR person’s place I’d want to pick my battles. Using up my goodwill with the CEO to complain about someone that nobody likes might make it harder for me when I need the CEO’s help for something much more significant. The “crying wolf” syndrome, if you will.

        If it was a lower level, individual contributor, I could definitely see going over the manager’s head to the manager’s boss. But the higher up in the food chain you have to go, the more selective you need to be about when you do that.

  5. De Minimis

    I think some of the confusion is also because HR is often the keeper of confidential employee information.

  6. Laufey

    I wonder if we’re also dealing with different definitions of confidentiality. (I’m not an HR person in any way, shape, or form; I’m just hypothesizing). I wonder if the employee sometimes approaches the situation with an idea that confidentiality equals “you take action and my name is never mentioned” while the HR person views it as “Of course I have to mention your name since it’s your problem, but the situation won’t be spoken of beyond people involved in the situation (ie. boss, boss’s boss, etc).”

    1. Joey

      Sometimes they don’t even realize what they want. I’ve seen people go to HR about a boss and when asked what they think should be done to resolve the issue they say something like “well he shouldn’t keep telling me what to do.”

  7. anonymous

    I don’t go to HR because most things I would go to them about would be some dispute with my boss, and they’re always on the boss’s side. (I also don’t do exit interviews.) I tend to get along with and work things out with co-workers.

    However, I have also noticed (and these may be anomalies, I admit) that the HR people at 3 of the 4 jobs I have had in the last 15 years have not kept lots of things confidential, and they tell employees who they are friendly with (me, for instance) things that are none of anyone’s business. They told things like people’s private health information, such as why someone was on a medical leave or someone who was having a very complicated pregnancy, completely unsolicited. I realize employees have to work with HR on these things, but I basically would never tell the HR people something that I don’t want my co-workers to know, if I could help it.

    1. HR “Gumption”

      Ouch! That does suck.

      There are 2 positions that can do significant damage if they can’t keep their traps shut, HR and Payroll.

    2. Ruffingit

      That’s probably for the best. I had a friend who was friends with her company’s main HR person. That HR woman told my friend a ton of stuff about other people that was not my friend’s business at all. Made me give the side-eye to the HR lady when I saw her. It may not be illegal, but that shouldn’t stop a person from having some respect for their colleagues and what those colleagues may not want revealed.

    3. HR Pro

      I’m an HR director and I manage 2 other HR people. I would NEVER allow them to reveal an employee’s confidential health information to someone who doesn’t need to know it (including the employee’s boss).

      We’ve had situations were managers begged/threatened us to know what serious health condition an employee has, and we refuse to reveal that (if the employee does not authorize it). We definitely reveal things like how long the employee is expected to be out of work (for their medical condition).

      On the other hand, some employees are very open about their health problems with everyone who will listen. If we are aware that someone has already been open with coworkers about their health, or we’ve asked them if they’re sharing the information with others, then we feel OK discussing it with others – in a compassionate/respectful way, of course.

  8. Graciosa

    It never occurred to me that HR would keep information confidential from the people in the company who need to know it – I find it kind of amazing the number of people who want to “report” someone to HR to “fix the problem” without revealing any information. It is extraordinarily difficult to coach someone on a behavior, for example, if you are unable to describe it, provide any examples, or discuss the impact it has.

    On the positive side, I think HR does not get enough credit for coaching managers. I had a very difficult situation come up in my first few months as a manager, and my HR representative was fantastic in helping me prepare for discussions with the employee. It was the first time I was in that situation, but I am sure she had seen it many times before. She provided information on what to do (and not to do), helped me brainstorm approaches, and let me vent a bit.

    Helping me do a better job helped the employee and the company. I can’t say enough about how powerful a good HR person can be behind the scenes.

  9. Cassie

    I’m friends with someone in HR and she is frustrated with the fact that people go to her to complain (some of which is very legitimate work-related issues, like bullying) but then they beg her not to tell anyone. She’s stuck with all this information and she feels that she can’t talk to the bullies, or talk to the bully’s supervisor, or anything because of this magical “please don’t tell anyone” plea.

    While I appreciate the fact that she wants to honor people’s wishes, I also think that she has a duty when it is impacting the work environment.

    Back to the OP – I’d be curious if HR brought up the issue to the supervisor as official business, or if it was just “gossip”. I mean, I hope that HR isn’t gossipy, but sometimes the people there are…

  10. Greg

    For me, it has nothing to do with confidentiality (unless I’m talking to a close friend, I pretty much assume that nothing I say or write in the office is confidential.) The issue is that HR is not my friend and never will be, and anyone who has ever been laid off has been disabused of that notion right quick.

  11. Public Sector Manager

    I would expect HR to keep certain items confidential, but most of these would have boundaries. Certain subjects would have lesser boundaries and other would have greater boundaries. For example, as mentioned above, medical information that falls under HIPPA requirements should be kept confidential.

    However, anything that dealt with my job and related issues I would think any HR professional worth their pay would be duty bound to address. How they addressed it would be another issue. If there was a problem with the manager, then I would certainly hope they would use good judgment when staff came to them for help.

    Don’t sell HR short, either. Though they are there to protect your organization or company, many of them are very empathetic people who really do want to help.

    Protecting the company also means protecting employees against rouge managers. In this case, I definitely would consult with HR. They probably would be more than happy to provide you with advice and support. They don’t want the company to get sued. If they are smart, they won’t divulge sensitive information, or at least certain aspects of it, to the rouge manager.

    HR is not your friend, but they are not always the enemy, either.

    And, keep in mind, too, sometimes if you want your manager to know something but do not want to tell them directly, telling HR might be a solution. But, be careful! It can backfire, too!

  12. The Dream

    What do you do when HR lies?

    It was common knowledge (in due time) that the HR dept at the company I used to work for did the bidding of the CEO. Policy and handbook statements be darned.

    I understand that HR looks out for the company. But at this company were railroading anyone who did not fit in with the new seemingly hostile culture. This included “eliminating positions” just to get certain people out of the way. Interestingly, this dept successfully railroaded their own Director and the CEO fired him and replaced him with a yes man .

    I guess most who can leave.

  13. Anonymous

    We are small medical office, around 20 people. We don’t have HR, our boss which is our doctor in charge of everything. My boss sited me and one of employee as witness at the meeting with another employee, they fired her afterword. But now they want her back, what should I do to protect myself, I have no heart to hurt anyone and want anyone to be fired, but now……..I am consider to quite my job. My question is can my boss do that, should she make it anonymous

  14. Lisa Petrenko

    I understand when officially reporting to an HR person that they have to act, but this sounds like normal cafeteria venting in a social setting.

  15. Brandy

    Good morning! I don’t know where I can get the answer to this question, so, I’m hoping to get some type of guidance. I apologize in advanced for the abrupt question. I (receptionist) was recently shredding the papers at my job (small law firm, around 11-15 employees including myself) and I was able to see how much everyone got for their Christmas bonus from previous years. I accidentally slip up and said something to the other co worker about how much the attorneys got for Christmas bonus. She was kind of in disbelief and said she won’t tell anyone and that the numbers that I gave her must have been for something else. I really love my job and I am afraid that she may say something to someone. What should I do?

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