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.

{ 17 comments… read them below }

  1. Christian*

    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.

  2. Anonymous*

    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.

  3. Anonymous*

    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.

  4. Charles*

    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.

    1. Angie Bennet*

      There are many times that HR will go ‘above and beyond’ in their un-necessary ‘reporting’ to management; I worked for a fairly large medical corp. and my boss was harassing me horribly because I had to take some time off for medical testing; he was constantly screaming at me in front of other staff, throwing files on my desk nearly hitting me, co-workers were noticing & were shocked by his abhorrent behavior; I notified the HR manager that I was having some issues with my boss and wanted to schedule a meeting with her to discuss- further;
      so we scheduled a phone meeting since she’s located at a different facility. The day of the phone meeting, my boss was out of the office, without letting anyone know where he was (I’m sure a few knew, and just did not let me know… When I called in to the HR mgr. for the meeting, I heard her whisper & then put me on speaker – I knew right then & there my boss was in that office. I told her I’d prefer not to be on speaker but she said in a condescending way ‘it’s only me here.’ I should have hung up, I was very nervous during the call, wanting to believe her, but then I also heard movement in the background , so I knew he was there. I did tell her truthfully exactly what was going on, but long story-short, my boss only got much worse in his treatment of me, HR did nothing, and all of it combined exacerbated my medical problems, and I ended up leaving the company. I hate Human Resources in general – I know they are there to protect the company, not the employee, but where do you draw the line? Is it so difficult to try to hammer out the problems so both the company AND the employee both make out ok and are treated with the same respect? Is it necessary to crawl up the employer’s butt with every little issue, to put the employee in a constant negative light? And to never keep a confidentiality? To me, HR = Nazi! If you have a problem at work, never go to them – just get a lawyer!

  5. Anonymous*

    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…

  6. Charles*

    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?

  7. fposte*

    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.

  8. Anonymous*

    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.

  9. Heidy*

    I complained about my boss to HR in what they called the alert line. Supposely it was confidential and they told my boss I reported her. Is that Illegal? Why would they give their employess an alert line for them to report improper behavior from our managers and still sell us out by giving our names!!!

  10. Melinda*

    If the human resource department has to do what is in the best interest of the employer, it would be the best interest to keep some things confidential so that people will not hesitate to inform them of things that are not right in the company. Many things can be addressed without having to disclose where they got the information. Example: My boss is truly incompetent. Not only does she not do her work but constantly blames me for it not being done, which is not the case. She constantly gets things wrong and is too lazy to do anything she is supposed to and has bad morale spreading to her employees. I would like to go to HR with all my information and evidence as her employees no longer want to do their work to the best of their ability because people no longer care. I would like to try to get this addressed for the benefit of the company and to get people to work hard like they used to, but I feel if I do I will be singled out as a rat and they will tell the boss, not fire or demote her, and I will be punished by her for trying. I do not want her job and am not sabotaging her, but I genuinely care that people are not being treated right and therefore not working well. Keeping things confidential and addressing the problem without identifying the source would actually benenfit companies more as they will never know there is a problem if people are afraid to bring them up.

  11. Lisa*

    Can your hr come out and say I don’t believe you? And what can you do when you know you are telling the truth

  12. Anonymous*

    Melinda is spot on. Using a combination of what she says and what is in this article by AAM is what makes HR truly effective.

    Disclosure is paramount, but so is trust. Without gaining the trust of the employees HR will never really learn what is wrong in the company, and therefore will not be as effective in their recommendations to management.

  13. Jim*

    Working in IT, I’ve had plenty of chances to see how different managers across many departments handle employees and how effective HR tends to be.

    The real truth is that if your manager dislikes you, immediately start looking for work elsewhere. Do not hide behind your desk and think that things will get better — they won’t.

    HR is never *NEVER* on your side. The only interactions you can safely have with HR (probably) is to report instances of illegal activity or racial/sexual harassment. Make sure you report it with evidence to multiple managers and let them contact HR. You will be informed that you are protected with anonymity, but that isn’t always true. It’s better than nothing, but word may get around.

    HR is not your friend. HR is not there to help you. HR is there to help the company and mitigate potential lawsuits by removing problems (which is usually you, not your manager, even though it is really your manager).

  14. vlad*

    Making apps for different industries is no longer a problem. I used Snappii service to create custom data collection apps and it was easy to use though I am not a programmer.

  15. John*

    I totally agree with Jim. I work in IT as well and I have seen many people leave after 15 years in my company leave because of Management and HR have done nothing. I also approached HR myself and asked them to keep my conversation confidential and they confirmed only to discover my Manager telling me he knew about how I approached HR and the conversation I had.

    It is very unfortunate that HR work in this way as they jeopardised my career. To me, HR are pure scum. To make the problem worse, hr people are generally uneducated and lacking in the brains department. I have a few friends that had worked in HR and hey told me this as well and they worked in hr dept in a few companies.

    Generally speaking, the less you have to do with hr, the better. They act like they wa nt to do what is fair and appear to be on your side but then your life changes for the worse. I have seen this so many times.

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